Jinju Lantern Festival (Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival)

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View of the river from the Bamboo Forest

A few weekends ago, Mo and I got our butts out of bed early to tackle Hangul writing at the bus terminal in hopes of getting to Jinju for the lantern festival. Whether it was the few language classes I had already had, or just sheer dumb luck, we managed to decipher the timetable and get where we needed to be. Two and a half hours of beautiful countryside and a little napping later, we made it to Jinju. Almost as soon as we pulled into the city, we spotted the huge balloons and banners floating above the skyline…a hallmark of most festivals in South Korea. Glad that we were in the right place, and that we wouldn’t have to try and find a taxi to get us to the event, Mo and I stocked up on snacks (read: ice cream) and hand sanitizer before walking down to the river.

Despite the fact that two of our friends, Megan and Kelleen, had been to the festival the week before, I still wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted me. Stretched further than the eye could see were thousands of lanterns of every shape, size and colour. The lanterns were sprawled out along the surface of the river (with swan shaped tour boats zipping between them for those who wanted a more up close and personal view), decorated the lawn of the riverside fortress, and created a walkway of wonder through the various food and craft tents that come with any good celebration, As part of the event, there was a wishing wall where tourists and locals could write down a wish on a coloured paper (everything is bright and colourful here), and hang it with thousands of other to create a sort of wishing wall. There were your typical dreams of love and sport team wins, but we also spied some depicting weight loss; if it weren’t for the comic of a shrinking woman, I would never have been able to decipher that from the Hangul (Korean classes or no)

Mo and I spent a few hours wandering both sides of the river, waiting for the 6 o’clock countdown that would signal the lighting of the lanterns. After we had seen our fill of Sensei fighting (and posing for pictures, of course), cultural drum and dance competitions, and chatted with an ajuma in the Japanese-style pavilion, it was time to find a spot by the riverside for the sunset display. We took one last stroll through the wishing lanterns tent (everywhere we went, there was another opportunity to write a wish and have it displayed), and chuckled at the Sylvester Stallone as Rocky lantern that relaxed casually in the bamboo forest, before settling down near the blossoming tulip lanterns. As the sun went down, giving us an amazing view of the bedazzled river and mountains in the background, we wait while one by one, different sections of the river and its surrounding are were lit up. Sad to say, I neglected to charge my camera battery the night before and ended up taking the last few pictures of the day (read the most spectacular ones because the lanterns were actually lit) with my phone. Rookie mistake.

When you’re packing for an outing, always pack that extra battery for your camera. And then pack the extra battery for your phone because when you’re desperately snapping shots of the sun setting, your phone battery will also die and you’ll find yourself turning it off and on in an attempt to conserve what little of its power is left for the really great shots. I know, I did this. Twice.

Despite the failing technology, the lanterns were truly a sight to behold. The endless hours of imagination displayed for us to admire and walk through were incredible. If you’ve never been to a Korean lantern festival, be prepared for the cultural, historical, and comical. Then hold your breath as you cross the river on a floating bridge and see the Disney images from your childhood come to life, complete with the 7 dwarves and Aladdin’s flying carpet suspended over the water. If that’s not enough to convince you that you really need to get your own butts to Jinju, then the excitement of seeing your country represented in meters tall beavers playing hockey next to Niagara Falls should. Even in the middle of nowhere, South Korea, there is still the reminder of how small our world really is, and that home is a place you can always return to, even if it’s in ways you would never have imagined.

We rounded off this day of spectacular sights with a dash through the Jinju bus terminal, which was even more confusing than the Ulsan one. We ended up following a stranger who was gesturing at us emphatically while issuing forth a non-stop stream of Korean; it’s a good thing we did too because he led us to the outside, by itself, how would we have found this ticket window for Ulsan where our bus was waiting to depart…and started to roll forward because the driver thought we weren’t buying our tickets fast enough. At the end of it all, I just have to shake my head at the juxtaposition of the serenity and confusion of the day. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

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