South Korea’s lotus lantern festival is an experience for the senses
One of the best times to visit a country is when it has a huge cultural event. In South Korea, the largest is the lotus lantern festival, which falls on 29 April this year. Known as Yeondeung Hoe, the festival dates back more than 1,300 years and coincides with the period of Buddha’s birthday.
Celebrations are held all around Korea, with the biggest in Seoul. It is a truly international parade with Buddhists from Thailand, Sri Lanka and many other countries participating. The parade features giant floats in the shapes of dragons, peacocks and thousands of lanterns that light up the procession as far as the eye can see, with participants dancing as they move through the route.
Those wanting to immerse themselves in the pre-parade spirit should make their way to the Dongguk University stadium at 4.30 pm for Eoullim Madang, or the Buddhist cheering rally. This is a chance to see many of the parade’s participants getting ready for the big event. The rally has some great performances to entertain the crowd, but don’t forget to leave in time to make it for the parade.
As dusk sets in on the capital at around 7 pm, the parade begins from Dongdaemun and proceeds to the Jongak intersection. Getting to the route several hours before the parade is the best way to have a good view. The crowd is massive, especially at Jongak, where the parade ends at 9.30 pm.
Jongak is the place to be as the festivities continue into the night with performances on a big stage. Alternatively, you can walk to Jogyesa Temple to see the many lanterns hanging there.
The lotus lantern is a special symbol for Buddhists. In addition to the parade, temples across the country hang many lanterns made of paper on their grounds, representing the removal of ignorance and the light of awakening.
In the temples, you’ll see devotees adding tails to the lanterns with wishes for friends and family in the coming year. Anyone can do this, so feel free to add your own. Be sure to visit Bongeunsa Temple close to the COEX mall in the days leading up to Buddha’s birthday to see a lantern exhibition.
To learn more about Buddhist culture, return the day after the parade to see performances centred on the area around Jogyesa Temple. There is even another lantern procession called Yeongdeung Nori that begins and ends at Jogyesa that evening.
A few days after the festival is Buddha’s birthday on 3 May this year, also celebrated as Vesak across Asia. A visit to any temple in South Korea will allow you to experience this day, but keep a respectful distance from the monks. In Seoul, the largest congregation is at Jogyesa.
Throughout the day, you will see many people bathing a statue of the infant Buddha. A symbolic act entrenched in beliefs about the circumstances of the Buddha’s birth, it represents washing away the sins and afflictions of the past, and thus a purification of the soul.
During this time, temples will provide free lunch and dinner, typically consisting of bibimbap (a mixed rice dish) and soup. One of the best times to arrive at the temple is late in the afternoon to enjoy the food, followed by seeing the lanterns lit, and finally, a ceremony conducted by the monks.
If you miss out on tasting food at the temples, there are many options available at street vendors, but one restaurant is especially worth visiting. Sanchon offers temple food in an atmospheric setting, with dinner accompanied by a cultural show at 8 pm. Located in idyllic Insa-dong in Jongno District, it’s suitable for vegans, serving a five-course meal with wild herbs and vegetables that vary in accordance to the season.
Kim Yun-sik, who founded the restaurant, knows his way around the food, having formerly lived the life of a Buddhist monk. He has successfully turned the modest food into cuisine that’s worth trying during your time in Seoul.