A Year of Korean Festivals
More so than anything else, Korea is a country obsessed with festivals.
A year round calendar of festivals means that, if you’re game, you’ll rarely have a weekend where you won’t have the option to get out of town and soak up a little bit of the local culture.
You’ll find them for most anything, ranging from religious inspired festivals such as Seoul’s Lantern Festival (for Buddha’s Birthday) to debauched borderline orgies such as the (in)famous Boryeong Mud Festival.
While it’s true that a lot of the Korean social experience for expats seems to revolve around consuming vast quantities of alcohol and making out with your peers, there’s also a lot of opportunities to get out and interact with people without the influence of alcohol.
January – February: The Hwacheon Ice Festival
Winters in South Korea can be a tad unpleasant, but the Hwacheon Ice Festival aims to turn the cold and snow into a celebration.
Stretching for two weeks in January and February, the festival boasts a program that includes ice sledding, ice fishing, ice sculptures, a carnival, a winter village, and a lot more.
Fancy a game of ice soccer, some trout fishing in the frozen rivers, and the epic challenge of plunging into icy water to try and catch a fish with your bare hands? It’s all on tap in this very Korean way of celebrating the bitterly cold winter months.
While it might not have the gravitas of the Harbin Ice Festival in China, it’s certainly a novel way to spend a winter weekend.
March: Jeju Fire Festival
As if you needed more reasons to visit South Korea’s Hawaii, volcanic and tropical Jejudo also boasts the visually impressive Fire Festival.
A New Year’s festival to encourage a good harvest, the Jeju Fire Festival sees fields set alight in a display reminiscent of the volcanoes which give the island province its distinctive landscape.
While local revelers twirl incandescent cans on wires around their heads, a procession of torch bearers solemnly sets the mountainside alight in a truly awe-inspiring (and hair singing) display of fiery piety.
April: Hampyeong Butterfly Festival
Ostensibly a celebration of Hampyeong’s butterfly population, the Butterfly Festival is more of an insect themed carnival than a display of nature’s beauty.
My visit to the festival in 2009 was more wandering between various food vendors and cheesy sideshow attractions than anything.
I have a blurry recollection of a tiny Ferris wheel, a hall full of insect displays, and an assortment of gigantic model insects with chipped paint and dead eyes.
It’s not one I’d go out of my way to see, but if you’ve been cooped up all winter – it might be the escape you need.
April: Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival
A true celebration of Spring’s arrival, Jinhae’s Cherry Blossom Festival is one of many such festivals around South Korea and East Asia in general. The eye-catching pinks and whites of the sakura transform the dour winter colours in a way that energises the soul.
The festival itself is more like a county fair than a genuinely themed event, with the drifting petals and lightly fragrant trees acting as a backdrop to a celebration that includes musical performances, bustling tent restaurants, games of chance, market stalls, and other such novelties.
Read more about my experience at the Jinhae Gunhangje Festival.
April: Jindo Miracle Sea Road Festival
If flowers and games of chance aren’t your thing, the island of Jindo has a rather unusual event that takes place each April.
Sometimes called the ‘Jindo Moses Miracle Festival‘, this unique cultural event sees tens of thousands flock to the normally sleepy town to walk a land bridge that appears only once each year.
The 2.8km walk is muddy and a little crowded, but the festivities before and after the seas part are worth the trip as well.
My own experience with the Jindo Moses Miracle had us being turned around halfway due to the tide coming back in sooner than anticipated, but I’d had my fill of walking on a narrow strip of earth surrounded by silty water.
May: Boseong Green Tea Festival
Despite living in Gwangju for two years, I never did make it to the nearby green tea fields of Boseong.
Each May, Korea’s largest producer of green tea opens its doors to allow visitors to get a hands on introduction to the beverage that graces so many tables around the country and across the world.
Activities include exhibitions, a Hanbok fashion show, tours of local plantations, the opportunity to pick and brew your own tea, and classes in how to make everything from green tea infused foods to tea bowls and beauty products.
While it also has the trappings of other crowded Korean festivals, the Boseong Green Tea Festival is a tad more cultural than your average festival.
