Festival fever in the country towns of Korea
There are over 1,176 regional festivals in Korea according to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Here are some of the most fun, eccentric and original.
1. Anheung’s Steamed Bun Festival
Every fall, yeasty pandemonium breaks out in the tiny township of Anheung. It hosts an annual Steamed Buns Festival, where visitors undergo a tantalizing form of torture. In the bun-eating contests, buns are tied to a string and suspended from the ceiling or spread out on a table. Competitors must then gobble the steamed treats as fast as they can, without using their hands. The ones who finish first go home with ― you guessed it ― a box of steamed buns.
Steamed buns are Anheung’s pride and joy. This is perhaps because the village gained fame for the food years before pastry was ever part of the Korean diet. Before yeast was imported, town bakers put rice wine into the flour dough for it to mature.
Because the township was a popular rest stop for travelers moving between Seoul and Gangneung, a major tourist destination, many people stopped here to buy a bag of buns for lunch before driving a few more hours down an unpaved road before the highway was built.
Now, Anheung’s buns are popular snacks for farmers in neighboring rural villages and travelers at highway rest stops.
The festival is small, taking place on the second week of October every year. Despite its diminutive size, it shows a cheerful spirit that’s typical of such festivals with events like the infamous bun-eating contest and singing competitions. On main festival streets a walking bun-head mascot walks around waving at visitors and patting children on the head.
Phone: (033) 340-2673
Date: Second week in October
Nearest terminal: Hoengseong
2. Boryeong Mud Festival
The mud festival is one of the most popular events for the expatriate community in Korea. It happens every summer at Daecheon Beach on the west coast of South Chungcheong with a program full of delightfully tacky games.
One of the festival’s most popular events is “Mud Human Mannequin,” a competition where several teams cover their bodies with mud, and stay still for as long as they can. Stone statues are installed nearby to confuse the viewers.
“Mud Tarzan” is a game where visitors cling to a rope and try to stay within a designated territory. If they don’t, they have to jump into a mud pit. There is a worse penalty for visitors who are afraid to get dirty: If festival “guards” see people they think aren’t dirty enough, they shut them up in a temporary jail set up on the beach, dubbed the “Mud Prison.”
Plenty of other mud-based craziness occurs onsite: The “Mud Super Slider” is an bouncy inflatable slide that stretches 25 meters on the beach, and there are mud-spraying guns, a mud wrestling ring, a mud sauna and a mud bath. Foreigners get a 30 percent discount during the festival.
Phone: (041) 930-3820
Nearest station: Daecheon
3. Namwon Chunhyang Festival
This is probably the first and only Korean festival named after a female literary heroine.
The festival is best known for its beauty pageant, which has produced top Korean actresses like Lee Da-hae and Yun Son-ha.
Chunhyang Festival is named after a character from the classic folk tale “Chunhyangjeon,” a dramatic love story between the son of an aristocrat and the daughter of a retired gisaeng, a female entertainer.
The festival features the “Bangja Relay Race,” named after the female servant in the story who secretly passed love letters between the couple; a lamp parade, wrestling and traditional swings. The pageant, which is the highlight of the festival, selects women who seem to possess “classical Korean grace” in traditional costumes.
Phone: (063) 632-5801
Nearest station: Namwon
4. Samcheok Bare-handed Flatfish Catching Festival
Maengbang Beach in Samcheok is one of the few remaining beaches on the east coast that hasn’t been buried beneath rows of love motels and restaurants. It’s quiet and serene even during peak holiday seasons. The exception is in August, when the city hosts a festival where over 250 visitors are invited to jump in the water and catch flatfish with their bare hands.
It sounds tricky, but bare-handed fishing isn’t impossible. The organizers spread a net along the beach and guides help visitors with their technique. There is an admission fee, but you can take home anything you catch ― a fair deal for the 10,000 won per person.
