If you’re the kind of traveller who loves colour and culture, consider visiting South Korea during the Andong Mask Dance Festival. Andong’s International Mask Dance Festival is a kaleidoscope of colour and culture in South Korea
Andong Mask Dance Festival
Most of the time, Andong is a rather sleepy province in South Korea. But during the festival, the whole region comes alive with pounding drums and crowds of excited people.
I attended a few events and found myself particularly mesmerised at the local shaman dances. It started with a middle-aged woman in the centre of the floor, twirling to the drum beat.
Suddenly, she stopped swirling and began to tremble. Her whole body shuddered and her head snapped back and forth to the pounding of the drums.
If you had asked me before I went, I would not have told you this was high on my bucket list. But during the performance, I was transfixed. Think punk rock in multicolour.
They call it the possessed shaman ritual, Kangshinmu.
This ritual is just one of the attractions at the Korean mask dance festival, known as Andong’s International Mask Dance Festival, where a 10-day celebration of dancing, games and cultural exhibitions brings the South Korean city alive.
The festival is not just for locals. Dance troupes flock here from around the world.
They come to perform their country’s traditional dances and participate in events. Performers from around Korea entertain the crowd with traditional masked dances.
Brides and clowns
In the open-air central auditorium, a masked clown bride prances demurely flirts with a masked priest.
It’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining. From the expressions on the faces of the onlookers the crowd, this is a popular dance.
The dancers are interesting but I’m equally as captivated by the faces in the crowd.
There are young women sporting large sun visors on their heads (to keep the sun’s rays off their skin) and wrinkled elderly women with folded newspapers as hats stuck on their heads.
Once upon a time, masked rituals were all about appeasing the spirits.
The three elements of a masked ritual are kangshin (inviting the spirits), ohshin (consoling the spirits) and songshin (farewelling the spirits).
Over time, Andong’s masked dances have become a way for village folk to criticise the aristocracy behind the anonymity of a disguise.
The festival is popular with locals and you will see groups of elderly men dressed in western suits and 50s-style hats sitting around.
Giant masked characters entertain rosy-cheeked children. And the festival has art, craft and storytelling sessions for young ones.
Temples, palaces and historic buildings (such as Andong’s Dosan Seowon Confucian Academy) are worth exploring while in Andong.
At the festival, there are marquees packed with food and craft stalls offering samples of local edibles such as sikhye, a sweet rice beverage, Andong soju, rice liquor listed as the province’s intangible cultural treasure number 12 and mackerel fried to a very special local recipe (also on the cultural treasure list).
Mask carving in Andong is an art. It’s worth stopping at one of the stalls to watch the carvers deftly chisel a nose into an Alderwood block.
Once the face of the mask is carved, the masks are covered with thin paper made from the bark of a mulberry tree before it is lacquered and painted with natural pigments.
Andong’s masks are treasured (in other parts of South Korea masks are used once then burned) and stored after each show.
The reason for this is the locals believe that masks have magical properties.
The masks reflect the emotions of the wearer.
They smile when the performers are happy. They frowning when the performers are angry.
Masks are also used in rituals to repel evil and placate the spirits.
In Andong, there are 11 traditional masks: The Yangban or aristocrat, Sonbi or scholar, the Buddhist monk Chung and Paekchong the butcher. These masks are the most expressive due to the hinged jaws that enable a range of expressions.
The there’s the bride or Kakshi, Pune (flirtatious young woman) and Halmi (granny) masks. These three have small mouths and no nostrils while other masks are Choraengi (meddler), Imae (fool) and two lion masks.
A good place to see the original Andong masks is in the Korean National Museum in Seoul.
During the Andong festival, performances are held around town as well as in the historic Andong Hahoe village.
The village is located on the bend of the Nakdong River in Pungcheon-myeon.
It has a serene backdrop of lovely mountains and is home to around 200 families.
Most of the people who live here are part of the Ryu clan. who have lived in this village for centuries.
The traditional Korean houses in the village are picturesque.
These buildings are hundreds of years old and have been handed down from generation to generation.
Wandering around the village is like walking into a time portal.
Rough stone walls hide ancient traditional Korean houses with creaky weathered beams and tidy courtyards with earthenware pots.
Andong is the historical birthplace of the noble class and some people are quick to point out that Andong was the place chosen by Queen Elizabeth to visit in 1999.
One difference between Andong and other Korean villages is that a typical Korean village is arranged with houses facing south. But in Andong Hahoe Village, the homes of the nobles were put in the centre of the village and surrounded by houses of the peasants, which face all directions.
If you’re into lapping up local culture, you can stay with a local family at the Andong Hahoe village. But if you’re planning to visit during the festival keep in mind rooms fill up fast during festival time.
Jirye Artists’ Colony
I stayed in a traditional Korean house in Jirye Artists’ Colony, which is about a 50-minute drive from the city.
The accommodation is not luxurious but the experience is authentic and local. I slept on a padded mat laid out on a heated floor.
The doors of the 350-year-old house creaked and groaned each time I ventured out to my western-style bathroom, which I had to walk out and around the front verandah to get to.
The setting was lovely and peaceful. It was a traditional scene straight out of the pages of a Korean history book.
Houses were arranged around a central courtyard.
The colony is tucked away in the mountains and surrounded by a thick forest. It’s a place I often reflect back to when thinking about my travels over the years.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Korea National Tourist Office
Discover South Korea
Jirye Artists Colony has accommodation in traditional Korean rooms from 50,000 won ($50). Meals from 7000 won ($7).
Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is a vibrant Asian metropolis with plenty of cultural and historic attractions. Culture lovers will enjoy the architecture of Gyeongju while Jeju Island is a breathtakingly beautiful spot to escape from the city.
To calm the soul try staying in a Korean temple. There are many temples that provide a tranquil experience.