After not having updated my blog in 4 and a half months, I am just bored enough to sit down and write about an amazing experience I had over the past weekend.
On April 22nd, AKA Earth Day, I traveled to Daegu to see the yearly lantern festival. This festival takes place in honor of Buddha’s birthday, which is on May 3rd. Buddha’s birthday is a national holiday in Korea and many cities adorn their parks and trees with paper lanterns as decoration. Buddhist temples usually have these colorful lanterns up all year long.
From Ulsan to Daegu takes just about 2 hours by bus. When we got to Daegu, unsurprisingly, we were stuck in traffic for a solid 15 minutes. The Lantern Festival is quite possibly Daegu’s largest festival and the flocks of people swarming over Duryu park reflected this. The festival takes place at Duryu baseball park stadium which is located inside the Duryu Park.
We took the 10:10 bus out of Ulsan and arrived at the station at about 12:30 or so. Every year, the tickets go on sale for the lanterns well-ahead of the festival (I’m not sure what date because by the time we looked up information about 2 weeks before the festival, the lanterns were sold out). When you buy a lantern, you also get a ticket to the zones in the stadium that are reserved for people to release their lanterns safely – the ground level. On the day of the festival, they also have 6,000 tickets available for free. They became available starting at 1pm. So since we arrived a bit early, we were able to obtain some free tickets.
It was a tad alarming, though, to get to the park and see a massive line had already formed. Luckily, we got tickets and the line moved very fast considering it’s size. The staff also had people form a second line the zone across the stadium. Our tickets were for the yellow zone and they also had the blue zone open for free tickets. If you want pictures with the E-World 83 Tower and the lanterns together, make sure you get tickets to the yellow zone. The blue zone faces away from the tower.
We were out of line at about 1:30. So if you aim to get to the park right when the free tickets become available, you should be able to get them without much trouble.
After we got tickets, we had lots of time to kill until we had to be back at the park at 5pm which is the time the festival wanted people to be in the stadium by. We got a super late lunch and some coffee and took a bit of a rest. I would recommend NOT getting a soup. I will explain why in a little bit. The neighborhood that the park is in has a subway station (Duryu station) that has some shopping if you want to escape the heat and the crowds from the festival.
We made it back to the stadium at about 4:45 or so. And I WISH we had gotten there earlier. The stadium “seating” didn’t have actual seats. Just amphitheater style benches with grass walkways. Many people spread blankets out over the walkways and sat against the bench behind them taking up two spots. This was the most annoying thing about the festival – there’s no way no way out. If you’re claustrophobic, like me, I highly highly recommend getting to the stadium super early and scoping out a spot near the top of the seats. Also near the sides of the zones since there’s no real way to the top once people start sitting in the stairways. Once the entire stadium was full, it was extremely uncomfortable trying to navigate the way through the throngs of people piled on top of each other. I stepped on many blankets, let me tell you.
The reason this was such a big deal to me was that we went into this event completely unprepared. We imagined a real, American-style, baseball park where there’d be food stalls inside and we’d get our own seats and there would be bathrooms within easy access. Well, our imaginations were completely wrong. All the bathrooms were outside the stadium, meaning a few trips through the crowded seating. We set up shop at the very bottom of the seating near the railing because we could not find a good spot in the benches for the 3 of us. Our seats turned out to be really great for when the lanterns started because we were in the front row, but if I go back next year, I’m definitely going to try to sit closer to the exit if my plans of trying for a lantern fall through. The reason I would not recommend soup is because of how much liquid you’re putting in your body – not good for the bathroom thing. Also a note on the bathrooms, the two closest ones to the stadium had mostly squatty pottys and extremely long lines. There’s a third one that directly west of the stadium that didn’t have a line. ALSO, ladies, bring your own toilet tissue!
Another thing we didn’t prepare for was getting snacks. There was a food stand outside the stadium that sells common Korean street food, like fried squid, ddeokbokki, and fish cakes as well as chips, crackers, beer, and soda. The line for this was about 20 minutes long when we were there, but I’m glad we got some food to enjoy while we waited. And waited. And waited. During this waiting time, I kept feeling torn between wanting to get up and walk around and just stay sitting since getting out was such a massive hassle.
So, all in all, make sure to come prepared. I would recommend bring a blanket, lots of snacks, lots of drinks, and something to do while you wait. We had fun just chatting, but more than once I thought how nice it would have been to play cards like the group next to us were doing.
Now, we got to the stadium at about 4:50 and when did the lanterns actually start flying to the sky? Not until 7:30. They did have a lot of Korean speakers saying things and doing things, but since none of us speak Korean, we were totally lost as to what was happening. There was a choir standing next to our zone and we were pretty close to them, so we could see them dancing. They started their performance at about 5:30 or so. The stage was extremely difficult to see from our vantage point, so we couldn’t really tell what was happening. Honestly, we were just there for the lanterns.
And they were mind-blowing.
Okay, so you know that scene in Tangled where they see the lanterns from the water and they float up and away in this nice stream? That’s similar, but not quite what it’s like when you’re almost directly under the lanterns. It was not windy, so the lanterns seemed to go where they pleased. Including into many of the surrounding trees. Which was incredibly freaky for the whole crowd – the collective gasps and shrieks told me as much. Especially when the first lantern headed straight toward the tree. After the first few, though, the crowd calmed down a bit and got used to it.
But I really can’t describe how it made me feel watching all the beautiful lanterns ascend into the sky. It truly was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. Like most things in Korea, however, I did feel a sense of disconnect to what this event should mean. There was Buddhist chanting while the lanterns were released and it seemed like I should experience a spiritual feeling and reverence. I did experience reverence, but not in a spiritually fulfilling way. It’s odd being a foreigner wanting to experience cultural festivals, but not actually feeling connected to the culture in the way I imagined. It’s hard to describe in writing what I mean, but many of the “spiritual” experiences I have done in Korea (i.e. going to temples) have felt staged and touristy.
Even though we were unprepared and waiting for the lanterns was slightly brutal, it was all very much worth it for the beauty and spectacle of the glowing lanterns against the navy blue sky.
The lanterns finished at about 8pm and then the fireworks started! That was a very nice surprise and the kids next to us were super adorable watching them go off.
So, next year. Go to Daegu around Buddha’s birthday and see one of the most beautiful sights you can see in Korea!