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Questing for the Fantastic

Miracles of Lantern Light

SOUTH KOREA | Thursday, 14 May 2015 | Views [127] | Scholarship Entry

Two hours on a bus, three hours on a train, and a 1-hour flight brought me to the tiny, unpronounceable town at the tail end of a country I knew almost nothing about. The hermit kingdom welcomed us, and Korea unfolded on that misty morning like the setting of some strange fairy story, a morning fog thicker than any I had seen in Japan hovering in the layered rice paddies as our train blew past.

Arriving just before sunset, we could not yet fully appreciate the festival. We saw the first lanterns on the water, flowers with buds the size of basketballs, but beautiful as they were, these little blossoms would be lost in comparison of what was to come. Only as the sun disappeared did the dark static structures binding the strips of vibrant fabric seem to melt away, freeing the colors to dance and sway in the ripples of the river.

One weighted behemoth, eight feet wide, depicted a scene from a history beyond my knowledge. Others were more familiar-- The Leaning Tower of Pisa, a windmill, kiwi birds, unlicensed cartoon characters; all in full-color glory stationed at intervals along the river. Off the water, we strode through a bamboo grove where each opening gave way to scenes of animal coupling. The two lions locked in a passionate gaze were cute, while the almost-x-rated beetles were awkward to see with my brother.

Three-quarter scale soldiers posed in battle along a wall leading into Jinju Castle, open all night for the event. Within the castle walls, a whole army of these replicas froze in their positions, practicing archery and swordsmanship as if preparing for battle. Further on, the most amazing sight of the night, the fire-breathing dragon, towered above the crowd turning his head back and forth before releasing gusts of actual fire.

Getting to the secluded town is challenging, but that is part of the reason for the festival. Centuries ago, a military force also made the trip from Japan to Jinju, seeking resources from the mainland. The Japanese headed up the river, expecting to take undefended villages easily. If not for the ingenuity of these small town folks, they may have. Confused by the hastily constructed battalions of ship-sized lanterns, the invaders fled, wary of a large-scale battle. To commemorate this victory, the little town of Jinju constructs and displays thousands of lanterns in a plethora of shapes and sizes every October.

The celebration of survival and wit displayed in the Lanterns of Jinju is truly inspiring.

Tags: 2015 Writing Scholarship

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