When traveling, one of the best ways to experience the flavor of a foreign country is to partake in one of its festivals. It’s during these cultural celebrations that locals display their brightest colors and passions; it’s when age-old traditions and long-gone art forms once more conquer the streets; and it’s when creativity, self-expression and above all happiness are given their highest priority.
Some countries are more festival-prone than others, of course. India has more public holidays than any other country in the world, and due to its vastness and diversity, holds major festivals practically every week. Spain and Japan are not far behind. But lesser-known (and lesser-visited) South Korea deserves a bigger shout-out if only because too few people are aware of its rich cultural offerings.
With a long history spanning numerous empires, rulers and conflicts, as well as spiritual influences ranging from ancient shamanic traditions to Buddhism and Christianity, this tiny country has accrued a wealth of fascinating festivals. It’s a good thing, too, since these events provide an important commemorative role in a country that has sacrificed so much of its traditional life in favor of rapid technological and industrial growth (the last fifty years have seen Korea change from a war-torn, impoverished wasteland into a prosperous first-world cyber-nation and Asia’s fourth-largest economy).
When you get sick of the shoving and frantic seat-grabbing on Seoul’s subway (we all do, eventually), when you can’t stand the smog or the overcrowded sidewalks, or the cosmetic shallowness of Gangnam, then it’s time to indulge in a more authentic, time-honored sort of ritual: it’s time to enjoy a Korean festival.
Here’s a rundown of the best of them.
January: Sancheoneo Mountain Trout Festival
February: “Seollal” or Lunar New Year
March/April: Jindo Sea Crossing Festival
April: Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival
May: Damyang Bamboo Festival
May/June: Haeundae Sand Festival
July: Boryeong Mud Festival
Korea’s not known for its rock or electronic music scene, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend summer without your live music fix. Considered one of the biggest and most popular live music events in the Seoul area, Pentaport Rock Festival takes its name from the five ideals it pursues: music, passion, environmentalism, DIY, and friendship. Previous guests have included the likes of The Prodigy, Black Eyed Peas, Franz Ferdinand, Fallout Boy, LCD Soundsystem, Korn, The Chemical Brothers, Manic Street Preachers, and Kasabian.
What’s nearby: Incheon is somewhat lacking in sights compared to nearby Seoul, but it does have a Chinatown worth checking out, not to mention some fairground rides on Wolmi Island.
September: Andong Mask Festival
October: Gwangju World Kimchi Festival
November: Seoul Lantern Festival
December: Jeongdongjin Sunrise Festival
On December 31st, numerous festivals are held across South Korea in celebration of the New Year, but perhaps the most unique is this sunrise festival on the east coast city of Gangneung. The golden beach here is fronted by a picturesque ship and railway station, but even more impressive is the colossal hourglass, so big it takes a year for all the sand to fall to the bottom. During Jeongdongjin Sunrise Festival, you can rejoice in the coming of the New Year by watching those last few grains trickle down as the clocks strike midnight. A grand ceremony ensues, as the hourglass is turned over to symbolize the start of the New Year.
What’s nearby: Enjoy some light exercise and pleasant woodland scenery via the nearby Jeongseon Railbike route, make wooly friends at Daegwallyeong Sheep Ranch, or take some phallic snapshots at Haesindang Penis Park (yep, it’s a park filled with giant wooden penises).
• Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival – Taking place in April, this festival is Korea’s largest bullfighting tournament, and celebrates a long tradition of bullfighting in the area. Supposedly it’s more humane than its Spanish counterpart, in as much as the bulls don’t fight to the death.
• Hadong Wild Tea Festival – In May, one of Korea’s most renowned tea-producing regions hosts this festival at which visitors can sample many high quality Korean teas.
• Chuncheon International Mime Festival – Also in May, this mime festival celebrates both Korean and international mime artistry, and includes dozens of performances and an astounding parade.
• Muju Firefly Festival – Every June the people of Muju host a festival showcasing the magical aura of local fireflies, who light up the nighttime sky in their natural environment.
• Gangjin Celadon Festival – Gangjin City hosts this festival every August, focusing on the art of celadon, a style of pottery popular across Korea and China.
• Baekje Cultural Festival – every October, Gongju and Buyeo host this festival in honor of the Baekje Kingdom that ruled the western half of Korea between 18BC and 660 AD. The festival includes traditional music and dancing, parades, and live reenactments of battles from the Baekje era.
As we’ve seen, Korea offers a kaleidoscopic variety of festivals worth partaking in, and any traveler should try to experience at least one during his or her visit. They’re an excellent way to learn about Korean culture, offer experiences you can’t find anywhere else in the world, and are just generally a damn good time. You also get to see Koreans showing a side of themselves you might otherwise miss. Many Koreans can appear shy or aloof in public, particularly around foreigners, but join them in the act of celebration and you’ll find their warmth and love of life absolutely infectious, as they share their makgeolli and soju with you, usher you over for a game of yut or hwatu, or invite you to dance to the beat of barrel drums.