South Korea: Jinju Festival of Floating Lamps (Yudeung)

October 7, 2012

How to get to Jinju

We departed Jeju on the morning of Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving day) and as we were checking out of our room only hotel, were asked to take a seat in the manager’s office, who proudly presented us with a massive plate of cakes each. Neither of us are really breakfast people, a couple of smokes and a coffee will usually suffice. Each cake was so glutinous (from the rice) and heavy it was the equivalent of having a banquet with every chewy mouthful. We hid a few in our pockets, so as not to appear ungracious, and washed what we did consume down with copious amounts of tea. The kind owner then offered us a free lift to the airport. Some people are so sweet, unlike the cakes!  It was a really lovely gesture and we were touched, just embarassed we could not eat all that was offered.

Our flight from Jeju to Busan was with Busan Air and the 45 minute flight cost a mere US$35 each. Whilst in the airport, we made use of the tourist information centre to book some accommodation in Jinju. There wasn’t anything available with any of the major hotel booking aggregator sites, and we were a bit concerned about what would be left due to the Festival of Floating Lamps taking place.

On arriving in Busan, we took the metro from the airport to Seobu, where we needed to find the intercity bus terminal to take the 2 hour bus ride to Jinju. We followed all the signs to the intercity bus terminal, which seemed to only have buses serving Busan destinations only. The intercity bus terminal is actually located in a shopping mall across from the station. It was a bit of a struggle to find, despite having our destination written in Korean, but after speaking with about 10 different people we eventually found it.  Two and a bit hours later we were nudging through the outskirts of Jinju.

When we got off the bus we realised we’d forgotten to get the address of our hotel written down in Korean (big mistake here), and without the luxury of google maps we struggled to find it. We fortunately had a picture of the hotel, along with the address in English. As a last resort we decided to take a taxi. However, not one taxi driver knew the hotel, or could be bothered taking us there. When we eventually found the hotel we realised why.  When  booking the room, we’d asked for a river view, so we headed for the river and looked for something that looked like the picture we had, we eventually found our hotel, about 100 metres from the bus terminal. Thanks again Apple, travelling used to be so easy. We need to rethink our travel planning regime, maybe a Samsung Galaxy is in order?

The South Korean City of Jinju

The downtown area of Jinju city is relatively small and an easy place to walk around. Once a year, Jinju, is transformed for a 14 day extravaganza, the Yudeung Festival, or Festival of Floating lamps takes place around the castle and the river. Jinju is turns into a buzzing luminescence of lights, fireworks, food stalls and an arts festival to boot.

Origins of the Jinju Lantern Festival

The origins of the festival date back from 1592 when lamps and lanterns were used to defend the castle from invaders along the river (Namgang). The lamps were used a means of communication. Since 1593 after the Japanese occupation of the castle (Jinjuseong), resulted in the loss of life for many of those trying to defend the castle, people have placed floating-lanterns in the Namgang. This tradition has evolved into the festival of today which wishes “world peace and the happiness and comfort of mankind.” The festival sees tens of thousands of lanterns being lit by well wishers over this two week celebration.

 The Yudeung Festival (Floating Lamps)

We joined in the festivities, by placing our own personal wishes for family and friends on lanterns and floated them down the river, along with the many others. It was a surprisingly moving experience that we shared with the locals; there were very few foreign tourists here and you could count them on your fingers.

We also walked along a corridor of 27,000 lanterns at around 800 meters long, containing individual messages of hope from residents of Jinju who apply for these back in August. We’re not able to read Korean, so it wasn’t possible for us to understand people’s individual desires, but we appreciated the sentiment and passion taken to produce this spiritual sculpture.

