Welcome to Jinju, the city of floating light.
This place is like something from a dream. I really never imagined I would get to be a part of anything like it. I always hoped I could but you never really think you’ll see stuff like this. When I first signed up for Korea, knowing full well I would be giving up on the comforts of home I imagined myself exploring temples and hiking mountains but most of all, I imagined myself surrounded by a world of glowing flickering lanterns spanning beyond the horizon and floating down historical rivers, trapped in the reeds or swept off by the current. After months of not experiencing anything resembling this, I chocked it up to being one of those annoying things that hollywood does, you know, when they make you think that places are clean and mysterious and unexplored and you’re the only foreigner they’ve ever seen so they invite you to stay in their home and experience their culture and marry their handsome simple hearted son… you know. Well I thought it was a write off, that was until I saw a website advertising the Namgang Lantern Festival in Jinju, South Korea.
I had never heard of the small Korean city of Jinju until Tessie suggested we go spend a weekend there. It was a last minute decision but the enticement of a lantern festival was too much to turn down. So on Saturday afternoon we grabbed Alyssa and headed for the bus terminal. Jinju is a couple of hours West of Busan and on this particular day it was a popular destination. The last bus back to Busan was scheduled for 9pm which is unfortunately early for a festival that requires a post-sunset environment so we decided to stay the night, which was exciting, especially seeing as we didn’t have any clue where we could stay. Faith though, that’s all we needed, there was bound to be a hotel or motel or inn or somewhere we could stay and hey, if not, then I guess we’d just have to stay up all night drinking soju and singing arm in arm with the Ajoshis! We all laughed nervously at the thought of this. No-one wanted to admit that they were too lame and whiney to pull any all-nighters, we like our beds and we like our rest but we weren’t ready to admit that to each other. (not to mention our common dislike for both soju and drunk Ajoshis.)
Luckily we didn’t have to, we managed to find a place at the “Dream Motel” one of Korea’s hundreds of thousands of brightly lit and wildly decorated love-motels. So called due to the popularity with young couples trying to find a place where they can be alone in private. It is a tradition that a child will live with their parents until they marry. The act of meeting a partner’s parents is as good as a marriage proposal so all through courtship a couple struggles to find a place to be together without interruption or the sound of wedding bells ringing throughout the house. That was until these cheap little love motels started popping up all over the place. Now there are literally hundreds of them in every city and you can’t miss them, each one tries to out-light the next one with more and more garish LED displays that glitter and sparkle over the rooftops. When there’s a cluster of them together it really feels like you’re heading into a hip and happening Times Square-type area but when you get there all you find are discounted rooms to rent by the hour.
They put an impressive amount of effort into the exterior not just with the lighting but with the rendering too. The buildings often look like something you drew as a 5-year old; red fortresses with black spiraling turrets, big white fairytale castles and sparkling pink palaces. I assumed that the exterior was compensating for a dingy and cockroach infested interior. But I was wrong.
The Dream Motel was clean and bright, they let 3 of us stay in one room and were flexible on the price (with the little Korean we do know we sure can haggle.) Our room had a computer with free internet, a widescreen LCD TV, a fridge, hair dryer and a water machine. We almost got in at another hotel but they were hellbent on disallowing three people in one room. We thusly decided it would be best to approach the next inn with miss Alyssa Lynn hiding around the corner. But the sneaky inn-keepers caught us mid slooth so we ran for the hills and never looked back. We ran straight into the arms of the motel of our Dreams!
There were sachets of coffee and tea, toothbrushes and toothpaste and shampoo and body wash. (Don’t forget all the free condoms that come with the room key.) It wasn’t half bad. And the bed was so big that no-one had to sleep on the mat that they brought in to compensate for the extra person. We slept widthwise which was akward for me, uncomfortable for Thommy long legs and the best night’s rest for our 5’2″ Alyssa! These love motels are allll-right! I’ll no longer dismiss them as a viable option, one word of advice though, always ask to see a room before you decide, they may be reluctant at first to show you but be persistent and see it for yourself, if they refuse to let you take a look consider it a sign to leave.
With our digs sorted and our bags stowed we stepped out into the balmy night air where the hazy, late summer sun sank slowly into the horizon. The river banks were thick with the sounds and smells of festival. Carnival music drifted across the water, punctuated with the playful screams of kids at the fair, the crackle of fireworks echoing off the bridge and the low beat of unseen drums, which all became the rhythm of our night. Looking around we saw the lanterns along the bank of the Namgang river, set up and patiently waiting to come alive at night.
Set up along the Southern bank of the river were long tunnels dripping with lanterns. Alyssa told us these were prayer lanterns, each one had a prayer written (in Korean- so I guess we had to take her word on it) on a ribbon hanging from it, they were pretty on their own but put them together in a tunnel-like formation and you’ve got something really special. Even before they were lit it was a beautiful thing but once the sun went down and you were swallowed by the warm glow it was a sight to behold.
