Cultural education at South Korea festivals

korea culture
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Cultural education at South Korea festivals
It felt like an all-American family road trip: loading up into a somewhat embarrassing vehicle, hitting rest stop after rest stop, maybe even an “Are we there yet?” or two.

But we weren’t in a minivan (or a wood-paneled station wagon, for those of us of a certain age). It was a 15-passenger bus with dual “Gangnam Style” decals adorning its limo-tinted passenger windows, and a sound system capable of cranking out said Psy hit at eardrum-crushing volumes.

The rest stops were Roy Rogers- and Sbarro-free. And generally we were able to keep ourselves occupied as well-maintained highways sped us through mountainous terrain from destination to destination.

We weren’t in the U.S., of course: I was with two other journalists and our guide on a weeklong trip through South Korea. We were invited by the Korea Tourism Organization to take in some of the country’s fall festivals, which showcased myriad aspects of Korean culture yet, much like our time in the Gangnamobile, proved to be surprisingly familiar.

Gimje Horizon Festival

After a couple of nights in Busan, we set out on the road for our first festival about four hours west, in Gimje.

The city in North Jeolla province, a region where for centuries farmers have cultivated rice and other crops, is said to be the only place on South Korea’s mainland where one can see the horizon, hence the name of this agriculturally themed event.

The festival is held at the site of the Gimje Byeokgolje Reservoir, which was built in the fourth century.

Two bamboo-and-steel dragon sculptures stand at the site, representing the reservoir’s mythological protectors. Guests can see an exhibit about that myth at the nearby Byeokgolje Museum of Agricultural Culture, which houses ancient rice-harvesting tools and other artifacts from Korean agricultural history. In fact, it brought to mind state or county fairs in the U.S., with kids’ play areas and food stalls representing various world cuisines, from shawarma to hot dogs.

On the day we visited, the festivities concluded with an evening light show and fireworks display, with the dragon sculptures as the centerpiece.

Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival

It was about a five-hour drive from Gimje to Jinju, site of a festival celebrating a pivotal 1592 battle, in which 3,800 Korean soldiers held off an attack by a 20,000-strong Japanese army at Fort Jinjuseong.

The festival’s principal display commemorates this event with cartoonish light-up figures, slightly less than life-size: The gruesome battle scenes looked a little silly in broad daylight, but the overall effect was more impressive once everything was illuminated at sundown.

In addition to the fortress display, illuminated works inspired by pop culture and folk tales from around the world were anchored in the placid waters of the Namgang River. In the evening, we set adrift paper lanterns inscribed with our wishes, in tribute to the lanterns the Korean army used to communicate with each other during the battle.

Andong Mask Dance Festival

Our final festival stop was Andong, about three hours outside of Seoul and home to the Hahoe Folk Village, a Unesco World Heritage site.

This was the largest and arguably most ambitious of the festivals, with all of the diversions of a state fair in the U.S.: tons of vendors offering junk food and cheap merchandise; kids’ rides and face painting; and even a few carny-style productions, such as the “Exorcism Ground” where a female priest, performing a whirling-dervish act to a droning, percussive soundtrack, solicited onlookers for cash (about $10) in exchange for some mojo.

In the evening, we gathered in an amphitheater for the festival’s titular performance, featuring troupes representing member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The mostly wordless, high-energy acts were easy to follow, though brochures and commentary in English explained the themes of each group’s performance.

Toward the end of the show, a troupe from the Philippines took center stage, offering an athletic performance to a dance-club-ready remake of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” — some unexpected Americana to cap our Korean road trip.

For all seasons

Festivals throughout the year offer insights into Korean culture.

In wintertime, the Sancheoneo Ice Festival in the Hwacheon area offers opportunities to ice fish for freshwater trout in the Hwacheon Stream.

In the spring, the Traditional Chasabal Festival in Mungyeong celebrates that city’s trademark chasabal tea bowls.

Summer brings the Gangjin Celadon Festival, commemorating Gangjin’s legacy as a producer of high-end pottery, and the Boryeong Mud Festival, where celebrants get down and dirty at the Mud Super Slide, Hip Hop and Global Rave Party and other events on Daecheon Beach.

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