The real spectacle is provided by hundreds of larger than life sized lantern displays which are positioned on the river, along its banks and at the castle. They brightly light up the night every evening from 18:30hrs. There are exhibitions of lanterns from all around the world, traditional Korean lamps, others depicting scenes of love poems, religion, cartoons and Korean life. It is a very well orchestrated event and you can’t fail to appreciate the work involved in making this annual event a success. Some might find this part of the festival a little bit corny, in the way some people find Blackpool illuminations or Disney World tacky, but we were in our element (excuse the pun).

The size, quality, scale and setting had us captivated, so we extended our stay here. However, Craig did grow up in Blackpool so were probably a little tainted by this sort of brashness, his CV includes working in a joke shop and providing donkey rides along Blackpool beach. If the idea of seeing thousands of lamps and lanterns doesn’t “float” your boat, there are still plenty of other reasons for visiting Jinju at this time of year. There is an excellent Jinju Arts Festival taking place, in its 62nd year, so you can also enjoy events involving dance, food, film and the arts in general.

Musical Yudeung – Gangnam Style

As well as dance and musical performances, traditional Korean costumes, and street processions, there is still a contemporary element. You can’t go anywhere in South Korea without hearing or seeing a bit of Gangnam. Well don’t worry here is no exception, and at one point we simultaneously heard this, made in Korea world-wide phenomena, blasting from 5 different music venues, incredible. We also found an excellent fringe festival taking place down a back street, with about 5 men dressed in drag performing to hundreds of Koreans demonstrating their enjoyment of this camp cabaret by dancing in the streets. Koreans know how to have a good time, I guess that it may come from living in a region where the threat of conflict is constant. Live for today!

One Small Korean Annoyance

The festival is extremely popular and busy, if you’re claustrophobic don’t entertain visiting during peak times, wait until after 10pm to see the lanterns and lamps. I’m quite a patient person, but since arriving in South Korea, I’ve found my temperature rising, figuratively speaking. I can’t stand being pushed or queue jumped or shouted at. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not met a rude or unfriendly Korean yet. This seems to be a cultural thing. People just seem to want to touch or bump into you here, in fact, they will go out of their way to do this no matter how much space there is. Just as you’re about to pass someone, they turn into your path and dive bomb into you.

I’ve also seen elderly women, almost hurl themselves in a crowd surfing fashion, in order to get to the front of a queue. Grown men will run in an attempt to get in front of someone. To date, I’ve held my ground and despite the best endeavours of queue dodgers, nobody has crossed my path. In fact, I’m starting to play ignorant and play a few of these games myself. I’m trying not to snap, with the constant bumping and ramming of things into the back of my legs and bum. We’ll just have to see how long I can hold my resolve.

Korean Street Food

We’ve eaten well whilst staying in Jinju, enjoying Korean food from spit-roasted suckling pig, beef liver soup to octopus. It was quite funny to see an international food area with stalls from “Around the World” with the queue for German sausage almost never ending. The Koreans it would appear enjoy a big sausage!  Sadly we couldn’t find a fish and chip stall amongst the international offerings.

Jinju Travel Tips: Jinju Downtown Hotels with River View Rooms Available

As you’d expect all the hotels put their rates up for the festival, which is understandable, from around 30 to anything between 40-65,000 KRW  for a private flashpacking type river view room. Here are some you may want to look at, Lotte Motel, Hyundai Motel, Dream Motel, or the Versace Motel.  They are essentially love hotels, but have everything you need whether you are loving or not.

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Comments (3)

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  1. jill says:

    Beautiful. I’m heading to Korea in November so seems I’ve missed out on the lantern festival. Still, can’t wait to see the country.

  2. OHMYGOD the queue jumping. I’ve lived here for over three years now and STILL can’t get used to it. Everyone is so hurry-hurry and it pisses me off. People here simply don’t know how to chill out.

    Phew. Anyway, I love this post and I actually have my own one about the lantern festival going up tomorrow! I was really surprised with Jinju and ended up enjoying it. Although I’ve gotta say, I’m still not impressed that you chaps didn’t make it to Daegu – SO close to Gyeongju, and my ultimate favourite city in Korea! 😉

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