We walked along the river to the fortress of Jinjuseong (진주성), where hundreds of soldier-shaped lanterns lined the battlements, and entered through the Eastern Gate. Inside we found a world of wonder.
I had no idea there were going to be lanterns within the fortress. I thought the river was our prize but as it appears we would be showered in enchanted warm lights at every twist and turn. That along with the ancient walls of the fortress and the preserved shrines and pagodas within, we were in for a an eye-rubbing, jaw dropping, “wuuuaaah” filled night.
Namgang, 남강 translates into ‘nam’ 남 – south and ‘gang’ 강 river. Not to be confused with Gang-nam of “Gangnam Style” fame which means “South OF the river”. Gangnam is a particularly wealthy neighbourhood in Seoul, which lies south of the river and apparently has style of some sort. The river Namgang becomes peppered with floating lanterns to commemorate the patriotic spirit of the 70,000 militia corps and government troops who died for their country defending Jinju from the Japanese forces during the Imjin War (1592–1598.) Back in those days the lanterns were used to scare off the invaders, I’m not sure what they looked like at that point but I like to imagine the Koreans successfully defending the city with giant floating cartoon characters. The militia are represented by hundreds of glowing guards defending the fortress.
We watched the river as the sky melted around it. We yearned for it but at the same time we were beckoned to enter the Fortress by the towering, irresistible and glowy gate. So enter we did. And within we found of world of guards armed and ready FOR THEIR CLOSEUPS.
Some of the guards were even positioned in full on torture reenactments.
This is a really weird torture scene that we’ve seen on more than one occasion: Bare bum paddling!
And some good old fashioned man chucking.
But these guards aren’t all business. Some of them are really down to earth and just want to get to know you…
Catching up with tourists.
Sharing the wealth.
Lending yankee-doodlesque caps to those in need.
But the fortress was not only filled with macho militia but it was also set aglow by traditional Korean imagery such as cranes, pioneered handicrafts, pine forests and of course a flying squirrel:
We also came across a field bedecked with characters from the Chinese zodiac. Naturally we ran to our respective signs. Alyssa stood valiantly next to the strong, ferocious and fierce snake while Thommy and I stood proudly with the powerful and terrifying bunny rabbit!
There were all sorts of stands offering do it yourself lantern creation. At this particular tent we were able to write a message either to someone or to the universe or to make a wish. You then choose your colour, and choose which metal frame you will glue it onto. When we were finished we stepped back to appreciate the collage. It really came to together and brought the dull metal frame to life. Or maybe that was just the bucket of superglue we’d been squatting over.
As the sky finally settled into night the riverbanks erupted with life. The placement of the lanterns on the water doubled the effect of these beauties as their reflections appeared more transfixing than the lamps themselves. Bridges were set up across the river so you could enjoy the effect of the lanterns from every perspective. They were also great to see some of the floats at a closer view. The only downside was that they were fashioned from interlocking plastic pontoons,which were safe and reliable but the furthest thing from sturdy. We wobbled so far left and right that we thought we might be floating along with the lanterns any minute. With about 200 people on the bridge at one time we decided after crossing at two separate junctions and nearly re-experiencing our earlier bibimbaps, that we would walk the long way around after that.
The bank of the river offered more do it yourself posts which allowed you this time to create your own lantern. Had we had more time we would have opted for this but the average lantern took 1-2 hours to construct. Instead we entered the gallery of handmade lanterns and did what we do best…gawked.
The tunnel led into the prayer tunnel which spanned for at least 1km.
It’s so funny that the festival is an amalgamation of respectful commemoration, traditional customs, intimidating torture, revered worship and goofy cartoon characters. A section of the river was dedicated to Disney characters, superheroes, and even the cast and crew of the Teletubbies.
But in that ridiculous mix of things we also found a traditional dragon with a dragon’s ball. We were told that it’s the sun in its mouth and that in ancient times the closing of the dragon’s mouth was how they explained solar eclipses (Alyssa explains it all.) This Jinju Dragon came equipped with moving arms, a turning head and full on fire breath!
I was really surprised by the scale of the festival, I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t something of that size; it took us all night to get around it and there was so much to do. We watched a traditional Korean entertainment show with music and clowns and diablo masters, there was a huge food tent set up for the hungry, which of course, included us (and two merry Ajoshi’s at the next table who kept offering us soju… we had to becareful or we’d be up all night with them…) and a whole nic nac market which seemed to stretch on forever around the river bend!
All in all I say hats off to Jinju, they really know how to host a good festival and they certainly have a great spot for it too, I’d love to go explore more of the city if I ever get the chance.
Our very last “make your own glowy thing” stop was at the booth for flowing lanterns. We wrote some sappy love notes blew some sappy kisses and waved adios to our buoys.
The weekend trip to Jinju was and is still by far one of the best things we have done in Korea and is up there for one of my favorite night’s ever.