Buddha, Blossoms & Miracles: 3 Not-to-Be-Missed South Korean Festivals

During my time in Korea, it seemed like not a week went by unmarked with a celebration or holiday of some kind. Or maybe I felt that way because everything was new and exciting; every event was a chance to learn something or make amazing memories.

Festivals in particular are a special experience. They’re vibrant, exciting, and fun — but if you take the time to research the history and context behind them, you often wind up with a better understanding of a place and its people.

So here’s a quick overview of three iconic Korean festivals, each well worth experiencing if you ever have the chance:

1. Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival

jinhae1WhenVaries, but usually late March or early April.

WhatA 10-day celebration, the festival attracts thousands of tourists from all over Korea to see the short-lived cherry blossoms bloom. Cherry blossom trees can be found all over the country, but Jinhae has the largest concentration of them. Festival activities and vendors are focused around two rotaries downtown, but Jinhae has multiple key sites to explore for optimum cherry blossom viewing. Gyeonghwa Station and Yeojwacheon Stream are two of the most popular spots.

 

 

jinhae2How to get thereStaying in the actual town of Jinhae is tricky around festival time — most places will be booked up. Luckily, you can make Busan your home base. Take the subway to Sasang station, and then find Seobu Bus Terminal outside exit 5. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to reach Jinhae from Busan.

Tip! Go early to avoid the crowd. More importantly: when you get to Jinhae, buy your return bus ticket right away! No specific time is labeled on the ticket. You can come back whenever you’re ready. I returned around 1pm, and by then the terminal was packed. I was beyond grateful to have my ticket already in hand, able to hop on the first bus I spotted.

2. Jindo Sea Parting Festival

jindo3jindo4When: Varies, but usually late March or early April.

What: Two or three times a year, at a specific point on Korea’s southern coast, the tides shift and drop in such a way that the sea literally splits, revealing a walkable road through the ocean to a nearby island. The annual festival is a three-day event to celebrate this phenomenon, and it draws thousands of visitors. Throngs of people gather on the shore, waiting for the “miracle road” to appear, and then, clad in thigh-high rubber boots, they all walk together to the island. It’s a surreal and revitalizing experience. (Also: don’t think you’re too cool to wear the boots. Wear them. Trust me.)

How to get there: A bus from Seoul’s Central City Terminal to the Jindo Bus Terminal takes about five hours. From there, a local bus can get you close to the festival site.

jindo5Fun fact! The legend behind this event is that Jindo was once filled with tigers that terrorized the local villages. The people fled to Modo, a nearby island, but an old woman named Ppong was left behind. She prayed to the ocean god for help to see her family until, one night, he appeared in a dream. He told her that he would send a rainbow to the sea that would reunite them. She went down to the shore the next day. The waters parted, and everyone crossed the sea to return to Jindo. (What happened to the tigers? Not entirely sure. No version I’ve found of the myth mentions them after the initial “killing and eating villagers” part.)

3. Lotus Lantern Festival

lotusfest2When: Early May.

What: Lotus-shaped lanterns are hung all over Seoul for weeks preceding this festival, an annual celebration of Buddha’s birth. The lantern parade is the highlight of the event. It begins at Heunginjimun Gate and ends at Jogyesa Temple, which is filled with gorgeous, colorful lanterns. The floats are elaborate and dreamlike, and are flocked by dancers in elegant costumes, each carrying lanterns of their own. There are also exhibitions of traditional lanterns at various sites around Seoul — the best one is supposed to be at Cheongyecheon Stream. Each lantern is a piece of art, depicting some aspect of Korean culture, history, or mythology.

lanternsHow to get there: This one takes place in downtown Seoul. The parade flows down Jongno street, and can be seen from Jongno 3-ga Station, Jonggak Station, or Jongno 5-ga Station. Jogyesa Temple is closest to Jonggak Station.

Tip! Cheongyecheon Stream also gets decked out in lanterns during November (for the Seoul Lantern Festival, pictured on the right). Both these events are a great opportunity to try street food. Look for vendors selling hodugwaja, little walnut-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste. 


Festivals are a great way to learn about another culture, and they tend to be unforgettable experiences. They’re one of the first things I would recommend to anyone looking for something to do in South Korea.

All images used in this post are mine.

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