UNESCO is a discerning organization. They don’t just go tossing out “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” status to any old festival. Nope, that prestigious title is reserved for a precious few global celebrations: and South Korea’s Dano Spring Festival is one.
Earning its noteworthy designation in 2005, the Dano Spring Festival is all about keeping indigenous rites and rituals alive. The city of Gangneung, host to the country’s biggest and best Danoje celebration, is greatly responsible for this thriving cultural attraction.
Featuring a host of traditional foods, customs and entertainment, Dano-je might sound like all fun and games. However, it sprang from a very real need to stay healthy in a time when the rainy season spread disease and illness rapidly.
Customs like washing one’s hair in iris-infused water and wearing red and blue were originally superstitions for preventing sickness, misfortune and evil spirits. As the rainy season also brings the heat, it’s still common to gift friends and family with lovely folding fans – along with wishes for a cool, healthy summer.
Dano-je is a festival loaded with traditional symbolism, but also very accessible for non-native visitors. Throughout the celebration, tourists and Koreans alike can enjoy masked dramas, shamanic rituals, death-defying swinging (as in standing on a traditional swing and trying to go higher than everyone else) and a host of other traditional games and exhibitions. Perhaps the most popular and visible is Ssireum, traditional Korean wrestling which ends in the victor receiving a bull.
If you’re looking for something that involves a little less full-body contact (and more clothing), catch the traditional wedding ceremony, join in on the tug of war competition, make delicious sweet rice cakes, bathe your locks in flowery water or just kick back some specially brewed alcohol – in honor of the gods, of course.
The most important day of the Dano Festival celebration (which actually begins with ritual alcohol brewing a month before) is May 5 of the lunar calendar. In the lunar tradition, corresponding days and months like January 1, February 2 and March 3 are a big deal. May 5 is especially auspicious as Koreans believe this is the day the universe converges and all the energies of nature become one. With so much happy energy bouncing around, it’s also said that this is a prime day to fall in love. Hence the feats of strength for dudes (remember those Ssireum competitions) and fluttering about on massive swings in hanbok for women (as it turns out, those swinging competitions are not just fun and games).
Finally, like most Korean festivals, food is the center of attention at Dano-je. Absolutely do not leave Gangneung without eating your weight in specialty rice cakes (made with wormwood, marsh plants and medicinal herbs), cherry jellies and sweet cherry punch.
Buses from Seoul run every 30 minutes from both Dong Seoul Bus Terminal and Seoul Express Bus Terminal. After arriving at Gangneung Intercity/Express Bus Terminal, it’s a short taxi ride to the festival venue, Danojang (단오장).