on…Horse Ears Mountain (마이산)

Posted: 23/10/2011 in History, Travel
Tags: , , , , , ,

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Mt. Maisan Provincial Park is located in Jinan-gun, Jeollabuk-do. It contains some good hiking trails and various temple complexes, the most interesting of which is Tapsa. If you are well organised you could do a day trip from Seoul, but it would be much easier from an overnight stay in Jeonju. For anyone who lives in Jeonju I think it is a ‘must see’ destination, for anyone who lives in Korea I’d say it’s a ‘should see’ destination.

Many landmarks and mountains are named after what they are supposed to look like. In the Far East everything seems to look like a dragon, in the Andes everything seems to look like a puma or a jaguar, and Indian landmarks usually look like elephants. The sceptic would say that natural features look like whatever their inhabitants deem sacred or familiar. This doesn’t just apply to distant exotic places. Manchester takes its name from Mam or Mammary, because seen from a distance the moors to the east look like mammary glands, add the word for castle and you have Manchester.

I expected Maisan not to look anything, especially a  horse’s ears, but the geology is so strange that the two gigantic outcrops of rock really do look like a horse’s ears. How did these huge rocky ears come into being? I guess you can believe the Geologists, or the people who passed their stories on through the passage of time. The people forced to sit together round a fire in the cold dry Korean winters after successful hunting trips. As you would expect, I’m going to ignore the geological explanation on this occasion. So, here goes:

…two gods came down from heaven, had a child and lived on Earth for an unspecified amount of time, when they eventually returned to their heavenly home a village woman saw them ascending, and they were subsequently trapped on Earth and  transformed in to a rock mountain.You can see the father peak and the child peak, and the mother peak on the other side. The two peaks are seperated into male and female horse ears with only 6 metres difference in altitude. The female peak to the west  is 673m, and the male  peak is 667m. I wonder if they knew the female peak was higher when they named them?

The most interesting thing aside from the ear shaped peaks is the Tapsa temple (actually -sa 사 means temple). This temple is nestled next to a vertical rockface which  sits eerily amongst the otherwise ordinary rocks and forests. Within the narrow complex of rock gardens and steps are around 80 dry-stone  pagodas. These are of varying height and reach right round  the back of the main temple building. It is said that they are impervious to the elements, although it is also said that there used to be 120 pagodas. I suspect 40 or so pagodas may have fallen victim to the very same elements they are impervious to.  The water is also supposed to freeze upwards into inverted icicles or stalagmites during the winter, the shape would suggest the water (or elements) are mimicking the pagodas. Why are the pagodas there? A hermit arrived in the late 19th century, although he was probably a proto-hermit* on arrival. His name was Yi Gap Yong (1860–1957) and he spent the next 30 years building his stone pagodas without the use of mortar. The highest reach about 9m and they are pretty impressive to look at, not because of the construction but because of the sheer strangeness. Yi Gap Yong was not even a monk, he was just a man who wanted to get closer to enlightenment through spiritual cultivation. His picture adorns much of the publicity around the Tapsa temple, he looks like a typical mystic with a long white beard and shiny spiritual eyes.

Despite my flippant tone I find the whole area extremely spiritual and otherworldly. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate such spiritual tranquillity with the legions of ajummas* marching up and down the path to find the best picnic spots. The place is very touristy and the two car parks have the usual trinkets and snacks on sale like all the temples and mountains in Korea. I would love to visit Maisan and Tapsa when there is nobody around because although I am no buddhist I believe there is something special in this place, something I have felt very rarely in other parts of the World. It’s also a beautiful setting with small streams and steep wooded hills. I have been on a damp spring day and a clear autumn day, the colours are spectacular. From the various trails I would recommend going from a totally different angle, that is not the North or South car park. You would be rewarded with a more vigorous hike and less crowded paths, although some of the signage is not great on these outer paths.

How to get there:

From Jeonju you can get an intercity bus to Jinan which is a short distance from the park. From Jinan Bus Terminal take a bus heading North Maisan. First bus runs at 7:30a.m., and from 8 a.m. arrives at 40 minute intervals. Last bus arrives at 6p.m.(5 minute ride), Get off at Maisan. Five minute ride by taxi. Taxis from the bus terminal at Maisan should be around 5000 won.

Directions to the Maisan bus from Jeonju train station.

Directions to the Maisan bus from Jeonju train station.


Although there is not much publicity, I took a city bus from opposite Jeonju Train Station. The bus stop is a city bus stop over the main road from the station. Bus number 105 runs from the same stop. If you are unsure go to the tourist desk inside the station as there is a map and timetable. This local bus takes a more scenic route through the mountains and costs 3,600 won (pay on the bus). I would recommend this service because it goes directly to the South Car Park where you can walk the 20 mins to Tapsa or start one of the trails. I took the 09.35 a.m bus and returned on the 14.20 bus. Within that time frame I was able to do a decent hike, have a good look round the temples and get something to eat.

* Proto Hermit = a person who looks like they need to spend a long time in a cave to recover from the insanity of the ‘real’ world.

*Ajumma = the most noticeable demographic in Korea. Older ladies wearing colourful and often floral hiking gear, visors, surgical masks and anything else that prevents the elements aging them. Looking at the amount of exercise they do I imagine they will outlive everyone. They can be found squatting over vegetables during the week and fighting for picnic space on the weekend.

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