Photos and story by Ed Provencher
Skip it or day-trip it? Korea’s festivals are numerous, but how do you know which ones are worth going to? Travel blogger Ed Provencher makes it easy for us.
Are you new to Korea? Are you wondering which, of the many Korean festivals, are the ones that you shouldn’t miss? In order to help you sort them all out, I’ve compiled a list of the top 7. They are all BIG in one way or another and should add to your Korean experience if you go.
At the top of the list is the Boryeong Mud Festival held at Daecheon Beach. It is a signature event that has been held every year in July for the past 13 years. This festival attracts millions of people from across the country. The event was created to celebrate the cosmetic properties of a special mud that is found in the region. But that’s not the real draw. The actual mud used at the beach is trucked in and used in all sorts of fun ways, that’s the real reason people go there in droves. Giant mud slides, mud pools, mud wrestling, a mud prison, performances… the list goes on. People are so happy walking around there that it’s almost unbelievable. Mud does that to us. It turns us back into kids. Why would you want to miss that?
Another signature event that draws equally large numbers of visitors is the Andong International Maskdance Festival held every September/October. It’s second on my list of must visit festivals in Korea. It is a truly international cultural event, drawing performers from all across Asia and even Mexico. Korea itself has a long tradition of maskdance performances, and even has one (Kwanno) designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. Andong is famous for a couple of other things as well, which make attending this festival even more attractive. One of those things is the Andong Hahoe Folk Village (UNESCO), a beautiful folk village in the countryside, surrounded on three sides by the Nakdong River. The other attraction is Andong soju, a traditional alcohol (45%) that is designated an intangible treasure. All these things combine to make the Andong International Maskdance Festival something I look forward to every year. You should too.
The Gangneung Danoje Festival (May/June) makes it onto the list at number three. This festival is about a 1000 year old tradition of praying to mountain deities for a healthy and prosperous year for the community. It is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage event, and a heck of a good time. Daily performances of a UNESCO designated mask dance called Kwanno are held along with performances of traditional Korean farmers’ music, guest performances by groups from other countries, and spooky shaman performances might give you performance overload if you’re not ready for it. Every year, they make heaps of traditional rice alcohol that is used to appease the tutelary spirit of the mountain, but you can get your hands on some of it for a fair price and appease your own spirit as well.
Coming in at number four on the list of notable events are the Seollal Ssireum Wrestling Championship and the Chuseok Ssireum Wrestling Championship. Actually, there are several of these wrestling tournaments held each year, but the two biggest are held during the two biggest Korean holidays: Seollal Lunar New Year (January/February), and Chuseok Fall Harvest Festival (usually September). This ancient sport offers spectators a chance to watch some big guys (over 105kg in the heavy weight class) do some serious pushing, pulling, and throwing. The athletes are all Koreans, but the emotions expressed and the drama that unfolds inside the sand pit wrestling arena are universal and understood by all. Ssireum is as authentic and uniquely Korean as anything and yet so easy to identify with. Modern gladiators. Ancient game. Don’t miss it.
While there are many cherry blossom festivals in Korea, what may be called the “Mecca” of cherry blossom festivals, the Jinhae Cherry Blossoms Festival, makes it on my list at number five. Jinhae is located on the south coast of Korea and so is among the first places to see these gorgeous flowers and thus gives Koreans a reason to throw a big party. The flowers can bloom anywhere from the last week of February to the first or second week of April. Every year is different as the flowers bloom according to the weather. Event planners have delayed the festival the past to accommodate cold springs, so you’ll need to pay attention to the weather. The best thing to do is to call the Korea Tourism information hotline (055 1330) when the festival nears and ask them if the flowers are in bloom or not. If you are looking to enjoy a more peaceful place to enjoy cherry blossoms, I can recommend heading to Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju. At any rate, you need to get out and see some cherry blossoms.
Number six on my list of biggie Korean festivals is the Jeongweol Daeboreum Festival. The name of this festival basically means, “First full moon of the lunar calendar” and is usually celebrated in February. It’s a time when locals get together to build giant bonfires called daljip, or “moon houses” which they burn along with wishes for a successful year that visitors have written on paper and tied to the daljip. People all across the country from Seoul to Jeju Island participate in local events. The most popular of the events is held on Jeju Island, but other biggies include events in Gangneung and Samcheok. Now you know that full moons aren’t just for howling at, so when the time comes, think about your new year wishes and head out to a Jeongweol Daeboreum Festival to set them on fire. Nevertheless, you can still howl if you want to.
Rounding out this list at number seven is the Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival (March), the largest bullfighting event in Korea. Korean bullfighting is a tradition that goes back a 1,000 years. It is nothing like the better known Spanish version where bulls are stabbed repeatedly until they die. Korean bullfighting is done between two bulls and doesn’t end when one of them dies, but rather ends when one of the bulls decides to run away. It amounts to a pushing match done with the bulls’ heads. This event is a good one to bring a Korean friend with because they can help translate what the announcers are saying. That’s helpful because the announcers will give you play-by-play fight commentary as well as important details about the bulls which are fighting such as their win-loss record, important rivalries, and championships won. My favorite thing to do is to make bets with my companions to decide who buys the next round of beers. Gambling at bullfighting is legal, so don’t worry. Just have fun.
Tigers & Magpies travel editor, Eddie Provencher, is an American citizen who first came to the Korean peninsula in September 2006 to teach English, learn Korean, and to have a cultural experience. Since coming to Korea Eddie has grown to love teaching English, has learned Korean up to a low-intermediate level, and has had many deep cultural experiences. In the spring of 2009 Eddie took a 3 month break from teaching English to travel in Korea.
Through this experience, Eddie developed a sincere appreciation for the natural beauty of the landscape, for the culinary tastes of the nation, and for the warmth and kindness of the Korean people.
Looking for a new place or event to discover in Korea? Be sure to check out Eddie’s fantastic site Tigers & Magpies. It’s full of great photos and helpful information that even the most knowledgeable Koreaphile will find useful.