Great Expectations – Korean Culture Scene
As the months are ticking away and we’ve found ourselves with only 4 more to go, we decided to try and explore more of what Korea has to offer. So in the past 3 weeks we have gone to the Andong MaskDance Festival, I went to the Jinju Lantern Festival, and we went to see a German rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream ballet. There were some busts – like the lack of actual masks, or maskdances at the MaskDance Festival, and sleeping in a crowded jimjilbang for the first time. But the bright lights of Jinju and a night of amazing, inexpensive theater reminded me Korea has much to offer if you dig a little deeper.
We’ve found that in Korea it’s all about the hype. There seems to be an endless amount of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all the festivals are promoted as huge, top-notch spectacles and many other events or experiences are sold as something new and exciting you’ve never experienced before. Well here’s the breakdown of what we experienced.
Andong MaskDance Festival: This was a festival we had greatly looked forward to as one of the biggest annual festivals in Korea. We hoped to do some shopping for traditional Andong mask souvenirs, which we assumed, of course must be sold or on display at a MASK festival, right? NO. When we got to the grounds, there was certainly a lot going on, but it was a struggle to find what we thought would be the highlight of the show – masks. Let’s just say there were no masks on display and few for sale, and the performances were a mix of Tae Kwon Do, traditional Korean, and bizarre. Like a strange “Thailand” themed show, and an ajosshi ballet. The highlight of the day was eating Andong chicken, even if they don’t know how to breakdown a chicken properly and it’s full of bones.
Jinju Lantern Festival: When we first arrived in Jinju, we struggled a little to figure everything out. We hadn’t booked a place to stay, so first thing we did was hunt for a bed. All the motels were booked so we finally found a jimjilbang and got a space there. With that taken care of we quickly ate and then went off to find some lanterns. Initially walking along the river there were no lanterns to be seen, but another festival – the Korean Drama Festival – had displays everywhere. After questioning a disappointed Drama Festival worker, he pointed us in the direction of lanterns.
The lanterns along the river presented the quintessential Asian experience I had imagined before coming out to Korea. A hundred or so massive lanterns, from dragons and tigers to warriors and instruments sparkled along the river. We walked through glowing lantern tunnels amongst throngs of people and families marveling at the sight. There was even a fire breathing peacock lantern waving it’s tail. Very exciting stuff.
After we’d had enough we took our tired feet back to the jimjilbang and hoped to pass out for a good night’s rest. For anyone interested in spending the night in one, there are some questions you should ask yourself: 1. Do you mind sleeping in a crowded co-ed room? 2. Does the light, snoring, or other sounds disturb you? 3. Do you mind drunken men plopping down an inch away from you, continually hitting you in their sleep, and then interpreting yells of anger as an invitation to cuddle? If any of these sound discomforting to you, it may be best to find rest elsewhere. Needless to say, after a sleepless night we stumbled to the bus station at 7:30 or so in the morning.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: There is an opera festival taking place in Daegu, so we decided to take advantage and check out one of the shows. As this was the only one I had even a limited knowledge of, that’s the one I picked. For $10 we had seats in the first row of the balcony in a small theater. We really had no idea what to expect, so when it turned out to be neither an opera, nor have any speaking whatsoever we were a little surprised. The entire production was a ballet performed by a German company and ended up being a very nice experience.
In the end, I’m sure any country would have it’s hits and misses with cultural performances and festivals, but you gotta give it to Korea, they really do try.