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Udu-san 우두산 (1046m) Sudo Jimaek ridgeline, Gajo-myeon, Geochang-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do

The rocky summit of Udu-san, and its near neighbours Janggun-bong and Bigye-san, hold a central position on the Sudo-jimaek range, between massive Gaya-san to the north-east, and Dumu-san and Odo-san to the south.

The ridge connecting these three peaks rises to the north of the plains of Gajo-myeon, the small town some 10km east of the county seat of Geochang, and 70km south-west of Daegu City. Visitors to the area are welcomed by signs reading "Welcome to Gajo, the Home of the Japanese Royal Family"

The plain of Gajo, was in ancient times known as Gocheonwon 고천원, "The Higher Celestial Plain". According to information on the mountain, Japan's two oldest historical books, "Records of Ancient Matters" and "The Chronicles of Japan", name Gocheonwon as the home of the mythical ancestors of the Japanese Royal Family.

It is here where Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess of the Sun, sent her Grandson Jimmu to earth some 3000 years ago to be the first ruler of Japan, beginning the family of Royal Emperors. Place names and sites in the small modest town of Gajo reveal their connection with the Japanese myth of Amaterasu, and the story of rivalry with her brother Susanoo, the god of storms and the sea.

Legend of Amaterasu

Along the plain and through the mountain, nine sites are recognised and named to represent features of Gocheonwon.

In the heart of Gajo town is Masangni, the centre of the celestial plain. The Gods and Goddesses of the plain dwell in Gomalli-deul, among the rice fields on the present road to the mountain. Gungbaemi, to the east of town, is the location of the principle God's palace. Baram-gul or Cheonseok-gul, on the ridge to Bigye-san, is the "Heavenly Rock Cave" where Amaterasu went into hiding. Dangmoe, on the summit of Bigye-san, is where all the roosters of the world gathered to crow after Amaterasu entered the cave, plunging the world into darkness. At the foot of the mountain, west of town, is Dangjip, where the dancing goddess Ameno Uzme lured Amaterasu from her hiding place.

Gaso-cheon, the current stream Gacheon-cheon, flows west of town and is where Amaterasu and Susanoo confronted each other. Above the plain rise the peaks of Udu-san, the gateway from the higher celestial plain into the heavens, where Susanoo descended to Earth.

It seems more than a little unusual that the location of Japan's mythical foundation could be in the rugged back-country of northern Gyeongsangnam-do, in what is now a modest farming town, particularly considering the "Heavenly Rock Cave" is celebrated by shinto at Ama-no-Iwato, a cave in Takachiho, Miyazaki Prefecture.

I think perhaps the locals here have taken some factual liberties. Perhaps these places were given their names by Japanese colonisers and stuck, or maybe the locals like to think their ancestors were responsible for founding Japan - unlikely methinks.

There is however some belief that the Japanese Royal blood-line has a Korean influence.

From Wikipedia: It has been theorized that the Japanese imperial line has Korean ancestry. As reported in National Geographic, Walter Edwards, professor of Japanese studies at Tenri University in Nara, states that "Blood links between Korea and the Japanese imperial family are documented from the eighth century. Even the current emperor [Akihito] has said that he has Korean ancestry." Since 1976, foreign archaeologists have been requesting access to the Gosashi tomb which is supposed to be the resting place of Emperor Jingu, but these requests have been denied. In 2008, Japan gave foreign archaeologists limited access to the site, but without allowing any excavation. As National Geographic wrote, Japan "has kept access to the tombs restricted, prompting rumors that officials fear excavation would reveal bloodline links between the "pure" imperial family and Korea"

Nat Geo Article

Whatever the truth is on that, I'm a mountain believer. From what I've been told by official Geochang County on-site literature, this is where Japan's foundation tale played out, and to climb Udu-san is to reach the gateway from the higher celestial plain to the heavens!

Sounds good to me.

From the Gajo plain there are a lot of start options for walking to Udu-san, with about 8km of ridge forming a horseshoe above the town from Janggun-bong to Bigye-san. The main entrance to the mountain is at Gogyeon-sa temple, located in a steep gorge south of Udu-san.

The classic route is the 8km circuit heading north-west from the Gogyeon-sa trail parking lot to 956m Janggun-bong (장군봉), north-east along the ridge over 1018m Jinam-san (지남산), to rocky Uisang-bong (의상봉) and up to Udu-san (우두산) before heading south-east to Majang-jae pass (마장재) and back down to the parking lot - or further south-east along the ridge to Bigye-san (1125m), and back down to town.

This looks a great walk, but it does exclude the central gorge trail to Gogyeon-san temple, so most hikers opt for the shorter circuit highlighted purple in the map to the left, which I did as well on my short afternoon climb.

