If You’re in Korea During the Fall, You Must Visit Seoul’s Lantern Festival

We had spent a long day finishing our hike along Seoul City Wall. Beforehand, we had walked through Namdaemun and seen some delicious hotteok being served up. Danny thought this sounded like a great idea after our hike, but we wanted to keep walking. “Let’s walk along the Cheonggyecheon.” We weren’t alone, but we were in for a surprise. We didn’t realize that a lantern festival had lit up the quiet stream into something beautiful.

Lantern festival flier for 2016

What We Saw at the Lantern Festival

Every November, this public space is lit up by a beautiful lantern festival. As we walked, we were greeted by a gigantic paper lantern in the shape of a Gundam, which is not something you expect to see every day. The pedestrian traffic was heavy, so they attempted to alleviate the problem by directing where people walked. We had an easy viewing of the lanterns that lit up this stream, and it was magical as the sun set and the river glowed brighter.

[A little tidbit about the river itself: 청계천 stream was a poorly neglected place, left to wallow in the shadow of an underpass until its restoration by the city in 2005; it was a grand project that cost over USD 281 million. The beautification led to increased property and cultural value to the area surrounding and became quite popular with the locals as a place to escape the city. Furthermore, it has helped facilitate the return of wildlife and the reduction of urban heat. Nowadays, it hosts a bevy of fountains, pretty bridges, and the festival of lights, which has now run for three years.]

The theme this year was “The Daily Lives of the People,” past to present, and we saw that through lanterns dedicated to cartoon personas, companies, culture, and history all the way back to the hunter-gatherers who first came to the Korean peninsula over 2 millennia ago.

The artwork at the lantern festival was exquisite, too; we saw lantern after lantern, colorful in design, and some even moved. For instance, a peacock would lift its tail and spread apart its feathers every few seconds. At a certain point, you had to pass under a bridge that was covered in globe lanterns. Therein, many people congregated to purchase souvenirs and create their own wish lanterns that they could then float down the stream. It was relaxing to watch the little lights bob down the stream one after another.

Making Wishes and Our Favorite Lanterns

At the end of the walk, there was a spot where you could stand to toss ₩100 coins into the water for good luck. Though Danny failed, I, luckily, managed to land mine into the small fountain. At least my wishes will come true. Too bad Danny! :-0

But what were our favorite lanterns? Seoul’s Lantern Festival 2016 definitely had some amazing constructions to show off, but my favorites were incredibly colorful. They also displayed either a sense of power or energy and movement. Here they are below. Which one do you like better?

Maybe One Caveat in this Cute, Clean Bear?

I have one piece of social commentary, however. Take a look at this innocuous bear below and read my caption.

Clean Bear lantern at festival
This little guy is called “Clean Bear” and he looks pretty cute. But if you read his description, it goes from cute to concerning.  “Clean Bear was made to promote the creation of healthy media and the expansion of wholesome content culture. The snow-white polar bear runs the comb through media content to make sure they are clean and appropriate for consumption.” Now, if this was entirely for children’s programming, I could totally understand that, but what you have to know about South Korea is that areas of the Internet are censored and blocked from access by the government because they promote “unwholesome” content. Who decides what that is? What it means? Sadly, many Koreans don’t even know about this filtering that takes place, and I have to wonder how “free” a democracy is that blocks people from information that it disagrees with. And this “cartoonization” of the very concept just rankles the English teacher inside of me, always asking students to question why things are the way they are.

That being said, we were pretty happy to have found the lantern festival that we were planning to attend later this month, so accidentally. It was a nice 60 degrees out, the lights sparkled, and we enjoyed the bustle and activity (even when people ambled in front of us). It always seems like Seoul has something going on, another festival to attend. That’s part of what makes living here so exciting.

What About You?

Lantern festivals exist all over Asia; have you ever been to one, and if so, which festival was your favorite? What designs did you like? Also, please comment on the designs seen in this blog. Which were your favorite here? Tell me below!


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