Phone: (033) 575-1330
Nearest terminal: Samcheok
5. Muju Firefly Festival
The firefly festival in Muju County uses the town’s indigenous firefly, designated Natural Treasure No. 322, to create enough happenings to fill up a week-long festival. But, like most regional festivals hosted by local governments, not all events stick to the theme. Activities include trout fishing, puppet shows, singing contests and traditional rituals like stepping on an old-style bridge.
The highlight of the festival is an arcade decorated with thousands of sparkling fireflies, which you can stroll under at night. There’s also a special somber session held to pray for the prosperity of the firefly and an environmental speech contest for children. The festival was certified by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture as a leading regional event in 2006. The certification is worn as a badge of pride by the small mountain resort town.
Phone: (063) 324-244
Nearest terminal: Muju
6. Yeosu International Tall Ship Festival
Imagine giant old sailing ships, a la “Pirates of the Caribbean,” docked at Yeosu, a small port in South Jeolla known mainly for its ark shells and mustard-leaf kimchi. Last year the county won its bid to host Expo 2012. Yeosu put on the grand International Tall Ship Festival to promote the expo. It was a spectacle attended by tall ships from around the world, including the Russian Palada and China’s Green Eyebrows.
The ships left the port of Nagasaki and sailed for two days to arrive at Yeosu.
Nearest station: Yeosu
7. Ganghwa Dolmen Culture Festival
This festival began in 2001 to promote the prehistoric relics of Ganghwa Island, where some of the country’s earliest dolmens were found and designated a World Cultural Heritage by Unesco.
Dolmens are burial monuments, with three or more stones supporting a flat cover-stone. Korea has the greatest number of dolmens in the world. Every October, the festival takes place in Ganghwa and Gochang, another major dolmen site.
Volunteers dress up in primitive costumes and perform an ancient ritual in the main event that gets the cameras flashing. At night, the visitors gather around campfires and dance. If that’s not enough, classes are also held that teach visitors to make stone and bone tools, earthenware bowls and huts from the prehistoric times.
Phone: (032) 930-3625
Nearest terminal: Ganghwa
8. Eunsan Byeolsin-je
Byeolsin-je in Eunsan Township is a traditional shaman rite that’s held at a shrine to appease local spirits. It’s held once every three years, either in January or February, and 100 villagers participate in the rite for 15 days.
The ceremony dates back a few decades when hundreds of the villagers died from an epidemic that struck the town. The legend goes that a village elder dreamed of a military general who said he had been wrongly executed, and asked that his bones be properly buried. The elder did so, and the epidemic ended.
In 1966, the event was designated Intangible Cultural Property No.9.
On the first day of the ceremony, the group, led by a shaman, goes to the nearest stream and lays a golden thread on the water as a sign of honor.
Villagers are forbidden to draw any water from the stream from this point, because humans are seen as unholy. The crowd then seals off the stream, cuts down trees to be used as ceremonial poles, and begins the main rite.
It’s one of the few remaining shamanist rituals in Korea.
Phone: (041) 830-2251
Date: January, February
Nearest terminal: Buyeo
9. Hampyeong Butterfly Festival
This festival caught the attention of the media last year when President Roh Moo-hyun and heads of local political parties released a cloud of white butterflies at a national cemetery.
A total of 2,008 flying butterflies were set free at the event, which was held to promote the Butterfly and Insects Expo that takes place in April.
The festival’s programs includes barley flute-making classes, a display of butterfly species in North and South Korea and a separate corner selling silkworm products.
Phone: (061) 320-3224
Nearest terminal: Hampyeong
10. Ulsan Whale Festival
Whaling in Ulsan was banned in 1986 when the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on commercial whaling.
So the whale festival is held in the absence of the great marine beasts.
Visitors can sample the traditional regional delicacy, whale meat, which has been “accidentally” caught in fishermen’s nets, so not illegal under the moratorium.
In addition to parades, rites are held near Bangudae, an archeological site where there are rock carvings of whale bones that date back nearly 7,000 years.
Phone: (052) 226-2994
Nearest terminal: Ulsan
Additional reporting by Susan Yoon
By Park Soo-mee Staff Reporter