Even if you know very little about Korea, you may have seen pictures of two things: beatific temples and colourful festivals. In fact, festivals are an integral part of life in Korea. Every town, city, or district in Korea has a particular product for which it is known, whether it is a particular fruit, flower, or cultural practice.
This is translated into the mascots that appear all over that particular area, and often is also the theme of the area’s annual festival. Bigger cities such as Seoul and Busan have multiple festivals during the year, to encompass their wealth of commerce and culture.
And so you find people flocking to Seoul’s lantern festival, in celebration of Buddha’s birthday, forgoing the smaller lantern parades happening all over the country at the same time. The smaller area of Jinhae, although not the size of the capital, explodes around April each year, as it plays host to the country’s premier Cherry Blossom festival.
This is a festival I am yet to brave, as I have heard that the size of the crowds is pretty overwhelming. However, if you are set on grabbing the quintessential cherry blossoms in South Korea Instagram shot, chances are that if you can wait for your moment in between the crowds, you won’t be disappointed.
Now, I do believe that everyone needs to see the amazing lanterns in Seoul and the Cherry Blossoms in Jinhae at least once in their lives, if for nothing else than to say that you did. However, this post is geared more towards travelers who prefer something a little off the beaten track.
If you have been in Korea for a while, or you simply have no interest in fighting the chaos and crowds that surround the larger festivals and the cities they are often situated in, then this is my guide for 5 lesser known festivals that may just be what you are looking for!
1. Muju Firefly Festival
Oh this is one of my favorite festivals ever! Muju is a sleepy little town in Jeollabuk province, which is usually home to some pretty gorgeous camping spots and also houses the area’s most famous ski resort on its outskirts. But around September every year, Muju plays host to what I think is one of the quirkiest festivals in Korea: the firefly festival.
Muju is situated on a river, and as such, it is the perfect breeding grounds for a number of firefly varieties. At the festival, you not only learn about these cool little bugs, you can also sign up to feed their larvae in the river, and go for a guided walk in their natural habitat away from the main festival grounds.
I loved this festival because of the range of activities available, as well as the gorgeous setting. Muju is stunning. We spent the day at the festival eating tons of street food and becoming budding entomologists, and then checked in to a local camp ground right on the river to chill for the rest of the evening.
Did I mention the amazing lantern and fireworks display that you can take in from surrounding rooftop restaurants? Yup, Muju can do that for you too.
This is still quite a busy festival, so expect some crowds, but it is nowhere near the chaos of Seoul. I love this festival, and I can’t recommend it more, even though I am generally pretty afraid of bugs!
You can find more information about the festival happening September 1-9 2018 here. Since it is pretty out of the way, I’d recommend renting a car to get to and around Muju and the campsites nearby.
Read more about our 2017 festival experience here.
2. Goryeong Daegaya Experience Festival
Goryeong is a city for all you history buffs out there. In 42-562 CE, the area was home to the Daegaya nation, a sophisticated and highly cultured group. They created the Gayageum, the now famous 12 string Korean traditional harp.
The nation was also a powerful military force in the area. There are some awesome museums in the area that are worth a visit at any time of the year. We previously wrote about our visit to Goryeong here.
In April every year Goryeong becomes even more of a hotbed of culture and music. Think making traditional wooden boats, taking Gayageum lessons, harvesting strawberries on nearby farms, and taking in a multitude of musical theatre and recitals. This is really a festival for lovers of music and Korean culture. Goryeong is also a gorgeous town, with some really awesome architecture and loads of cute cafes.
Goryeong is very walkable, and you can take a bus directly from Seoul Nambu Bus Terminal, so there is no excuse to not check out this cultural gem.
Unfortunately the festival website is only available in Korean, but you can get loads of information from the Visit Korea website English here. Visit Korea is an awesome resource for searching cities, festivals and events all over Korea, all in English and with maps. Links to websites and transport advice. I highly recommend checking it out.
3. Mungyeong Traditional Chasabal Festival
This festival had a very special place in my heart being the first festival we ever went to in Korea. In fact, it was during our very first trip to Seoul that we joined a travel group out on a day trip to the festival, and you can read about that here.
As I said, we joined a travel company specifically aimed at expats in Korea, and while the convenience of getting to the festival and around the area was great, it was super disappointing to find that we had such a short period of time at the festival. We had zero time for looking around at the heaps of beautiful stalls, and the tour guide insisted that we ate our lunch from outside the festival, rather than getting our lunch at the more traditional Korean places on offer.
