Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Five festive weeks

May is festival month in South Korea. Even the smallest towns seem to have some kind of obscure celebration, from butterfly expos, ceramics fairs, firefly fiestas, and shindigs for local delicacies, flowers and myths. After somehow missing the thrills of the Changwon Watermelon Festival, I vowed to get to as many more as I could, and thankfully, three long weekends in five weeks made my quest a very pleasant one.

First up was the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul, to commemorate Children's Day, and act as a warm-up for Buddha's Birthday the following weekend. The city was beautifully decorated, with paper lanterns strung from every possible surface. Particularly impressive were the illuminated lanterns and sculptures along Cheonggyecheon, including a beautiful array of creatures, ancient warriors and other Buddhist symbols.

The central lantern parade was seemingly endless, beginning on Saturday in Insadong (a very busy but not unattractive tourist shopping area), then winding around the streets of central Seoul late into Sunday night. Sunday's parade was preceded by a separate parade to celebrate the city's diversity, featuring military bands, 50s rock 'n' rollers, African drummers and belly dancers, who seemed to far outnumber any other group. The lantern parade itself started in quite a low key fashion (apart from the breathless greetings by the excitable announcers), with groups of lantern-wielding marchers from what seemed like every temple in the country. Just as parade-fatigue began to set in, and the smell of bondaegee (boiled silkworm larvae served by street vendors) began to overwhelm all other senses, a series of huge, twinkling floats appeared to finish the procession in a dazzling fashion.

The weekend also afforded plenty of opportunity for sightseeing away from the festivities. A tour of Changdeokgung - a huge palace with a violent history and a peaceful 'secret garden' - was exhausting in the afternoon heat, but enjoyable nonetheless. Taking the cable car up to the top of Seoul's Namsan (South mountain) for a nighttime view of the city, and visiting the excellent Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul Grand Park were two other very satisfying highlights.

For someone who appreciates the necessity of tea in everyday life, the Hadong Wild Tea Cultural Festival was another must on my festival itinerary. Based around the Green Tea Cultural Centre in a lush valley in Hadong province, the annual festival promotes the many fine qualities of Korean green tea, and gives visitors the chance to do almost every conceivable activity with its leaves.

On offer throughout the day were green tea-based food, cocktails, sweets and accessories; a range of craft activities, including green tea soap and candle making; green tea foot spas; a bizarre treasure hunt through a tea field; a tea ceremony competition and the chance to learn how to prepare tea leaves for drinking. The latter activity was particularly engaging, although hard work, as rolling tea leaves for the optimum consistency requires a lot of effort and concentration.

The festival had a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere, and special mention must go to Isobel, a volunteer from Seoul who provided English interpretation. Due to the rather grey weather, the festival wasn't particularly busy, so Isobel worked for most of the day as our group's exclusive guide and translator, which greatly enhanced the experience.

After stopping off at Ssanggaesa, a beautiful, secluded temple near the festival site, we headed back to Changwon, slowly coming down from our green tea highs, and laden down with the results of the various workshops. The next day was supposed to be a relaxing respite from the festivities, but I craved more, so took a short bus ride to the nearby city of Jinju for the weekend-long Nongae Festival.

Nongae was a Kisaeng (an entertainer, hostess and sometimes concubine), who became the hero of the Korean resistance during the Japanese occupation in the late 16th century. After the second siege of Jinju, the triumphant Japanese army celebrated at the castle on the Nam river. Nongae seduced a particularly prominent samurai leader called Keyamura Rokusuke, and took him for a moonlit stroll along the castle's walls. Reaching a balcony overlooking the river, Nongae embraced Rokusuke, and tumbled backwards, pulling both of them to their deaths in the water below.

In the past, the Nongae festival featured a recreation of the story which involved chickens being hurled into the river, but this year was blessed with a full-scale dramatic production on the bank beneath the castle. I managed to miss this spectacle while sipping green tea in Hadong, but thankfully my fellow festival fan (and Jinju resident) Carlien took some great photos of the performance, which can be seen on her blog.

Sunday's attractions were a little less spectacular, but were a good excuse to wander the grounds of the castle, and experience some traditional Korean humour in a performance by a spirited troupe of travelling players. Other attractions included some gravity-defying acrobatics, impressive hat juggling, and the chance to experience traditional forms of military punishment (photo on request).

An unexpected festive treat for the long weekend in early June was the Haeundae Sand Festival. With the tag line 'See Sand, Feel Sand, Enjoy Sand', this was a must for beach bums, and featured incredibly detailed sand sculptures, and a variety of music and dance on Busan's most popular beach.

The pinnacle of the entertainment was a performance Drumcat, an incredible, all-female group of drummers, who seem to focus on updating traditional Korean forms for modern audiences. The show moved beyond novelty, due to the skill of the performers, and the sheer physical attack of the music. And the costumes, of course.

Along the length of the beach were the results of the amateur sand sculpture competition, which included kids' favourites such as Doraemon, Pororo and Spongebob Squarepants, as well as more abstract creations and a comment on the current 'crazy cow' crisis*.

Again, there was a lovely, friendly atmosphere at the festival, and though the speeches by prominent Busan dignitaries dragged on a little, it was a great celebration one of Busan's best features.

The spring festival season is coming to a close now, as the intense heat and heavy rains of summer make outdoor activities a little impractical. Thankfully, there are plenty of tempting events lined up for the autumn - including a mask dance festival which is supposed to be the highlight of the year - so my festival cravings shouldn't be denied for too long.

Lotus Lantern Festival website
Hadong Wild Tea Cultural Festival website
Jinju Nongae Festival - Carlien de Bruyn's blog
Haeundae Sand Festival website
YouTube video of Drumcat in action
Asia Times Article on the crazy cow crisis

Photo Galleries:
Children's Day Weekend in Seoul, Days one and two
Hadong Tea Festival
Jinju Nongae Festival
Haeundae Sand Festival

*Crazy cow has been the most prominent issue in the Korean media for many weeks now, and has proved to be a emotive catalyst for mass anti-government demonstrations all over the country. The problems started when president Lee Myung-bak (known on protest banners as 2MB, as Lee is actually pronounced 'ee', which is one of the Korean words for 2) signed a new trade agreement with the USA.

Since a minor US outbreak of BSE (mad cow disease, or 'crazy cow', as it's known by Korean students) in 2003, with reported cases, American beef imports have been restricted in Korea. Some nearby countries, such as Japan, still don't allow the import of US beef from cows slaughtered at 30 months or older, as these animals are believed (though the evidence is sketchy) to be more at risk from BSE. The new agreement allows all US beef, regardless of age to enter Korea, and this has sparked a huge public outcry, with many people believing that the president is purposely putting Korean lives in danger in order to improve relations with the US.

Stoked by inflammatory reports on the national KBS TV station, and the apparent influence of opposing parties, anti-government and anti-US groups, a series of candlelit vigils have been held in Seoul and other cities, including Changwon.

These have steadily grown in size, and have in a few cases resulted in a violent, heavy-handed response from the military police. Various compromises have been offered by the government, but the outrage continues to grow, with even the offer by Lee's entire cabinet to resign doing little to diffuse the public anger. Suffice it to say, Lee's popularity, after only a few months in office, has plummeted, with the latest polls showing a 20% approval rating.