At the start of May every year, the centre of Seoul lights up with beautiful paper lanterns. Yeondeunghoe 연등회, the Lotus Lantern Festival, showcases a huge range of traditional Korean paper lotus lanterns though a variety of events spread out across several days. Happily, I managed to catch a couple of them this past weekend!
Yeondeunghoe is actually part of the celebrations for Buddha’s birthday, which is officially the 3rd of May here in Korea. It originated over 1200 years ago during the Silla period and is a tradition that has been upheld until today. The official tourism website for Korea says that by lighting lanterns at the festival “people can brighten their hearts and the world.”
The events on offer include a Buddhist cheer rally, cultural performances and traditional activities. Sadly, (down to poor planning on my part) I didn’t get to experience everything, but I did catch the famous lantern parade and the exhibition on the Cheonggyecheon!
I actually just happened across the lantern parade by chance. Some friends and I were walking down from Anguk station to the Cheonggyecheon when we had to cross Jong-ro, coincidentally where the parade was passing. We could see it down the road but it was still a little while away, so we went to get some food and then returned when it was in full swing.
Luckily, we saw the part of the parade comprising the Jogyesa temple community. The Jogyesa temple is the headquarters of the Jogye division of Buddhism in Korea, and where all the main celebrations for Buddha’s birthday are taking place. It was a sight to behold! Hundreds and hundreds of handmade lanterns in all shapes and colours were carried by people young and old, and huge lanterns in the shapes of Buddha, animals, the sun and more were pushed along by volunteers.
Some of my favourite lanterns included these hangeul 한글 (the Korean alphabet) lanterns, which came in a wave of colours – first yellow, then to orange, red, pink, and all the way through the rainbow to green.
We didn’t stay until the end of the parade, only waited until the Jogyesa section had finished and headed over to the Cheonggyecheon stream 청계천 to see the exhibiton of the lanterns on the water. Being a Saturday night and the main day of the festival, it was of course very busy, however this didn’t detract from the experience!
The atmosphere of the place was great. Families, couples and groups of friends were all out together to see the lanterns. Many walked the banks of the stream to take everything in. Others preferred to sit on the steps down to the water and share food or drinks. There were strings of lanterns overhead, and when you reach a certain part you could see the large lanterns displayed on platforms above the water.
My favourites here were the fish, and the birds under the wave (at least I think that’s what it was?). I also liked the woman, who I’m sure has a deeper meaning but there were no plaques to explain the pieces so I can’t be certain.
The festival runs every April/May, and there is a lot to do! The celebrations end on Buddha’s birthday, and are fun for everyone to enjoy. You can read more about the festival and the events on offer on the official Korea tourism website.