Tag Archives: culture

The Jinju Namgang Lantern Festival

The arrival of autumn in South Korea brings a plethora of joyful festivals to the ‘Land of the Morning Calm.’ From the Andong Mask Dance Festival to the Busan World Fireworks Festival, there is something unique for just about everyone. One festival that is definitely worth adding to your Korean itinerary during this time of year is the Jinju Namgang Lantern Festival.


Home to more than 50,000 lanterns, the Jinju Namgang Lantern Festival is held each October over a two week period along the Namgang River in the southern city of Jinju. During this time, the city is transformed into an illuminated playground housing lanterns of every shape, size, and color. From modern day superhero shaped lanterns to more traditional representations of Korea’s historic past, the festival is a unique mix of old and new.


While it appears like a modern day event to most outsiders, the festival is steeped in history and originated during the Japanese invasion of Korea. It all began as a military strategy when Korean soldiers placed many lanterns on the Namgang River to prevent Japanese troops from wading across it. Their tactic proved to be successful and It has since become an annual tradition and one of the largest lantern festivals in Korea.


The highlights of the festival include wishing on lanterns, traditional lantern making, and a fireworks display over the river. It’s amazing how lanterns can be used in so many different ways.


The Jinju Lantern Festival is the perfect place to spend an evening. From watching the colorful lanterns float down the river to wandering through the enchanted forest of lanterns that fill the city’s old fortress walls, it’s a beautiful experience. The festival’s surroundings create a peaceful atmosphere for all those who attend.


Easily accessible by bus from both Busan and Daegu, the festival is certainly worth traveling to if you’re in the area. This year’s festivities will take place from October 1st to the 11th. For more information check out the Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival Website.


Lost in Translation at the Andong Mask Dance Festival

If you’re looking for a unique Korean experience, there’s no better place to start than the Andong Mask Dance Festival. Andong is home to the largest number of cultural artifacts in Korea which help paint a vivid picture of the peninsula’s storied past. Famous for its traditional folk village and annual Mask Dance Festival, Andong is an interesting place to explore Korea’s rich history.


Masks have long played an integral part in Korean cultural, with natives believing they ward off evil spirits. Once a year, Andong preserves this tradition by celebrating the historic masks through exhibition and folk dance. Visitors to the festival can enjoy various traditional mask dances, folk performances, and hands-on experiences, including conventional mask making and mask dance learning.


Our visit to the festival began with an early morning bus ride to the festive grounds where various cultural activities could be experienced. We started off with mask making and chose traditional designs to decorate our twenty-first century cardboard cutouts. We felt almost childlike as we shaped our masks with floam (brightly-colored, sticky foam balls). While it was a bit too crafty for my taste, I have to admit it was enjoyable.


We spent our afternoon exploring the Hahoe folk village, a beautiful place to wander as it is nestled in a lush valley between the Taebaek mountains. From here, various traditional dwellings can be explored. It’s easy to see why this quaint little village was recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


After wandering around the village, the late afternoon was spent watching various traditional mask dances. The performances were an interesting sight to witness. The choreography mostly involved various men strutting and prancing around the stage. I personally found it quite comical, yet a bit baffling when a man dressed as a woman squatted mid-stage and “peed” and then one of the other characters proceeded to scoop it up and smell it. It was definitely lost in translation as the story was told in Korean which is a language I’m still not very familiar with.


The festivities concluded with with a traditional fireworks display along the river, one of the most unique displays I have ever seen. It was more of a fireshow than a fireworks display as flaming bushes were thrown off the cliff’s edge into the river below and lit charcoals were strung across the river creating a rainstorm of sparkling embers.

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For those interested in checking out this year’s festivities, the Andong Mask Dance Festival will take place in late September, Friday 25th to Sunday, October 4th. If you’re in Korea during this time of the year, a jaunt to the festival is well worth the journey. For more information please visit the official Mask Dance Festival Website.

All Aglow at Seoul’s Lotus Lantern Festival

Every year, one of Asia’s biggest celebrations takes place in the months of April and May. This major celebration is known as Buddha’s birthday. Buddhism plays a dominant role in many Asian countries including Korea, where every spring the country turns aglow in honor of the birth of Buddha. This also happens to be one of my favorite festivals.


