BUSAN, South Korea — There was once a time when Japan and Korea didn’t hurl abuse, colonize, squabble over rocks in the sea or blast half-baked missiles over each other’s sovereign territory. In fact, for much of their shared history, Korea and Japan have been at peace with one another.
The Joseon Tongshinsa Festival, held high above Busan’s Nampo-dong district in Yongdusan Park, convenes over the first weekend of May to commemorate those peaceful times. On the Saturday afternoon the festival culminates in a mass parade through town of traditional costumes, drums and dances from both lands.
The word tongshinsa applies to the series of diplomatic missions sent by the Joseon kings to the shoguns of Japan between 1392 and 1811. Their official purpose (as well as wearing big funny hats, holding colorful banners and riding in outlandish palanquins) was to promote peace, trade and to exchange culture. The last Joseon emissaries were caught between the shit and the fan of the Meiji Restoration when things ultimately led down a dark path. Now in its tenth iteration, the festival ignores the atrocities of the past, instead focusing on the similar music, dance, food and alcohol the two cultures share.
As Korea and Japan are my two favorite countries, attending this festival was a no-brainer. I arrived at the park early trying to avoid the inevitable claustrophobia. (This is Korea, after all.) As it was also Children’s Day there were going to be many more bodies crammed in than usual.
I chilled out in the early summer sun drinking a quick can of Korea’s finest, Cass beer, and watching curly haired grannies practice their drumming routines. There were many tents with activities for bored kids to pursue, but I was befuddled by the lack of any English. After walking around the tourist booths of the Japanese cities featured on the tongshinsa old route to Tokyo, the rest of the afternoon took on a new shine. I was offered a gift of free booze and gladly necked a few shots of Japanese sake.
“Hey, Poto. Poto. We. Poto,” the two young Korean lads dressed as traditional guards with painted on stubble babbled at me when they glimpsed my camera. They were the ones dressed in the unusual costumes, yet they wanted a picture of me. The boys could barely contain their excitement as we got down to the usual shooting of the shit: “What’s your name? Where are you from? Manchester United. Ji Sung-park. Wayne Rooney,” and all that jazz.
The two curious boys, Jong-hwan and Sung-ha, both currently doing their mandatory military service, were to be involved in the coming parade. As well as protecting the freedom of South Korea, their duties that day included pushing an absurd palanquin around, complete with replica dignitary. When I asked what the whole shindig was in aid of, the boys declared, “Peace. Korea. Japan. Freedom. Love. Peace.”
Later, on my way to shoot some bored looking guards with my camera, I was distracted by a blurted out cry of, “Waeguk.” Hearing “foreigner” shouted in our general direction, as you causally mind your own business, would probably cause offense in any other country. However, on this peninsula, the word takes on a form of endearment. I turned to face a gaggle of waving, smiling students spreading out a bed sheet and thrusting a marker pen towards me. I couldn’t quite figure out what their deal was (something to do with being keepers of culture), but they seemed amiable enough and so I signed it straight away. I figured the soldier’s words would be quite apt, and received a big cheer when I scribbled them down. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they’d misspelt “keepers”.
Turning away from the group, I bumped into a fellow foreigner named Aleck. Surprised by the kimono wrapped around his lanky frame, I had to find out what he was doing here. After the “Ceepers” were finished haranguing him, I escorted him to the nearest snack emporium where we took on more beers. Aleck turned out to be a Canadian, teaching English in a middle-of-nowhere town somewhere in Hiroshima province, Japan. He was also to be involved in today’s procession through town, hammering on a drum for his local taiko ren. (Taiko is a traditional Japanese drum; ren is a group or band.)
The park was becoming as claustrophobic as sumos in an elevator and kick off was fast approaching. Standing outside the convenience store, Aleck amazingly recognized the sound of his ren’s beat above the prevailing din. He ran off to fetch his drum, while I muscled my way into the crowd formed around the impromptu performance.
The ren, numbering around 30 souls, consisted of drums, pipes, shamisens (a Japanese guitar) and two groups of wicked dancers who swung their hands in the air and flicked their legs about in a drunken-master sort of way. One of the troupes of dancers, who were all women, wore bright white and pink kimonos with wide black belts across their waists. Adorning their heads were reed hats that sloped off towards the sky.
Maybe it was their dancing, their outfits or just the fact they were Japanese, but I fell in love with these ladies and had to actively force myself to stop staring. The other dancers, mainly men and children, resembled drunk thieves as the bandannas tied up under their noses concealed their faces. Despite all the rolling and jumping about of their bodies, they managed to skillfully cling onto their paper lanterns held above their head. I was particularly transfixed by an elderly dancer with a gangly beard, who Aleck informed me was in his 70s, as he youthfully bounded around in a hypnotic like trance.
The crowd clapped furiously as the group finished their show, leading to a flurry of photos and bi/tri-lingual conversations. I congratulated Aleck and the others in the ren, dusting off the tiny snippets of Japanese that my crapulent brain could muster.
The various beers and shots of sake had served their purpose as a social lubricant. Excited by the dancing I wanted to give it a shot. One of the teenaged dancers laughing at my poor imitation handed me his paper lantern and encouraged my stupidity. Enjoying my shenanigans the band was about to strike up again, drawing back the crowd that was slowly dispersing. I noticed a small crowd egging me on and a few flashes of cameras. I’d not consumed anywhere near enough rice wine for this, so I handed the lantern back to the grinning young lad to let him show us how it’s done.
The bang of a gong alerted the bedraggled crowd lined up along the street to the start of parade. I bid Aleck’s ren good luck and took off to the front of the procession.
The parade was led by a coalition of Joseon guards and samurai warriors. The crowd frolicked, photographed and applauded as hundreds of costumed paraders stomped, banged and sang their way by. Following the parade from the top of Yongdusan Park to its conclusion along Independence Road back down in Nampo-dong, I darted up and down by the side photographing like a zealous paparazzo.
My experience at the Tongshisa Festival served to remind me of the best parts of living in either the Land of the Morning Calm or the Rising Sun. All you have to do to make someone’s day is simply be a foreigner when talking to them. If you inject a bit of their language into the proceedings, then they generally lose their shit with excitement, congratulating you no matter the piss-poorness of your pronunciation or complete irrelevance to the topic. This is much more obvious in South Korea where people will make their intentions to talk to you glaringly obvious. The Japanese, on the other hand, appear a little more reserved but are just as happy to talk when you get it going.
As great as the parade was, it wasn’t the highlight of the whole experience for me. It was the enthusiastic and friendly nature of the Koreans and Japanese people I spoke to and danced with. Comprehending the strangeness of their ancient customs, compared to those of my own. The admirable intentions of the festival to heal old wounds. And observing the Koreans enjoying, cheering and speaking to the Japanese people they usually harbor such animosity towards.
If you're down in Busan and didn’t get a chance to check this festival out, I urge you to do so when it rolls around next year. It’s not often that you can dance like a drunken monkey to the tandem of Korean and Japanese drums.
Photos by Ben Cowles.