On even a short trip around the country you’re more than likely to stumble across a special event of some sort. Many are religious in nature, with Buddhist celebrations supplemented by Confucian and even animist events. Most festivals are concentrated around spring and autumn, but there are many spread throughout the year. If you’re heading to one, don’t be shy – the locals love to see foreigners joining in with traditional Korean events, and those who dare to get stuck in may finish the day with a whole troupe of new friends.
Though there are some crackers on the calendar, it must be said that a fair number of Korean festivals are brazenly commercial, making no bones about being held to “promote the salted seafood industry”, for example. Other festivals can be rather odd, including those dedicated to agricultural utensils, clean peppers and the “Joy of Rolled Laver” – you’ll easily be able to spot the duds. The most interesting events are highlighted below, though bear in mind that celebrations for two of the big national festivals – Seollal, the Lunar New Year, and a Korean version of Thanksgiving named Chuseok – are family affairs that generally take place behind closed doors.
Cherry blossom festivals Usually early April. Heralding the arrival of spring, soft blossom wafts through the air across the country, a cue for all good Koreans to lay down blankets at parks or riverbanks, barbeque some meat and throw back the soju.
Jeonju International Film Festival w. Last week of April. Smaller and more underground than the biggie in Busan, JIFF focuses on the arty, independent side of the movie industry.
Buddha’s Birthday Late May. A public holiday during which temples across the land are adorned with colourful paper lanterns; there’s an even more vibrant night parade in Seoul.
International Mime Festival w. May. Held in the Gangwonese capital of Chuncheon, this foreigner-friendly event is a showcase of soundless talent.
Dano Usually June. A shamanist festival held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, featuring circus acts, ssireum wrestling, mask dramas and a whole lot more. The city of Gangneung is host to the biggest displays.
Boryeong Mud Festival w. Late July. This annual expat favourite pulls mud-happy hordes to Daecheon Beach for all kinds of muck-related fun.
International Puppet Festival Aug. Puppets and their masters come from around the world to flaunt their skills in Chuncheon, a city in Gangwon province.
Firefly Festival Aug. Glow worms are the tiny stars of the show at this modest night-time event, which takes place over a weekend near Muju. One unexpected treat is the chance to don a firefly costume.
Gwangju Biennale w. Sept–Nov. A wide-ranging, two-month-long festival of contemporary art, the biennale usually takes place on alternate autumns, though it has also been held in spring.
Andong Mask Dance Festival w. Late Sept or early Oct. Legend has it that if a person fails to attend a mask festival in their lifetime, they cannot get into heaven, so if you’re in Korea in the autumn you might as well have a crack at salvation by participating in one of the country’s most popular events – a week of anonymous dancing, performed by the best troupes in the land.
Busan International Film Festival w. Usually Oct. One of Asia’s biggest such events, BIFF draws in big-shots and hangers-on for a week of cinematic fun (see Busan festivals).
Baekje Festival w. Early Oct. This annual event commemorating the Baekje dynasty is held each year in the old Baekje capitals of Gongju and Buyeo.
World Martial Arts Festival Usually Oct. A week-long series of international fisticuff action, held each year in Chungju.
Gimchi Festival Late Oct. In Gwangju. You’ll be able to see, smell and taste dozens of varieties of the spicy stuff, and there’s even a gimchi-making contest for foreigners keen to show off.
Pepero Day Nov 11. A crass marketing ploy, but amusing nonetheless – like Pocky, their Japanese cousins, Pepero are thin sticks of chocolate-coated biscuit, and on the date when it looks as if four of them are standing together, millions of Koreans say “I love you” by giving a box to their sweethearts, friends, parents or pets.