There are few places in the world that can match Korea’s love for Buddhism and bright lanterns. Nearly fifteen percent of the Korean population practices Buddhism which makes up the largest spiritual group in the Land of the Morning Calm. The celebration is one of the biggest of its kind in the world and they call it the Lotus Lantern Festival.


Depending on the time of year, Buddha’s birthday can fall any time between the beginning of April to the end of May. At this time, the Korean peninsula magically transforms as it prepares for the celebration. From city streets to mountaintop temples, lanterns begin to appear just about everywhere. The displays are charming and intriguing and the capital city of Seoul pulls out all the stops to make sure it’s a celebration Buddha would surely approve of. For two weeks, the city becomes a mecca of everything Buddhist. The city’s streets, parks, and temples become even more special during this time of year as hundreds upon hundreds of lanterns are hung throughout the city.


According to Buddhist beliefs, lanterns symbolize wisdom and light in the world. The hope is to bring more prosperity and peace to the world. It is an important ritual in Buddhism that honors the founder of the spiritual teachings. The lantern lighting in Korea began more than a thousand years ago and still continues to this day. The festival attracts people from all over Korea and the world. There are an array of festive programs scheduled throughout this two week period, everything from a luminous parade to traditional lantern making.


The festival begins with the Lighting Ceremony on the first day in Gwanghwamun Square where various large sized lanterns are lit. The next major event is the Buddhist Cheer Rally which take takes place at Dongguk University. This event is an exciting celebration that is full of songs and rhythmic beats. Later that day, the main thoroughfare of Seoul is shut down to make way for the festival’s oldest and largest event, the Lotus Lantern Parade.


The parade is considered by many to be the highlight of the celebration as tens of thousands of lanterns are carried by various Buddhist congregations. It is truly a magical thing to witness as all the lanterns are being paraded down the streets of Seoul. You can expect to see brightly lit lanterns in the shape of dragons, pagodas, white elephants, lotus flowers, and more. All this lasts for nearly three hours and concludes with a festive celebration on the streets which I found to be inspirational and a lot of fun.


The following day, various traditional and cultural events take place along the main street in front of Jogyesa Temple. Here visitors can learn more about Buddhism by participating in an endless amount of cultural experiences. With more than one-hundred booths set up by Buddhist Monks and Nuns; there is something for everyone, whether it be traditional lantern making or learning proper meditation techniques. My friend and I really enjoyed crafting traditional lanterns of our own.


Seoul’s Lotus Lantern Festival is a unique cultural experience and one of the most beautiful festivals I have witnessed yet. I highly recommend visiting Seoul during this magical time, you’ll surely enjoy taking in all the whimsical sights and sounds that the celebration has to offer. For those interested in checking out the festival, this year’s festivities will take place from May 15th to the 17th. The festival’s program can be found at Korea’s Official Tourism Website.

Exploring the Ancient City of Xi’an

China was probably one of the most overwhelming, yet surprising places I have visited thus far. There is without a doubt an endless amount of things see and do in the People’s Republic of China. Since moving to Asia, I have traveled to the mainland quite a few times and with every visit, it still continues to astonish me in a unique way. From the smoggy streets of Beijing to the glistening skyscrapers of Shanghai, it’s a country full of sightly contrasts, immense development, and historical grandeur. Even after all my visits, I have yet to even touch the surface of this vast country. Beyond Beijing and Shanghai lies a plethora of vast rice terraces, green forests, grand mountains, barren deserts, ancient villages, along with a few other mega cities.

Located in Central China lies the ancient city of Xi’an..


Xi’an is more than 3,000 years old and was the ancient home to 13 dynasties and 73 emperors. Today, many remnants of these powerful dynasties can still be found. Unlike the cities of Beijing and Shanghai, the roots of skyscrapers have yet to start spreading in Xi’an. Thus, the city of Xi’an tends to feel more intimate and more at home with its rich and historical culture. The amount of treasures that can be found in and around the city are tremendous.


Xi’an is most famous for the Terracotta Warriors; a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. These sculptures were buried with the emperor to protect him in the afterlife. Wandering amongst these ancient wonders was a neat experience, but there is so much more to explore in Xi’an than the popular Terracotta Warriors.


