News: South Korea Sojourns VI: Lotus Lantern Festival
Story by Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro
Author's note: This is the sixth in a series of articles about recreational travel opportunities for service members stationed in South Korea. Each article will highlight a specific South Korean destination, attraction or event within the authorized traveling distance for U.S. forces in country. The aim of this series is to encourage everyone to safely and enthusiastically explore their surroundings, develop an appreciation for the history, culture and customs of their host nation, as well as showcase the diverse activities available to service members, and their families, near and far, while stationed in the Republic of Korea. Concluding each article will be an approximation of how much money and time are required for each destination, attraction or event, as well as directions and amount of physical activity required. Many opportunities to travel in groups are available through the base's Information, Tickets and Travel office as well as Outdoor Recreation.
SEOUL, South Korea - On one night every year Jongo street in Seoul is shut down from Dongdaemun Gate to Jogyesa Temple. Roadblocks are set up all around the busy downtown avenue, denying access to the cars, trucks and motorists typically weaving their way in and out of traffic. Not even those reckless delivery scooters can get by the guards on this night because it's the Lotus Lantern Parade, where giant floats, performers, thousands of lanterns and Buddhist Monks banging drums take the place of horn honking or motor revving.
The Lotus Lantern Festival is an annual event in Seoul, done to honor the birth of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, whose teachings in India thousands of years ago led to him becoming a legend. The festival entails several days of events, including cultural exhibitions and food samplings, but the signature attraction is the parade, which features more than two hours worth of large floats and lanterns.
This was an event I didn't want to miss, and luck for me, my location at Osan Air Base made getting to the parade exceptionally easy. The Metro line 1 runs direct from Songtan Station to Dongdaemun, where the parade starts. The trip takes approximately 90 minutes and costs W2,000.
For the hungry traveler, there are many restaurants on or shortly away from Jongo street. Other than that, there isn't much effort required to witness the parade, which started at 7 p.m. and finished a little after 9. Anyone interested in watching just needs to find the location and a seat.
There were numerous floats in the parade, which attracts many tourists and foreigners. As part of the festivities, there are opportunities for people to make their own lanterns and learn the history behind it.
Lantern lighting stems from a religious ritual, and is considered a way to give respect to the Buddha as well as pray for the deceased. In Korea, the ritual can be traced back as far as the Goryeo dynasty in 918 A.D.
This year, parade participants and spectators lit lanterns specifically for those lost in the ferry boat Sewol, which sunk off the coast of Gwanmaedo Island on April 15.
The festivities were somewhat subdued because of the mourning, but the parade went through anyway and people assembled outside the Jogyesa temple to celebrate and remember those lost after the parade.
The parade continues through about 9:30 p.m., with festivities afterward. For those worried about getting in before curfew, give yourself enough time to get back to base, which is fairly easy, taking Line 1 directly to Songtan Station, but might involve a transfer or two and waiting for trains. The return trip shouldn't take any more than two hours.
All told, the parade is an easy can't miss celebration because of its accessibility, plethora off cultural attractions and free cost.
Location/event: Seoul Lotus Lantern Parade
Directions: Accessible easily via metro. Songtan Station runs direct to Dongdaemun.
Total cost: W4,000 for transportation. Food, if you buy any, varies.
Time: 7 - 9:30 p.m.
Documentation required: None
Who it's for: Adults and children alike. Kids will love the floats and brightly lit lanterns, and there are a lot of pre and post parade activities for the old and young.
Activity required: Barely any at all. You can sit down directly by the street.
What to travel with: Any food or snacks you want if you don't want to go to a restaurant in Seoul, although there are plenty available. Weather in April can be chilly at night, so consider a sweater. Definitely bring some kind of camera, and always make sure to take your SOFA and ID card as well as a functioning cellular phone. As always, when traveling, groups are preferable, so if you're still around Korea next April take some friends or family cause you won't want to miss it.