Saturday, 30 July 2011

Buddha's Birthday: Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival

Did you know that Buddha's birthday is celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese Lunar calendar every year in East Asian countries? No, I didn't either until I got a bonus day off work for a Korean National Holiday in honour of it - nice-uh! Buddha's birthday was on May 10 this year which was a Monday giving us a sweet 3 day weekend. 

This day is celebrated across East Asia in various different ways. In Korea, temples are decorated with lots of lanterns and according to Wikipedia "on the day of Buddha's birth, many temples provide free meals and tea to all visitors". The Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul is the key Korean celebration held in the lead up to Buddha's Birthday. This year it ran over the weekend of May 6 - May 8 and included a huge lantern parade, the chance to make your own lantern and various traditional performances and ceremonies that you can watch or have a go at yourself.  

Paper lanterns decorating Jogyesa Temple in central Seoul.

The festival is held in the Jongno area of Seoul near Insadong, the city's cultural centre. We trooped over there via a long bus and subway journey with a bunch of our friends from Gwangju-si. We went on a warm Saturday afternoon and first checked out the cool antiques and bric-a-brac on the tourist friendly, pedestrianised streets of Insadong. As usual there were lots of tourists souvenir hunting and locals just going for a stroll.  

Spreadin' the love in Insadong. 

Our friend David getting his free hug.

A cool Buddha head at a shop in Insadong. It has 4 faces on it - sad, angry, smiling and laughing.

The happy side of Buddha! I didn't by this one but I did end up getting one in China eventually. I keep it by my bed now and turn its face round to the appropriate expression for how I feel jusy in case Rowan hasn't noticed! 

Hangin' with Ronald and the Gwangju massive killing time before the lantern parade started.

Next, we made our way to the Jogyesa temple (still in Jongno-gu in central Seoul) to see all the decorations and have a go at making our own lanterns. Jogyesa Temple is the head of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and has nice peaceful grounds considering it's in the middle of Seoul. According  to Wikipedia, it also contains Korean Natural Monument number 9 (love those numbers!), an ancient white pine tree. 

Jogyesa Temple's grounds were decorated with hundreds of brightly coloured paper lanterns. There were lots of people at the temple, some coming to worship and others to get paper lanterns for the parade.

Paper lantern making assembly line in Jogyesa Temple. They were free and came with a pack of candles.

Stephanie and I with our lanterns assembled and ready for action!

We saw a couple of friendly monks at the temple in orange robes who were answering some foreign visitors questions about Buddhism and their way of life in fairly decent English. 

Worshippers praying in front of some giant Buddha statues in Jogyesa Temple.

Close up of the two gold statues.

Then we stopped off at a little 감자탕 (kamcha-tang - potato soup) restaurant for some food, beer and of course soju. We had to prop our lanterns up against the wall next to the shelves where you're supposed to leave your shoes and they fell over a couple of times with much crashing of metal poles and embarrassment - damn waygooks!

Rather unappetising sounding alien rice dish at the kamcha-tang restaurant.

David being lumbered with ordering the food as per usual due to his superior Korean language skills.

Ingredients for the kamcha-tang in the pot prior to cooking. As with many Korean dishes, you cook it yourself at your table.

After we'd eaten enough noodles and rice to make your stomach explode we gathered up our lanterns and made our way to the parade route as dusk loomed. We wanted to avoid the crowds as much as possible but as is always the case with big public events anywhere in the world, this was no easy task. We ended up standing on a slightly smaller and quieter side road to watch the parade though it soon got really busy there too. It began in daylight with bands of costumed people carrying lanterns or playing instruments. 

The obligatory samul nori (Korean folk music) performance that you seem to get at every Korean event - this time in parade format.

Ajummas with their lanterns.

I was still revelling in having a dslr camera again and had brought my new tripod with me to capture those difficult low light lantern-at-night shots once it got dark. 

Standing at the side of the road with our lanterns waiting for the parade to come past as it got dark.

Lantern in front of a sign for Insadong and Jogyesa temple.

Once the lantern parade properly got going it was spectacular. Wave after wave of people, most dressed in costumes of one sort or another, traditional, modern or ridiculous, marched past cheerfully holding aloft their handmade lanterns. There were some huge floats with beautifully decorated lanterns in various shapes, many being traditional Buddhist images and a few that were a bit more novel. 

It's a bit dark but you can just about make out the monks in their robes carrying lanterns.

People in the parade waved at the bystanders as they passed.

Crazy character lantern float.

More character lanterns.

The 2 photos above are of a group of Thais (I think) in full costume with drums and flags. There were a few different groups of people from other countries who took part in the parade, adding a bit of exotic flavour.

Cute owl lanterns.

A beautiful dragon lantern being carried along by pairs of hard working Koreans.

More monks.

This was perhaps the strangest of all the lanterns. The centre of the face was a TV screen that showed pictures of kids faces, changing image every so often to a different child. Not sure what the reason was behind it but it looked...unique!

It went on and on for maybe a couple of hours or so, the stream of lantern bearers seemed never-ending. Eventually we could see that the parade was coming to a close and we decided to try to be clever and leave a little early to avoid the crush on the subway. Well, it was still pretty crowded of course, but we did get home for more soju a little earlier than we otherwise would and that's the most important thing! As we left the main drag of the parade we saw its participants relaxing and chatting after their part in it had finished. It felt like being backstage at the theatre or something!

Koreans seem to love making as much noise as possible, whether its students shouting at school or an old guy with his Bongo truck trying to sell his piles of garlic by broadcasting a recorded message about them to the whole neighbourhood via EXTREMELY loud speakers. Even the monks got in on the act at the festival - maybe he's using a monkcrophone (sorry - I hate myself too).

"Backstage" gathering. 

Rowan, Leif and Amy still carrying their lit lanterns.

A group of older Koreans in traditional hanbok cheerfully posing with their lanterns.

On the way to the subway station having given up on keeping the lanterns alight.

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