What is Saturdays in Korea?

Tired of doing the same old thing every weekend? Saturdays in Korea is activity club for those who want to break their normal weekend routine and do something different. For Koreans, it's a good chance to practice English. For ex-pats, it's a good chance to practice Korean. For everybody, it's a great chance to meet new people and have fun.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Lotus Lantern Festival (연등축제)

Once a year comes the Lotus Lantern Festival (연등축제) which celebrates the Buddhist Holiday of Buddha’s Birthday. This year, one week before the actual holiday, the streets of Seoul were closed off for the parade and celebrations.

A (Very) Brief History of Korean Buddhism

Buddhism was founded between 6th and 4th Century BCE in the Indian subcontinent. Overtime, Buddhism spread throughout Asia and reached the Korean Peninsula after passing through China.

Buddhism was first introduced to Korea during the Three Kingdoms of Korea and later became the state religion during the Goryeo Dynasty. During this time, Buddhism became a prominent force in Korean society and gained much affluence and power.

After the fall of the Goryeo Dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty followed. Buddhism was suppressed – but not exterminated – in order to combat its influence that competed with King’s authority. Because of this, Buddhism and its temples moved out of the city and into mountains. Even today, most Buddhist temples are located in the mountains around the urban areas. The sizable Jogyesa Temple (조계사) is an exception to this rule, being one of the few temples located in downtown Seoul.

Meeting Location

The Jogyesa Temple, which is the central location for the Lotus Lantern Festival, is located in the heart of downtown Seoul. The best subway station to meet at would be Jonggak Station (종각역) since it is not only the closet subway station to the Jogyesa Temple, but it is along the main parade route.

View The Jogyesa Temple Lostus Lantern Festival Meeting Location in a larger map

When coming to Jonggak Station, it will be probably better to travel through the downtown Seoul area by subway, especially the closer you get to the start of the parade. Many roads will start to get congested as the participants in the parade get ready. Right before the parade starts, major roads will be closed leading to heavy traffic. Also, buses that normally run in this area will be detoured to other parts of the city. If you are taking a bus into Seoul, you might want to think about getting off before the downtown region and take the subway the rest of the way in.

Since the parade starts at 7pm, you might consider meeting an hour or two earlier for dinner. There are a few restaurants near the exit but there are plenty more in the surrounding areas, especially east and south of Jonggak Station.

Jogyesa Temple & The Parade

This year was the first Lotus Lantern Festival that I participated during my time here in Korea. Some of my Korean friends were shocked to see how large this festival has become compared to the ones they have seen in the years before. With the increase of popularity of this festival, timing becomes an important issue. Some of my friends talked about how extremely crowded the Jogyesa Temple grounds became after the end of the parade. Luckily, with some foresight and a bit of luck, we were able to have an enjoyable evening without having to fight the crowds.


At about this time, hopefully you are finished with dinner and heading towards the Jogyesa Temple. Along the way, you will find quite a few stores near the entrance of the temple grounds selling various Buddhism related items. For this holiday, these stores were caring different types of Lotus Lanterns of all shapes and sizes. I was able to pick up a medium sized plastic lotus flower shaped lantern for about 10,000 Won that came with an LED light and battery. By the end of the night, most of my friends had been given a more angular paper lantern that came with a real candle for free. I did see a few paper lanterns that had been singed or burnt near the end of the evening.

At 7:00pm, the sun will not have gone down yet, so you can get a good look at the temple grounds in the daylight. It will be quite a bit of shock when you first see the thousands upon thousands of lotus lanterns hanging all around. In addition to the lanterns, you will be able to see different statutes, paintings, pagodas and other pieces of Buddhist art. Inside the main temple, you can take a picture of the large Buddhist statues, but be careful since there will be people there who will be bowing and praying.

From The Lotus Latern Festival


Around 7:00pm at Dongdaemun (동대문), the Lotus Lantern Festival Parade will have started. Since Jonggak Station and Jogyesa Temple are at the very end of parade route, you don’t need to be waiting on the side of the streets when the parade starts. 7:30pm would be a good time to leave the temple grounds and start heading south on the road outside of the temple towards Jonggak Station. At this time the roads should be blocked off so you can enjoy a nice stroll down the middle of a street that is usually full of cars. Sooner or later you will come across the parade. At that time, you can simply stand off to the side and enjoy the parade as it passes by.

View The Lotus Lantern Festival Parade in a larger map

Around this time, the sun will be going down and the illuminated lanterns and floats in the parade will create a wonderful ambiance. I should note that camera phones are not apt at taking pictures of moving objects in the dark. Because of this, I am unable to share any pictures that I took from the parade.

During the parade, you will see a wide variety of people carrying glowing lanterns. You will be able to Buddhist monks in their simple grey robes, along with people dressed in traditional Korean clothing called Hanbok (한복) and many other people from all walks of life associated with the Buddhist community. Also, there will be illuminated floats depicting different aspects of Buddhism along with more contemporary subject matters.


While the Lotus Lantern Festival Parade is a wonderful sight, it starts to get a bit repetitive. Around 8:20pm would be a good time to head back to the Jogyesa Temple grounds. If you wait until the end of the parade, you may find it extremely hard to move around at the temple grounds since there many parade viewers will all be arriving at the same time.

Since the sun will have gone down by this time, the entire temple will be lit up by the thousands of glowing lotus lanterns. Behind the main gate, in the first section of the temple grounds, the yellow overhead cover of lanterns will spell out in blue and green Korean letters, “We too are with Buddha” (우리도 부처님 같이).

From The Lotus Latern Festival
While the entire grounds is lit up in a colorful display, I found that my favorite part was in the very back of the temple grounds, west of the temple itself. Here a corridor of softly lit lanterns slowly changed colors overtime. Not only were the visual display of this corridor stunning, I found this area quite peaceful since it was tucked around from the main part of the temple grounds.

From The Lotus Latern Festival

All throughout the temple grounds, there was a festive atmosphere of people enjoying the celebration. Even with all of this going on, people will still be inside of the temple participating in religious ceremonies. Outside on the street in front of the temple, you will probably be able to hear people from the parade still playing music on their traditional Korean instrument. With the glowing lanterns, the numerous people strolling around and the music from the streets, Jogyesa Temple is a marvelous place to be during the Lotus Lantern Festival.

I got a bit lucky on my first time going to the Lotus Lantern Festival in downtown Seoul. With the right planning, we were able to enjoy the festival without being bogged down in the crowds. I look forward to coming back to Jogyesa Temple next year when the 2013 Lotus Lantern Festival takes place. I will definitely be reviewing this blog post next year before the festival.


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  2. It was great to see beautiful lotus lanterns. I haven't seen them for years. Maybe I should start my own Lotus Lantern Festival from this year.

    I believe those lanterns are often used for donations to the temples. People put their names and wishes for the year in the lanterns. The raised funds are usually used for social works and temples maintenance.

    My wife, Sunny says she want to see more Ben's picture! We are going to wait for your next postings every weekends. Thanks for your great postings. Sunny says.. "Saturdays in Korea, Aja~ Aja~ Whaiting~"