Thursday, 11 May 2017

A Year of Festivals in South Korea

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

Korean winters can be brutally cold, but that’s no excuse to stay inside. In the heart of Gangwon – the country’s coldest province – the Sancheoneo Mountain Trout Festival takes place every January. There’s a variety of events and activities on offer, including ice-skating, sledding, snowman building, and several ice sculpture museums. But its most popular activity is ice-fishing. As visitors walk across a frozen river surface they’ll encounter several holes drilled into the ice, where they can fish for the thousands of trout that are released into the river during the festival. Those with a more rapturous love of the cold can even jump into the water to catch the fish by hand.

What’s nearby: The rugged province of Gangwon is filled with worthwhile sights and activities, ranging from the gorgeous misty peaks of Seoraksan National Park, to the pleasant seaside town of Sokcho, to the self-proclaimed sovereign island nation of Nami-Seom.

February: “Seollal” or Lunar New Year

One of Korea’s most important traditional holidays is Seollal, or Lunar New Year as it’s commonly known in English. Unlike New Year's celebrations in the west, Seollal is less a time for fireworks and rampant boozing, and more a time to honor your ancestors and spend time with family. Stores shut down, cities turn quiet, and the national roads become jam-packed as people flock toward loved ones. But there are also plenty of festive events to enjoy during this three-day holiday. The traditional hanok villages of Bukchon and Namsangol both hold cultural events including live musical performances, parades, and an array of traditional games for you to play, such as paengi, a spinning top game. There are also prayer flags where you can write down your wishes for the oncoming year.

What’s nearby: Namsangol and Bukchon are both close to the five great palaces of Seoul, which are excellent showcases of traditional Korean culture, particularly with their changing of the guard ceremonies.

March/April: Jindo Sea Crossing Festival

On Jindo Island, in the extreme south of Korea, a natural event takes place, one that’s been dubbed “the Moses Miracle” of Korea. A few times a year, the sea magically parts, revealing a ribbon of rocky land leading to the island of Modo. Locals have built an entire festival around the phenomenon, which brings thousands of visitors from across the country to walk across the sea in thigh-high orange boots. As with so many Korean festivals, soju and makgeolli are plentiful, as is seafood caught straight from the receding sea. Most magical of all, however, is the parade of flag-bearers, drum-beaters and merry-makers who march across the exposed seabed like messengers for the gods.

What’s nearby: Jindo is a generally very peaceful place, far removed from the neon lights and hustle-bustle of contemporary urban Korea. There are some beautiful scenic hiking trails across the island, and in the heart of its lush valleys is Unlimsanbang, a nineteenth century artist’s retreat.

April: Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival

In the west, we tend to associate cherry blossoms with Japan, but come springtime, Korea, too, is alive with the pink-white cloud formations of these floral delights. Like the Japanese, Koreans closely follow the progression of the cherry blossom front as it moves across their country, many of them taking their families to parks or natural spaces to view the blossoms up close. One of the best places to do this is in Jinhae, a southern naval town that hosts a ten-day festival dedicated to the blossoms. Visitors can explore a stunning flower tunnel overlooking Yeojwacheon stream, watch trains pass beneath a gorgeous blossom canopy, and witness a military band parade.

What’s nearby: Jinhae is close to Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, but there are also some coastal regions worth checking out, such as the botanical garden island of Oedo and the peaceful maritime town of Tongyeong.

May: Damyang Bamboo Festival

The great thing about Korea is that there are festivals for practically everything, especially when it comes to foods and nature. Nonsan Strawberry Festival in April, Yeongdong Grape Festival in August, and Cheongsong Apple Picking Festival in November are all great ways to experience Korea’s local produce in ways that are memorable and entertaining (believe me, strawberry makgeolli makes for some very fun times). The tranquil city of Damyang is famed for its charming bamboo forest, around which an entire festival takes place every May. Expect, of course, plenty of serene walks through shaded bamboo groves, but there are also bamboo games, bamboo art projects, and bamboo foods and drinks to enjoy.

What’s nearby: Very close to Damyang is Geumjeongsanseong Fortress, nestled atop mountains with incredible views across the rugged nearby plains. The ear-shaped duel-peaks of mysterious Maisan Mountain are also worth checking out.

May/June: Haeundae Sand Festival

The southern city of Busan is home to Korea’s most popular beach, Haeundae Beach, which sometimes gets so busy you can’t even see the sand. Come in late spring, however, and you’ll see plenty, as the Haeundae Sand Festival occupies the entire golden seafront overlooked by Busan’s pretty skyline. There’s a wide variety of meticulously crafted sand sculptures on display, made by both Korean and international artists. Visitors, too, can frolic in the stuff, whether it be burying themselves head-to-toe in a sand bath, participating in a volley ball tournament, or sampling different sands from across the world.

