Written and photographed by Stephanie and Ryan Hedger
Festivals of Light
There are two festivals we find ourselves returning to year after year, and they both revolve around lanterns. Generally, festivals can be overwhelming and often overcrowded, but two festivals celebrating lanterns and their place in Korean culture have struck a perfect balance between location, stimulus, and people. While most people first consider the lantern festivals of Seoul and Busan to celebrate Buddha’s birthday in the spring, another festival in autumn is built upon the glowing spectacle of traditional lanterns and is located in Jinju.
The Jinju Lantern Festival commemorates the use of lanterns and kites as forms of communication by Korean forces to resist invaders during the Imjin War (1592–98). Situated on the banks of Jinju’s predominant river, Jinju Fortress sits atop a hill that overlooks all of today’s festival grounds. As the cultural center of Jinju, this fortress is the perfect start to experiencing the city’s most popular festival. Though the lanterns floating on the river garner the majority of the festival’s fame, the sprawling lawns and gardens of the fortress are adorned with hundreds of lanterns. Depicting everything from classic Korean folklore to scenes of battle; children’s games to iconic Korean figures throughout the ages, the fortress is not to be missed.
Beyond the gates and stone walls of Jinju Fortress lies an atmosphere more likely recognized as a festival. On both sides of the river, guests will be treated to a seemingly endless array of food options, live music, and arts and crafts, as well as the bulk of the lantern collection. Floating on the river are platforms on which dozens of lanterns shine brightly into the night, displaying designs and displays from all around the world. Though most floating lanterns are iconic images of Korean history, there are often crowd favorites depicting characters from popular culture, movies, and television. These glowing beacons of artistry are varied and ensure that anyone visiting the festival is sure to find something of interest.
A Tunnel of Light
Apart from the lanterns and typical festival fare, visitors are also treated to the stunning lantern tunnel that stretches for hundreds of meters and creates its own world of color and light. A favorite destination for couples and selfie-seekers, this tunnel is as visually stunning as its feel of a secluded escape from the crowds. Surrounded by uniform lanterns, the tunnel is a beautiful place to go for a walk and enjoy the beauty of simple traditions.
A Festival Unlike Any Other
The lantern festival in Jinju is a stunning retreat from the typical festival experience in a city that seems to have perfected the harmony between tradition and modern festival expectations. Of all the festivals one can experience in South Korea, the festivals in spring and autumn involving lanterns are, in our experience, the most enjoyable and repeatable. Jinju falls into its stride with its annual lantern festival and does a masterful job at entertaining its guests as well as paying homage to the history that lived and breathed in the fortress grounds so many years ago. During October, be sure to set aside a weekend to experience or revisit one of Korea’s most charming festivals.
The Jinju Lantern Festival will start on October 1 with the opening ceremonies and continue through October 15. For these two weeks, the fortress, river, lanterns, bridges, and festival food will be front and center for all who are able to witness such a special event. Located around Jinju Fortress and the South River, the Jinju Namgang Yudeung Festival is both a large and a perfect escape for anyone wanting a reason to step back into time and enjoy a light-hearted look into Korea’s amazing past with all of the comforts one would expect of a modern festival.
Ryan and Stephanie have lived, traveled, and worked in South Korea since 2013. Based out of Yeosu, they are the duo behind Hedgers Abroad, their blog, which documents their lives through photography, videos, and shared stories. They freelance in their spare time and are on the road constantly.