I originally planned to skip visiting Mireuk village, which is inside Worakan National Park. Timing the buses was inconvenient, I had already seen plenty of ancient Korean remains, and I thought that seeing a few more ancient stone pagodas wouldn’t be worth the bother.
However, after decided to cut the hike to Yeongbong short, I suddenly had time to visit Mireuk village, and a Buddhist monk helped me get on the correct bus.
I am glad I changed my mind.
Mireuksa (Mireuk Temple) was originally built by the United Silla kingdom over a thousand years ago, and was probably renovated during the Goryeo dynasty. Why build a temple here? Right next to the ruins is the mountain pass which had been one of the most important links between the southeast (in ancient times, the Silla kingdom and the Gaya confederacy) and the northwest (in ancient times, the Baekje and Goguryeo kingdoms).
Buddhism spread through the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdom before it reached the kingdom of Silla. The first Buddhist missionaries to enter the Silla kingdom almost certainly travelled though this mountain pass.
Silla eventually adopted Buddhism as the national religion, and then conquered Baekje and Goguryeo, politically unifying the Korean peninsula for the first time in history.
The Goryeo dynasty built a post station next to the temple where travelling government officials and merchants could stay overnight.
The Joseon dynasty built a major road through a different mountain pass, and thus this route fell out of use, leading the abandonment of Mireuksa.
Very few buildings built by the United Silla remain today, and the famous ones which do remain (such as Bulguksa) have been renovated so many times they are as much modern as ancient. At these ruins, more than any other place in South Korea, I felt I was in a space built by ancient people, without modern sensibilities. I felt, momentarily, that I was in a different era.