I LOVE lights and lanterns. It’s part of the reason Christmas time is my favorite holiday. There is just something magical and romantic about seeing the town draped in twinkling lights and frosted over. So a few days ago, when I found out about this small lantern festival, I had to go and make plans to see it. Luckily one of my new friends lives up in the area and agreed to meet up and explore the festival with me, offering her place to stay the night at.
The 4th Annual Lantern festival will display a dazzling array of some 35,000 lanterns along a 1.5km stretch of the Cheonggyecheon between Cheonggye Plaza near Mojeongyo Bridge and Seungyo Bridge. The lanterns will be lit everyday from 5pm to 11pm (weather permitting) from November 2 – November 18. Under the theme of “Seoul’s Roots, the Lifestyle of Our Ancestors”, Seoul City will display the lanterns according to four major themes: Hanyangdoseong Fortress, The Story of Our Ancestors Over 600 Years, The Daily Life of Our Ancestors, and Open Seoul. During the festival, various exciting events will be held in every corner of the Cheonggyecheon under the theme of “hopes, wishes, and promises.” A fun event in which lanterns will be stacked up to complete a “lantern fortress” representing Hanyangdoseong Fortress as long as 50m will be held between Gwanggyo Gallery and Jangtonggyo Bridge, and visitors can write messages wishing for the registration of Hanyangdoseong Fortress as a UNESCO World Heritage. In addition, the “Traditional Korean Lantern Making Experience” will offer visitors an opportunity to make their own lanterns and paint them in their favorite colors, and a number of other events, including the “Hanging New Year’s Wish Messages” and “Floating Hope Lanterns” events will be held at the Gwanggyo Gallery.
Finding the Cheonggyecheon wasn’t too hard, especially with all the lights and crowds moving that direction.
At the entrance to the Cheonggyecheon lies the lantern named “Hanyangdoseong Fortress” and has been selected as this year’s theme lantern to represent the city’s wishes for the registration of Hanyang as apart of UNESCO World Heritage. It’s located atop the waterfall fountain in Cheonggye Plaza. The Hanyangdoseong Fortress, Naesasan Mountain, four gates, Sasomun Gate, and Odaegung Palace, which have been reproduced in miniature, is the focal point of the festival. The amount of detail on this thing was impressive. Hand painted bricks along the wall, the floral elements along the palace eaves, even the little sculptures atop the palace roofs. The lantern itself stretched across the whole width of
the Cheonggyecheon, lighting up the waterfall with a golden glow as it passed beneath the lantern.
As you move down into the walkway along the stream it gets a bit more cozy with everyone crowding in for a chance to see the festival lanterns. The lanterns are constructed and placed together to create themes. The first area continues with the theme of the Seoul City Wall, then transitions into the Story of Ancestors. Here they pay tribute to great inventions that helped to better the people. A water clock, created by Jang Yeong-sil, Yi Cheon, Kim Jo, and others after receiving instructions from King Sejong the Great in 1434 (the 16th year of King Sejong the Great’s reign). The hours, minutes, and seconds were automatically marked with the sounds of a bell, drum, and gong, using the buoyancy of fallen water. An open book depicting the Korean alphabet system created by
King Sejong the Great, known as Hangul. King Sejong the Great created Hunminjeongeum for people to easily learn and write letters. Honcheonui is an astronomical clock that measured the movements and locations of the sun, the moon, and the stars. It was jointly created by Jeong In-ji, Yi Cheon, and Jang Yeong-sil after receiving instructions from King Sejong the Great in 1433.
You then pass into the Daily Life of the People. There are generals, and court ladies holding out paper lanters to light the path for their queen. followed by a large float full of musicians playing for the royal court. This music was played during commemorative rites at Jongmyo, the shrine housing the ancestral tablets of the kings and queens of Joseon. It has been designated as South Korea’s No. 1 Important Intangible Cultural Heritage asset and registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Further along you pas a royal inspector, and a drummer. The sinmungo was a drum that the people of Joseon would play whenever they suffered an injustice that they wished the king to address. It carried the symbolic meaning of the monarch listening to and sharing the troubles of the people. The people then begin depicting more mundane acts. Village school teachers, scholars, secret dates under the moonlight, a traditional wedding, people playing Ssireum and Neolttwigi (some of Korea’s most popular folk games), spinners and weavers, peddlers and merchants, and agricultural workers of all sorts.
As you pass under one of the bridges in the area you pass several circular lanterns mounted and depicting illustrations of goblins, another common sight and story in Korean culture. Here the goblin is seen as something fearsome, yet simple-minded and familiar. This imaginary creature sometimes did harm to people and other times brought them riches. Their images are sometimes displayed at palaces and temples to ward off evil spirits.
Beneath Seun Bridge you find people gathered to make floating lanterns of hope, making tile-able blocks to build up a fortress wall of Seoul lantern, and creating traditional hanging lanterns. They also had vendors selling lights and botanical themed home lights. But sadly, no food vendors. For 3,000 I got my lantern making supplies and sat down to create my floating wish lantern. It was super easy to construct, they had the paper already scored for folds and people walking by to show you how to put it together once you finished writing on the petals. They had the next stretch of the river set up for launching your lanterns.
This lantern is used for the Tachi Nebuta Festival that is held in Goshogawara City, Aomori, Japan every August. A large one measures approximately 23 meters in height and 19 tons in weight. This lantern reflects an anecdote that says that Xiang Yu, a prominent military leader during the late Qin Dynasty, threw a horse towards the enemy lines, thus leading his army to victory. It’s a pretty hard core lantern with lots of movement. I liked the strong black outlines. Japan also contributed mural lanterns that were very beautiful. There were 2 set up, with a different image on each side.
Unfortunately this is the point when my camera died. I was very sad. Up ahead was the forth themed area of the festival, the Open Seoul where artists from Japan, Singapore, and the Phillipines were invited to showcase their lantern making prowess. Not sure who did it, but I was impressed with the exhibit of children from around the world. They depicted probably 40 different cultures. Then there were hundreds of fish lanterns swimming along a wire above your heads with 3 large koi lanterns in the center. And a very impressive Dragon and Phoenix. The last themed area I didn’t much care for. I think it was intended for families with children, they had superheroes and tv characters in lantern form.
All in all a very enjoyable walk. Be sure to dress warm and maybe buy a hot drink to sip along the way. The festival ends this coming weekend though, on the 18th. So if you are in the area, be sure you check it out.
To Get There:
Take the subway to Jonggak Station on line 1 and exit #5. Walk strait out the entrance to the Cheonggyecheon.
Take the subway to Gwanghwamun Station on line 5 and exit #5. Cheonggyecheon is just around the corner.
This is part 2 of my day in Seoul. To read about my earlier visit to Bukchon Hanok Village click here.