From Mount Hua to the ancient city wall, there is plenty to see and do. I found that the best way to explore the city was by bicycle. There are plenty of rental shops located in the city, including one on the city wall. From here you can bike along the wall and explore as much of Xi’an as you can. The Ancient Bell Tower and Wild Goose Pagoda are only a short bike ride away from the wall itself.


I really enjoyed my time in Xi’an. There is a very different feel in Xi’an when compared to Beijing and Shanghai. The pace of life is slower and I found it be a refreshing change from the madness that comes with a major city. If you have time, I highly recommend adding Xi’an to you itinerary when traveling throughout China.


Serenity in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village

Seoul is a city full of sightly contrasts. A city where old and new often collide. From the peaceful gardens found throughout the Five Grand Palaces to the bustling streets of Myeongdong; Seoul is a place that seems to exist within a time wrap. Nowhere did I find this more evident than in Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village.


Bukchon is a time-honored village that is home to hundreds of traditional houses known as Hanok that date back to the Joseon Dynasty. These houses are representatives of Korea’s finest traditional architecture. They were built to naturally blend with the surrounding landscape and to easily adapt to the seasons and temperatures. The open style designs often provided a functional space which made living in these houses simple and organic. Today, many of these houses have been converted into guesthouses, restaurants, and cultural centers. I really enjoyed exploring this area and found the structures to be elegant and stunning.


Wandering the streets of Bukchon transports you to another point in time. It is a unique cultural experience that should not be missed while exploring the city of Seoul. The historical serenity of the area often makes you forget you’re in one of the most populated cities in the world.


Not to mention, I found the views from the hilltop village to be truly unequaled as I got to enjoy the contrasting perspective of the traditional rooftops against the backdrop of modern skyscrapers. If it weren’t for the gleaming skyscrapers in the distance, it’d be easy to think it was some remote village of sorts. While exploring the village I highly recommend visiting one of the many traditional tea houses in the area.


I sincerely suggest stopping by the Bukchon Hanok Village while in Seoul. I found it to be a very unique area and enjoyed my time there. It is located between the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces where it’s easily accessible by the Seoul Metro and only a short walk from Anguk Station.

Palaces of Seoul

Seoul is usually known for its urban sprawl, skyscrapers, and neon lights; however, there are numerous historical treasures spread throughout this city of ten million plus people. Seoul was founded in 18 B.C. and has developed a storied history over the past 2,000 years. It was the capital of Korea even during the Joseon Dynasty and the Korean Empire. The city is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites; including Changdeokgung, one of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces, and my personal favorite.


The Grand Palaces were built by the kings of the Joseon Dynasty who ruled the peninsula for nearly five centuries. Unfortunately, many of the palaces were damaged or destroyed by the Japanese during their invasion of Korea. Some of the original structures however still stand today and many portions have been restored to their former glory.


My favorites are Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung because of their peaceful gardens and city backdrop. Changdeokgung is the smaller of the two, but is identified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also more secluded and has a tranquil pond and garden which makes you feel as if you’re miles away from the hectic streets of Seoul. Changdeokgung was the most favored palace of the Joseon Kings and it’s easy to see why. The structures blend more naturally with the surrounding landscape and appear to be less contemporary than those at Gyeongbokgung. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the palace grounds as I found it to be very peaceful.


Gyeongbokgung is the largest of the Five Grand Palaces and is probably the most prominent due to the fact that it was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. The main draw of Gyeongbokgung is The Royal Guard-Changing Ceremony which takes place 6 times a day from 10:00 to 15:00 at every o’clock except Tuesday. The ceremony is a rare treat which allows one to experience a traditional display of Korean culture. You’ll surely love watching the straight faced guards as they march around with their epic beards that would surely put even Brooklyn’s finest hipster to shame. It was a unique cultural experience which I found to be highly entertaining.


The palaces are a beautiful cultural experience and easily accessible by the Seoul Metro, just hop off at the Gyeongbokgung, Gwanghwamun, or Anguk Stations where both palaces are just a short walk. I highly recommend adding these sights to your itinerary when visiting Seoul.