Dispatch, Korea: Fair is fair


Destinations editor Eric Moya is traveling throughout South Korea to experience some of the country's fall festivals.

No one was bobbing for apples, I didn't see a funnel cake stand anywhere and 38 Special wasn't playing "Hold on Loosely" at a pavilion. Otherwise, you'd be surprised at how much fall festivals in South Korea can resemble your state or county fair.

At the invitation of the Korea Tourism Organization, I'm on a weeklong press trip focused primarily on experiencing some of the country's fall celebrations. It's meant a lot of time on the bus, a 15-passenger affair with a drop-down TV, a thunderous audio system and a "Gangnam Style" window decal. It's been fun navigating the country's highways, passing through countless tunnels that help connect cities amid this mountainous terrain.

Our first festival was in an area that's uncharacteristically flat; in fact, it's said to be the only place in the Maine-sized country where one can see the horizon. Like many fall festivals, the Gimje Horizon Festival has its roots in agriculture, in this fertile region where for centuries farmers have cultivated rice and other crops and raised livestock.

The ride would probably evoke deja vu for those who've gone to fairs in the U.S.: a two-lane country road clogged with traffic as couples, families and other attendees are waved into dusty parking lots across from the fairgrounds.

Actually, the dust had settled somewhat by the time we pulled in. It was rainy, and according to our guide, unseasonably so. Still, attendance seemed little affected, and the crowds found ways to amuse themselves despite the gloomy weather.

One seemingly universal coping mechanism for bad weather: drinking. The line to sample makgeolli rice wines from around the country grew long, but attendees made swift work of their samples and kept things moving.

There was a globally themed vendor area with food stalls said to represent various cuisines but in reality mostly offering slight variations on meat on a stick (no complaints here). Vendors from Turkey did well with their kebab/shawarma stand. A trio from Ecuador sat glumly as the crowds seemed mostly uninterested in their pan flute CDs and other wares.

The next day we made our way to the more metropolitan Jinju, about a five-hour ride from Gimje. The Jinju Namgang Yudeung lantern festival is held in honor of the 1592 Battle of Jinju, in which 3,800 Korean soldiers held off an attack by a 20,000-strong Japanese army at Fort Jinjuseong.

In daylight the centerpiece display, with its cartoonish soldiers in often gruesome poses, was fun but a little underwhelming. The overall effect was much more impressive once illuminated at night, as it was intended to be seen.

In addition to the fortress displays, illuminated works inspired by pop culture and folk tales from around the world were anchored in the placid waters of the Namgang River.

Arguably owing to its big-city location, this fest had a few more of the trappings of contemporary life, such as ubiquitous free WiFi and a wider array of food offerings (no funnel cake, but I ate a perfectly good churro).

For our final festival stop, the next day we headed to Andong, about three hours outside of Seoul and home to the Hahoe Folk Village, a Unesco World Heritage site. We attended on the fourth day of the 10-day Andong Mask Dance Festival as the country was celebrating its National Foundation Day holiday, which no doubt contributed to the grandiosity of the occasion.

Still, in terms of scale and scope it likely would have impressed regardless. I could have spent hours among the vendors circling the event grounds, who were offering inexpensive clothing and electronics and treats both domestic and foreign (from Turkey, China, Vietnam and, representing the U.S., a stand selling corndogs).

I caught a shaman ceremony under a tent labeled on the festival map "Exorcism Ground" but, upon further research, the ritual seemed to be more simply an appeal to higher powers for good fortune and such. To a rhythmic, droning soundtrack punctuated by hand-cymbal crashes, the female priest spun whirling-dervish-like, making offerings in the form of fruits and two festively attired whole (and dead) pigs. Speaking of offerings, these blessings seemed to come at 10,000 won (about $10) a pop, judging from the bills tucked under the priest's headband.

Kid-friendly features abounded at the festival: mask painting, in the spirit of the festival; rides; and photo ops with Shrek, Spider-Man and more.

The highlight of our day was the festival's titular performance, with troupes representing member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A pamphlet in Korean and English helped place the performances in context, but the mostly wordless, high-energy acts were easy enough to follow without benefit of language.

It wasn't the type of nostalgia act you might find at your state fair, but something about it brought home the parallels to me: family-friendly entertainment, indulgent eats, a chance to enjoy the cooler weather (and fortunately much drier in Andong than earlier in the week). Don't you just love fall? I do, and apparently, so does Korea.

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