June: Ultra Korea
Festivals don’t have to be cultural affairs to be worth a look, and June sees modern Korea come to the fore with Ultra Korea.
The country’s largest EDM (electronic dance music) festival takes over <> every June for two sweaty, bass pumping days.
With international artists such as Martin Solveig, Tiesto, Avicii, David Guetta, Galantis, Snoop Dogg, MIA, Empire of the Sun, and Skrillex having graced the decks over the festival’s five year history, it’s one not to miss.
July: Boryeong Mud Festival
Hands down my favourite Korean festival, the Boryeong Mud Festival combines a few elements that all but guarantee an unforgettable weekend: summer on a beautiful beach, cheap alcohol, and oodles of mud.
Started as a celebration of the sleepy little seaside town’s mud and its various skin benefits, the festival has become an animal all of its own. Every summer, thousands of foreigners and young Koreans descend on the town for a weekend of mud-wrestling, mud-fights, concerts, and regrettable decisions.
August: Muju Firefly Festival
At the heart of swampy land in which marsh snails act as tempting meals to lightly glowing fireflies, the village of Muju plays host to a week long celebration of the enchanting insects that have inspired so many writers and musicians around the world.
While Muju is perhaps more famous for its nearby ski-fields, the Firefly Festival is a highlight on the Korean festival calendar that sees the town put on a packed festival program full of performances, demonstrations, and markets.
September: Andong Mask Dance Festival
For fans of traditional Korean culture, the Andong Mask Festival is a celebration of traditional Korean dance and masked performance.
More than fifty events pack the festival’s program, including dance performances, puppet shows, mask competitions, theatrical performances, mask making classes, and more.
It’s one of the more culturally relevant festivals on the Korean festival calendar, and one I’d sorely like to experience for myself.
October: Jinju Lantern Festival
A real highlight of the Korean festival calendar, the Jinju Lantern Festival is a dizzying display of brightly coloured lantern floats forming a river of light as they drift through the heart of Jinju.
With a history dating back to the 1592 Japanese invasion of the region, the festival these days is more celebration than commemoration. While the parade of lanterns down the Namgang River is the festival’s highlight, a huge variety of stalls, restaurants, entertainments, and displays are also on hand to enchant both young and old.
October: Busan International Film Festival
A celebration of cinema in much the same way as Cannes or Sundance, the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) is one of Asia’s largest and most significant film festivals.
Far from being a stuffy affair, BIFF attracts large crowds of young moviegoers as well as up and coming actors, filmmakers, and writers. While Korean cinema obviously holds a prominent place in proceedings, the festival is a celebration of Asian and global cinema, and a great chance to explore Korea’s second largest city while checking out some world-class movies.
November: Gwangju Kimchi Festival
Alongside galbi (Korean BBQ), kimchi is without a doubt Korea’s most famous contribution to the global culinary scene. The unassuming fermented cabbage (and other vegetables) has made its way into western palettes in the form of all manner of interesting fusions, but remains a staple in Korean daily life.
My former home, Gwangju takes this love to exciting new levels each year with the annual Gwangju Kimchi Festival. While kimchi themed mascots roam and visitors sample local handicrafts and foods, the highlight is the chance to make your own kimchi from scratch.
I was lucky enough to visit the Gwangju Kimchi Festival in 2013 and had a fantastic time.
December: Seongsan Sunrise Festival
New Year’s is a special event no matter where you celebrate it, but seeing the first sun rise of a new year over the jagged peaks of one of Jejudo’s volcanoes at the Seongsan Sunrise Festival is a pretty special way to start the next trip around the sun.
Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak is a beautiful spot year round, but there’s something special about seeing the sun crest the horizon against the same backdrop that people have been visiting since the Goryeo Dynasty.
While the weather in December/January is chilly, it’s undoubtedly the warmest you’ll get during the Korean winter.
As you can see, Koreans love their festivals. While I’ve listed the highlights up above, there’s plenty of others: the Slow Walking Festival being the strangest I’ve encountered. So get out, check Facebook and tourist websites regularly, and soak up some of the local flavor!
Have you been to any of the above Korean festivals? Have I left out a personal favourite?
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