The Legend of Sanbang Mountain


Some have said that once you’ve seen a Buddhist temple, you’ve seen them all. Not so, especially at Jeju’s Sanbangsan.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

On an otherwise flat area of Jeju Island, a 1,300 foot mountain suddenly emerges. According to legend, Sanbang mountain is said to have been created when a bow hunter shot at a white deer near the top of the volcanic Halla mountain. He missed, and instead hit the spirit of Halla himself. The spirit was outraged at the transgression, and ripped off the top of the mountain, hurling it at the hunter. The mountaintop landed on the flat southwestern side of Jeju, crushing the poor hunter and thus creating Sanbang.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

It is still early in the morning when our bus pulls up, and I’m still suffering from the somaek hangover that has been chasing me since leaving Seoul. The prospect of hiking up the side of the mountain to a shrine doesn’t seem to be the most appealing of all actions, but I’m intrigued by what awaits near the summit. The monks have built the shrine in a small cave near the peak. From the roof of the cave, a slow drip of water which is collected in a stone pool they have made to catch it. Visitors can dip a cup into the water and drink it; it is said to be sacred, and have healing properties.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Though I don’t believe in the supernatural, healing water included, I hold a certain fascination with temples. They appeal to my curiosity in a way that churches never have. Perhaps it’s the ancient air about them, the incense, the quiet chanting, or the simple devotion of the monks who occupy their grounds. Either way, I am determined to reach the top.

Mercifully, it is not a long climb. We reach the shine rather promptly, and I light a stick of incense. In lieu of prayer, I take a few moments of silence and dip a cup into the pool of water dripping from the roof of the cave. The water is cold, slightly metallic, with, if you can imagine, a slight hint of grit from the stones.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

As we descend the mountain steps carved from volcanic stones, my convictions are unchanged and my hangover still present. Still, I am relaxed and slightly refreshed, if only from the adrenaline it took to drag myself to the top. The temple at Sanbang mountain is a unique little oasis, hidden in the mountains and surrounded by legend.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

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