This trail up the Gogyeon gorge to Uisang bong, onto Udu-san to Majang-jae and back to the parking lot is about 6km, easily hiked in under 3hrs.

See map at bottom of page for other trailhead options

Larger Map Image

Gogyeon-sa and its 1000 year old Gingko Tree

Gogyeon-sa is an inner mountain temple, a nice 1.2km hike up the central Gogyeon gorge trail from the main carpark, passing the Gyeonam-pokpo falls en-route. The temple was established in 667 by the great Silla monk and philosopher, Wonhyo-daesa, who gave it the name Gogyeon-sa ("temple seen in the past") as he believed he had been here in a former life.

It has been an abode for the three famous monks Suneung, Ijeong, and Huirang, as well as being a place where Choi Chi-won, one of the great travelling Silla scholars, stayed.

The temple is home to Gogyeon-sa Stone Buddha, a large, fairly eroded seated buddha from the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), an excellent metre high bronze bell, considered a masterwork of the 17th century artisan-monk Seolbong, and a giant, healthy Gingko tree at its entrance, said to be over 1000 years old.

In the cliffs directly behind Gogyeon-sa, a relatively modern relief carving of The Buddha looks over the temple from a rocky grotto

South-west from Uiseong-bong, looking over Jangin-bong toward Janggun-bong

The trail from Gogyeon-sa leaves from the back left of the temple, and it's a steep 800m hike north to the high ridge below Uiseong-bong. About halfway up to the ridge you'll encounter a massive bronze seated Buddha to the left of the trail in a rocky grotto.

Our path meets the Janggun-bong-Udu-san trail in a high pass at the western foot of Uiseong-bong (1032m), a rocky tooth rising sharply from the ridge.

Turning east the trail circles around the northern face of Uiseong-bong, bypassing it into it's eastern pass before climbing on toward Udu-san.

Udu-san from Uiseong-bong

There is the option of climbing Uiseong-bong from its eastern side. A trail leaves the ridge heading west up Uiseong-bong a couple hundred metres to its summit, up an impressive case of a couple hundred stairs.

It's a worthy detour, Uiseong-bong is a great vantage point, with better views to the west and south down the valley than from Udu-san.

From the base of Uiseong-bong it's only a 400m walk to Udu-san. From the eastern pass the trail climbs north-east up toothy ridge to a minor peak before turning more east for the final, quite steep climb to the summit.

Above: Udu-san (left) looking north-east along the Sudo-jimaek ridge toward Gaya-san, seen rising in the distance, and the south-eastern view from the summit (right), along the continuation of the Sudo-jimaek ridgeline to Bigye-san.

From the summit our circuit heads south-east off the mountain, and soon drops into low forest which blankets the ridge to Bigye-san. It's a 2km walk to the pass of Majang-jae, which lies midway between Udu-san and the ridge junction to Bigye-san. The trail to the pass sticks to the line of the ridge, and there is an earlier option of heading down to the carpark 700m after leaving Udu-san.

The trail from Majang-jae heads south west down a steep gorge, 1.6km to the Gogyeon-sa entrance, passing Yongso-pokpo waterfall on the way.

For those who want to push further south east along the ridge, the trail heads a further 1.9km before reaching a rocky peak where a ridge shoulder rising from Gajo-myeon meets the Sudo-jimaek. A 3km trail runs southwest down this shoulder, ending up on the Gogyeon-sa - Gajo road to the northeast of town.

The ridge trail heads east from here, 800m to the summit of Bigye-san. A few hundred metres before reachng the peak a track heads south off the ridge 2km down to the Geochang/Gaso Hyugeso (rest area) on Expressway 12, about 4km west of town. This track passes through the mountain temple of Ilgak-sa - which I'd like to check out sometime, considering the Amaterasu legend - I believe its name means Sun-shrine-temple.

Getting there

By Road: Expressway 12 (88 Olympic Expressway) running between Gwangju and Daegu has an exit at Gajo, between the exits of Geochang to the west and Haein-sa to the east. Getting off the expressway get on provincial road 1099 heading a short distance into the small town of Gajo, on the edge of town signs will direct you north-west across the plain about 3km to Udu-san, as shown in the photos at top.

By Bus: From Geochang Intercity Bus Terminal, regular city buses run to Gajo-myeon. They do not continue the 3km up to the temple carpark, you'll have to taxi to Gogyeon-sa, or stroll through the Higher Celestial Plain.

Getting to Geochang: Buses to Geochang run from Dong-Seoul and Nambu terminals in Seoul. Also from Daejeon, Incheon, Gimcheon, Daegu, Gwangju, Busan and most cities in Gyeongsangnam-do.

Map below highlights the course described above. The map at bottom shows all trailheads heading up to Janggun-bong, Udu-san and Bigye-san from the plains in Gajo