13-14 October 2007
For my first weekend out of the big city of Seoul, some friends and I decided to check out a lantern festival. After all, what do you think of when you think ‘Asia’? Paper lanterns. Well, paper lanterns, Chinese food, pandas, Buddha, crazy cool fashion, and anime. Or is that just me?
Jinju, which is as far south as Busan, was a 4 hour bus ride away. We splurged on the “deluxe" bus and were rewarded with reclining seats, so I was able to sleep for most of the ride. When we arrived in the early afternoon, we realized we didn’t have much of a plan. What’s there to see in Jinju?
If we had actually done some research, we would have known about the Jinju Fortress, where less than 4000 Korean soldiers stopped 20 000 invading Japanese during the Imjin War in 1592. But instead we spent our time wandering the streets looking for a cheap place to spend the night.
According to the lantern festival brochure I was handed outside the bus terminal, this festival originated from that same battle. Lanterns, floating along the river and flying high in the sky, were used during the invasion here to send signals to troops.
After the beondegi experience livened up our afternoon, we finally headed to the festival. We passed by a few roasting pigs lining the fairway before the crew decided to indulge on a classy pork dinner under a yellow and red striped tent. My stomach refused to accept anything else from me for the rest of the night, so I instead admired the distant lanterns I could faintly see floating on the river. There were the traditional North American fairway games, too, like balloon darts, basketball, shooting practice, and knocking down bottles with a ball. We even spotted a traditional carny with a long ponytail!
A glowing long wall of red lanterns reading “Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival” officially welcomed us to the festival. There was wall after wall, tunnel after tunnel of these red, rectangular lanterns, which I assume are the “prayer lanterns” the festival brochure describes. These prayer lanterns are supported by the citizens of Jinju, and are silent, glowing prayers for things such as “parents’ long lives” and “students’ exams”.
On the river were huge floating lanterns, colourful and bright. Some depicted scenes from what I can only assume are Korean fairytales or folk stories.There were lotus flowers, men with devil faces, dragons, Dalmatian dogs, men with giant earlobes, soldiers, wagons, children, turtles, women with fans, snails, drums, elves, houses, families sitting down to eat, the Statue of Liberty, and seemingly everything else under the sun. We wanted to take a boat cruise down the river to get a closer look, but they were already booked hours in advance. I wished the buildings along the river would turn out their lights so that just the glow of the lanterns would radiate into the night sky.
In addition to the shining lanterns, fireworks suddenly shot up into the sky while we were admiring the view. The show was amazing. Five locations in the middle of the river simultaneously exploded with fireworks in an incredible display that seemed like the finale the entire time.
After the fireworks ended, we finished our walk along the shore and crossed a bridge. I stopped dozens of times in an attempt to capture a photo that would properly showcase the amazing display of lanterns, but finally I realized I just needed to enjoy it with my own eyes. We happened upon a stage with taekwondo performers, who, to our enjoyment, added nunchaku (nunchucks) to their performance. The grand finale of the festival was a water fountain light show, Vegas style.
The cold air turned us in the direction of our hotel for the night. The festival was over for us, this year.
Van Gogh once said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” After visiting the Jinju Lantern Festival, I now know he’s right.