If I was forced to choose one day of the Lotus Lantern Festival to go to, it’d be tough. Saturday’s parade is my favorite event to see, but Sunday offers many opportunities to get hands on experience making traditional Korean Buddhist crafts and there is time to talk with monks as well. From noon until 7PM the street in front of Jogyesa Temple is blocked off and 100 booths, a stage and performance areas are set up for people to enjoy.
Some of the crafts are free to experience and some cost a small fee, maximum around W5,000 ($5). One can make a lotus lantern, Buddhist prayer bead bracelets, paint mugs, make clay bowls and plates and a traditional Korean doll among other things. There are Buddhists from Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and Cambodia with tents to share their ceremonies and have discussions and meditations. There are food tents with bibimbap, rice cake, noodles with black bean sauce and tea. There are performers along the road singing, dancing and performing mock traditional ceremonies. This year, our group of volunteers even had a flash mob! It’s fun for adults, children and families to be sure.
For those that only want to come out for one day, the good thing about Sunday is that there is also a parade, though it is much smaller in comparison to Saturday’s, but that’s could be a key selling point to people that don’t like the crowds. The largest floats aren’t in the line-up and not as many groups attend, but it’s still beautiful.
The mini-parade starts from Jogyesa Temple, goes down the main Insa-dong drag and then goes one block on Jongno Street to circle back to Jogyesa. This year I pushed one of the floats during this parade and it was pretty awesome. Only one lane of traffic is closed off on Jongno Street, which means that cars and buses are still making their way through the area and as the roads aren’t blocked off we had to periodically stop to allow pedestrians to cross at the crosswalks and walk between our floats. It was rather humorous.
All of the bystanders on the main road and in their cars seemed to be unaware any of this was going to happen on Sunday and were hanging out of windows waving to us as they excitedly and suddenly had a front row seat to the action. The floats aren’t nearly as heavy as I’d expected, but still not easy to maneuver and the street through Insa-dong is really not that wide, so it took a little trial and error, but it was great fun.
The parade culminates at the stage that was set up on the street in front of Jogyesa and all of the participants and viewers partake in the Final Celebration, or Yeondeungnori. There are dance performances by select groups and it ends as the parade ended on Saturday, with a dance party for all. There aren’t nearly as many people, and there aren’t flower petals falling from the sky, but in it’s more intimate setting, it could be considered even more enjoyable than Saturday’s huge affair.
The parade is by far the highlight of the Lotus Lantern Festival. It starts at 7PM from Dongguk University Stadium with all of the attendees of the Buddhist Cheer Rally lining up group by group to make their way waving and smiling to Jogyesa Temple. I wouldn’t recommend watching the parade until the procession leads past Dongdaemun History and Culture Park however though, because the grand lanterns are parked there and added into the line up from that point on.
The best places to get great views of the parade are anywhere on Jongno Street from Heunginjimun Gate down to Jonggak Intersection. There are also free seats set up along this street for spectators to rest and enjoy the show from and if you’re seated near the end you may get a free lantern handed to you.
This was my first year to walk in the parade and it definitely left a smile on my face. I have to admit that I was a little sad that I couldn’t just sit and watch with everyone else as the lanterns are just so beautiful, but I took my position with the other foreign volunteers proudly and waved my way on down the street. It was certainly different being on the other side of the blockades and the Korean viewers seemed especially surprised, but also happy to see us.
There are six groups of lantern carriers and floats with everything from traditional lotus flower lanterns and paper lanterns to lanterns in the shape of Hangul, the Korean alphabet, spelling out words. There are huge floats in the shapes of dragons, elephants and birds as well as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are groups from temples, groups from schools and of course the most popular groups are the monks themselves.
The parade finally ends at Jonggak intersection. The smaller floats are turned right and parked on the street in front of Jogyesa temple, and stay there lit up so that people can get photos with them while the larger floats continue straight on Jongno Street to be parked and dismantled by the end of the night. The musicians that have just finished walking the two hour parade trail aren’t finished yet and often continue to play in small circles near Jogyesa Temple for those gathered nearby.
By 9 the parade has ended, but the night is still quite young. At Jonggak intersection there is a stage and a large square sectioned off. Here is where Hoehyang Hanmadang, the Post-Parade Celebration, takes place. The participants in the parade have all learned dances and now it is time to show them off. The blockades are taken down and the spectators are now allowed onto the street. It becomes a block party of sorts with participants who know the dances and spectators who don’t, but will learn quickly. People are pulled into circles to swing around and around and link up arms to shoulders to form long trains that zig zag through the crowds pulling in those nearby. For two hours music is playing and people are dancing together in a huge crowd until finally it begins to rain flowers, or pink confetti paper, on to the people. It was my first time to make it until the very end and it was glorious. So many happy and smiling people together, Buddhist and non-Buddhists, Koreans and foreigners and everyone seemed to be having fun.
If you missed it this year, there’s always next year. Make sure to look out for it come May!