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Getting cultured and confused in Gyeongsangdo

Filed in Blog, South Korea by on October 6, 2017
by Megan I.

It’s Chuseok break out here in Korea — which we foreigners all seem to have collectively agreed is “Korean Thanksgiving” — and you know what that means! It means nothing is open and you’re all alone because you, lonely foreigner, do not have a Korean family to cook you amazing Korean food or Korean grandparents to give you pocket money for a good floor bow or any ancestor’s graves to visit. So what do you do? Well, you could go to Busan and party on the beach (most choose this option), stay in your dorm/goshiwon and binge internet like always, or you could be cultured and fancy and already have plans because your nerdy butt has been on the internet researching Korean festivals and places to visit forever and know of one that happens to be going on during the good ol’ Chuseok time. You can see where this post is going.

So, me, the nerdiest of nerds, told my three good buddies over here — Maya of Minnesota, Catia of Canada and Abbey of England — that there is a lantern festival and sent them pictures of the gorgeous lanterns that I was going to see and links to possible Airbnb rentals and bus tickets in our Kakao group chat. When they all eventually agreed we barely managed to find one Airbnb left and bought some tickets — it was time to go to Jinju. The Jinju Namgang Yundeung Festival to be exact. But where is this Jinju, Megan? Well, it is in the south of the Korean peninsula, about three and a half hours from Seoul in a region known as Gyeongsang-do, which is known for its cool, blunt people and amazing dialect (Satoori in Korean). And what is this festival celebrating? Well actually, it is a memorial festival. There is a famous fort in Jinju on the top of a hill beside the river that was raided in 1592 by the Japanese, an attempt that failed because many of the Japanese solders were prevented from wading into the water by use of lanterns, which were also used by those in the fortress to communicate with family members down river. The festival is now a tizzy of beautiful lights and astoundingly intricate lanterns that are set up on and around the river bank. There are even tunnels made of just wish lanterns submitted by festival goers. Seeing the amazing pictures online, I knew I wanted to go.

So after missing our bus by one — we arrived one minute past departure time and the bus was already out of sight, and Seoul buses do not mess around, we learned — we got switched to a bus three hours later, and finally we were on our way to Jinju. Three and half hours. Except, no, it was five hours… Chuseok traffic I guess. Along the way are some of — no, dare I say the most — beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen in my life. I am a big city girl at heart but I could’ve moved straight into Gyeongsangdo village and become a farmer just to see it every day. I digress. We also stopped at a Korean rest stop called Insam Land (or Ginseng Land) that was wild. Insanely nice compared to American rest stops, and it was ginseng themed, which was hilarious.

Finally, we arrived in Jinju. Up until now, I’d been communicating with our Airbnb host via text on the Airbnb app (this post sounds like it’s sponsored) all in Korean. I’m not going to lie, I am pretty proud of myself for being able to communicate about travel things so well (thanks to Lee Seonsaengnim at MU for teaching us so well) but the real test came when we arrived and she wasn’t answering. There was panic. I did not know what bus station we were at and if we should take a taxi or a bus due to price and distance to the hostel. Frantic, we called her, only for me to remember not only am I 100% not confident in using Korean over the phone, but I also generally hate talking on the phone to people. After too much stuttering and awkwardness, my friend Maya took the phone and settled it. “Take the taxi,” she said. The woman had told us via text to say a specific sentence in Korean to the taxi driver so we did, and of course he responded by spouting off in full-speed, heavily-accented Korean. Several blinks later, it turns out we were on the wrong side of the road, and he was telling us to catch a taxi on the other side so that he wouldn’t have to go all the way around the road divide and cost us extra money. Can you imagine an American taxi driver doing that? People are so good in Korea. 10/10 would recommend. Finally, we arrived at the place our sentence had taken us. A crossroads.

Now on Airbnb, the hostel was named a specific address. Addresses are not displayed outside of buildings in Korea, so we awkwardly wandered about for a couple of minutes looking for the place, which just so happened to be near a lot of “love motels” (exactly what is sounds like), which we desperately prayed was not what we had accidentally booked. We found a place with pictures of rooms outside that looked like the picture on Airbnb and a random older woman told us to go up to the second floor. She was not random, it turned out, but this grandma was part of the family that owns this place — we think. She came in and started speed talking in the thickest Gyeongsangdo dialect that I’ve ever heard to a middle-aged man. A young teenage girl came out and started talking to us about our booking — we think. The woman online was in her late 20s or 30s, so we have no idea who any of these people are. Somehow we get a room key and are led to our room, which was wonderful and clean. No idea who we booked through or what any of our interactions with this family were about, but they were very lovely people. Still not sure I even booked that place as they didn’t check any info from us, but we ended up with a place to stay so that’s what matters.

Lantern festival

Just a tunnel made of wishes because nothing more aesthetic exists in this universe.

Finally, we made it to the festival. We were all starving, so we decided to have dinner first, then go in for pictures of the actual festival. While wandering the infinite stalls outside the festival, we finally found some not expensive, not street food to fill us up. Mid-meal, something happens. Rain happens. A torrential downpour happens. Jackets can be umbrellas, we decide, and nothing, not even soaking wet shoes, squishy socks and a little hypothermia, was going to stop me from seeing those dang lanterns. Somehow, we all powered through and managed to get to the festival, and it was beyond worth it. Some of the more noteworthy lanterns include the entire section dedicated to famous paintings, such as “The Scream,” a multi-color dragon whose body and eyes moved, a giant Santa holding a cross (it was Oct. 3) and the whole fortress battle reenactment lanterns. There were hundreds of lantern soldiers mid-battle, falling off ladders and horses, sentries and people being stabbed and kebabbed with arrows. It was amazing. Near this area was also a whole Korean culture section, complete with Korean guards staring each other down and Korean wrestling. Shout-out to Professor Cheehyung Harrison Kim at MU for showing us clips of Korean wrestling so I knew that’s what that lantern depicted.

Korean wrestling

Smackdown traditional style.


After several hours of wandering, cold and wet, we sloshed back to our hostel to sit in our warm room and watched some Korean-dubbed anime about a child detective and promptly passed out. The next day the streets were utterly empty for Chuseok, but we made it to our bus in time and relaxed in style for the whole more-fancy-than-expected six hour charter bus ride home. I will definitely not forget our eventful night in Jinju or any of the wonderful people in Gyeongsang-do who have convinced me I will be back again as soon as my wallet approves. Megan out.

Dragon lantern

This colorful friend was quite ferocious with his moving arms, body and eyelids.

About the blogger

Megan I. is studying abroad on the Korea University program in Seoul, South Korea.

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