What’s nearby: Busan has a wealth of sights and activities on offer, including the sea-swept coastal temple of Haedong Yonggunsa, Jagalchi Fish Market, and the multicolored houses of Gamcheon, sometimes known as Korea’s Machu Picchu.

July: Boryeong Mud Festival

Every July, the people of Boryeong carry barrels of skin-enhancing mud from Boryeong mud flats to Daecheong Beach, which they turn into a messy wonderland of mudslides, mud baths, and mud assault courses (there’s even a mud prison). Cue thousands of partygoers looking for a crazy and unforgettable way to escape Korea’s stifling summer heat. If the mud isn’t enough for you, there’s a music stage that pelts dancers with water, a midday air-show, and some of the most dazzling evening fireworks you’ll ever see.

What’s nearby: Boryeong is located close to the port city of Gunsan, from which you can catch a ferry to the quiet, undiscovered paradise of Seonyudo Island.

August: Incheon Pentaport Rock 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

The region of Andong is famed for its historic and cultural sights, not least among them the quaint Joseon-period village of Hahoe. Andong also gave us one of Korea’s tastiest dishes: jjimdak. But perhaps its greatest gift is Andong Mask Festival, a celebration of the country’s historical use of masks in ritualistic dance, shamanism, and warfare. The festival provides over 50 events and activities, including mask shows, mask dance lessons, mask making, and plenty of shops selling, yep, masks. The mask dances themselves are varied and entertaining even to those unfamiliar with the stories they portray. Some even have a rustic charm and playful sense of humor that we as outsiders rarely see from Koreans (expect to see dancing bulls gleefully peeing on audience members, for example).

What’s nearby: The aforementioned Hahoe Village is an essential place to check off any travel itinerary of the area, but you can also try a temple-stay at beautiful Guinsa Temple in the valleys of the Sobaek Mountains.

October: Gwangju World Kimchi Festival

They say Korean alchemy regards kimchi as one of the four essential elements of the Earth. That’s not actually true, but it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise given how ubiquitous this fermented national dish is in Korea. Koreans love the stuff, and in fact, no Korean meal is really considered as such if it’s not accompanied by kimchi. And who can blame them? Korean cuisine has much to be proud of, but perhaps its greatest feat is managing to make cabbage taste utterly delicious.
Gwangju is famed for its spicy varieties of kimchi, and every October the city hosts the World Kimchi Festival, at which visitors can make and taste hundreds of types of this sacred sidedish. There are also industry fairs, cabbage harvesting sessions, and a conference on the globalization of kimchi.

What’s nearby: Head back in time exploring the thatched cottages of Nagan Fortress Folk Village, possibly the best-preserved relic of traditional Korean life. The emerald-green fuzzy tea fields of Boseong Tea Plantation are also nearby.

November: Seoul Lantern Festival

One of Seoul’s finest places to take a stroll is the Cheonggyecheon, a five-mile-long stream extending from the royal palaces through Dongdaemun before finally joining the River Han. For decades it was a forgotten, underground sewer torrent, but in 2005 the local government restored it to its former glory, and it now provides a peaceful habitat for birds and fish, as well as a peaceful respite from the bustling cityscape surrounding it.
One of the best times to walk the Cheonggyecheon is in November, when an array of colorful, glowing lanterns is strewn along its length as part of the Seoul Lantern Festival. These lanterns come in all shapes and sizes – at first they appear as traditional drums, peasants and lotus flowers, but the further you walk, the more quirky and modern they become, taking the form of robot lanterns and giant pineapples.

What’s nearby: The stream winds close to several of Seoul’s most interesting areas and sights, such as the five royal palaces, the narrow alleys and souvenir shops of Insadong, and Dongdaemun’s nightmarket.

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).

Honorable Mentions

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. 


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  2. James and Angela, thank you for sharing your insight life experiences while teaching in Korea. I chanced upon your blog while doing some searching about Korea and you have tonnes of useful information for those who wanting to visit and learn Korean cultures! My wife (Singaporean) and I (the Korean) , we always travel once or twice every year to Korea and trying to explore hidden gem places as much as we can. Thank you once again for sharing your experiences!

    1. Hi David,
      Thank you for visiting my site and for the kind words! I haven't updated this website in a while but it's good to know there are still people out there who find it useful.
      All the best.