So yeah, definitely be aware that if you join one of the groups on facebook that you see advertising festival trips, chances are that they will be squishing so much into the trip that you don’t get a load of time to enjoy what the festival actually has on offer.
Anyways, the Chasabal festival is really a stunning event, both in terms of setting and content. Chasabal refers to the traditional ceramics that the area is renowned for, and therefore a lot of the activities are pottery and ceramics based.
You can learn how to create your own bowl or cup, something I highly recommend as the teachers are so kind and fun, or you can take part in traditional tea ceremonies. You can also stroll down the rows and rows of ceramic studio stalls and pick up some of the most beautiful and delicate ceramic items that I have ever seen.
The festival also takes place in a reconstruction of Gyeongbukgung Palace in Seoul, that is often used for Korean TV dramas. In fact, if you take a walk up into the forest just beyond the festival, you can find more abandoned sets from TV dramas that are well maintained, and super fun to take photos in.
The whole area is surrounded by mountains and it really feels like you are entering some ancient Korean dynasty, it is a very cool area. If you miss the Chasabal festival, the area also plays host to an apple festival in the second half of the year.
Nearby is Zipline Mungyeong, which was such a cool experience, housing 9 zip lines running through the forest. Well worth the visit if you are in the neighborhood!
Find more information about the annual Chasabal festival in April/May here, and for information about the Zipline company, go here, it’s only in Korean, but Chrome will translate it adequately for you to book.
Mungyeong is in Gyeongbuk province, and though a car will definitely make things easier for you, you can take a bus to Mungyeong Bus Terminal from East Seoul Bus Terminal, and then catch a bus bound for Mungyeong Saejae bus stop to get you to the festival.
4. Seongju Life Culture Festival
Okay okay, I know that no one has ever in their lives heard about Seongju, even Koreans have no idea where it is. However, this is the little town we ended up in when we first came to Korea as EPIK teachers. It’s a tiny town about 30 minutes outside of Daegu, and it is most famous as the second richest economy in Korea because of one little yellow thing: the Chamoe melon.
Koreans and foreigners alike have a love hate relationship with Chamoe, but I think it’s a tasty little melon that tastes like a particularly juicy honeydew melon. Regardless of your views of it though, Seongju is home to some of the richest farmers in the country thanks to being the sole Chamoe producer on the peninsular. So it follows that Seongju has quite the budget for the annual culture life festival.
Expect to see concerts by Kpop stars, and visiting taekwando groups. There’s also a cute market where you can take in every kind of Chamoe variety you can think of. You’ll also find a night market filled with tasty food and carnival games, and lots of water activities on the river.
Of course there’s fireworks and singing too, because that’s what festivals in Korea are all about. The festival also takes place next to Seongbaksup, a lovely little forest of incredibly old trees that is Seongju’s other claim to fame.
So though I wouldn’t recommend traveling across the country for this one, if you find yourself in Daegu and want some fun out in the country, then grab the 250 bus to Seongju and check it out, it really is a great example of small town rural life in Korea, and boy do they know how to party!
For English info on the festival that takes place in May each year, have a look here.
5. Ulleungdo Squid Festival
I have saved the most remote festival for last, and boy it is a goodie! Out here on Ulleung Island where Chris and I are teaching currently, there isn’t a heck of a nightlife, and if you don’t like the outdoors, you may find there isn’t much of a day life either. However, that all changes in July and August every year, as people brave the 3 hour ferry ride to play with some squid.
You can try your hand at catching squid with your bare hands, or take part in a fishing contest. You can also ride the squid raft, and take part in other water activities, which is particularly fun considering how clear and blue the water here is.
At the end of the day you can also eat your fill of seafood of all varieties, caught fresh every day and served up in delicious dishes. Trust me, the food here is exquisite, plentiful, and not super expensive, so you’re gonna eat loads.
I’m sure we will write more about the festival as we attend it, but knowing what I know of the kind and generous people of this island, you’re not going to want to miss this one. Make a weekend of it and explore some of the most amazing scenery in the country.
So there you go, that’s my top five recommendations for off the beaten track festivals in Korea. Let me know if you’ve visited any of these gems, and if you have any others we should add to our list.
I hope that you can learn to love the small towns of Korea as much as we have, they really do give a much better picture of how the average Korean lives, and how generous and kind the people here are.
Hope to see you at a festival soon!
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