A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, we decided to check out the Falling Fire Festival in Sejong. Sejong is about 45 to an hour away from Cheonan, plus we’re already familiar with the city due to…(yep, you guessed it) soccer games. LOL.

The traditional Korean *fireworks* called Nakhwa (Nori) 낙화(놀이) can be translated to falling fire (and sometimes falling flowers) play, but it’s not at all like the fireworks we’ve seen on New Year’s Day or the Fourth of July in the US. The Nakhwa Festival dates back several hundred years ago to the 17th-century Joseon Dynasty and is celebrated around Buddha’s Birthday to pray for blessings to welcome in the New Year (I think). These *fireworks* are paper bags filled with a type of charcoal, hung on a rope, and lit on fire. These bundles slowly burn for a couple of hours while the burning ash flutters away like flower petals – the visual effect is beautiful.

I believe the Nakhwa Festival is primarily celebrated in the southern areas of South Korea, with the most famous festival taking place in Haman. We haven’t been to the one in Haman yet and it seems like now they require reservations – performance is on May 27th this year but I’m not sure if space is still available (plus the site is only in Korean).

Recently, other cities, like Sejong, have held their own Nakhwa Festivals. I’m sure part of this is due to their increased representation in pop culture. Recently, Nakhwa has been used for scenes in music videos – e.g. Wildflower by Namjoon (BTS) – and scenes from various K-dramas including, Kingdom, Bloody Heart, and See You in My 19th Life. I’m putting the bit below from See You In My 19th Life because I enjoyed the webtoon and K-drama. (I also like the DramaBeans blog!)

The first time (I remember) seeing Nakhwa Nori in a K-drama.

This is only the 2nd time Sejong City has put on this event, but it’s already generating a lot of attention, so we decided to leave early and (hopefully) find parking quickly. Lucky for us, Sejong itself is a relatively new city which, to me, means modern urban planning and design of the city layout – e.g. organized buildings, wider streets, big parks, etc. – and especially, nice, big parking lots instead of street parking.

We arrived just about 2 hours before the start of the event. (This ended up working out for the better since they started the program early due to wind conditions.) Sejong Central Park is big, open, and new – even the trees look young and new! LOL. The parking lot is huge and slightly shaded by PV panels overhead. There are courts for tennis and futsal, plus a baseball field; there are also paved walking paths and bike lanes weaving throughout. There is a lake on one side, however, we didn’t venture out that way. In addition, the park is next to Sejong National Arboretum but, unfortunately, we arrived too late to gain entry.

I suppose that worked out in the end because it gave the kids (yes, even our 17-year-old) a chance to play on the large playground structure near the event. Okay, I have to do a quick plug for playgrounds in Korea because, in my experience as a parent, Hawaii has mostly boring cookie-cutter playgrounds. While some playgrounds in Korea have that cookie-cutter vibe, there are also many creative playground designs as well. It’s almost too bad we didn’t move to Korea when all the kids were little…oh well.TT Let’s just say this Sejong playground is entertaining enough that even adults were climbing parts of the structures with their children (some areas discouraged adults from using them but didn’t outright say that adults were not allowed.)

After prying the kids (and hubby) away from the playground, we made our way to the festival grounds. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was a little bummed to see that they didn’t have the Nakhwa Nori dangling above the lake. Instead, they had ropes of Nakhwa Nori hanging from beams and trees (with a fire engine parked at the end.) Ha.

Thank goodness I brought a blanket to sit on! Otherwise, we would have had wet butts from sitting on the grass or would have had to settle for a less amazing view sitting on the cement steps of a paved area far off to the side. Instead, we were able to find a nice spot close (but not too close) to the Nakhwa set-up.

Lym noticed a warning sign near the Nakhwa set-up and thought it was amusing. I agree. In my few years living here, I definitely feel like we’ve seen our share of socio-cultural differences between the States and Korea. What do you think? I’m not being critical of the Korean safety barrier, but I also feel like Americans would have pushed it further back, especially if anticipating falling ash. Anyway, no one was harmed, and they even had guards watching the area barricaded off for safety.

Lym heard that last year, the city didn’t include food trucks. I don’t…I have no idea how people survived! LOL. This year, there were about 20 food trucks and I bet they could have added more. Per usual, as soon as Sunghoon saw the food trucks he declared himself hungry so off we went to find the giant dragon we saw while driving in AND a snack for Sunghoon.

Close to sunset, the lighting of the Nakhwa made me quickly realize a few things: 1) I forgot bug spray, 2) It’s not very exciting for the first 20-30 minutes since it takes a while for the paper to burn enough to make the ash flutter, and 3) Ash is fluttering, so watching it on a music video or K-drama doesn’t provide the experience of smoke getting in your eyes or ash bits blowing in your face. LOL.

Oh, and if I added 4) Even with the smoke and ash sometimes blowing in your face, it’s still very pretty once the Nakhwa gets going…especially with the live musical accompaniment in the background.

The progression of the falling fire.

During the event, we happened to sit downwind so we got a little more smoke and ash blown our way than if we had moved to a different part of the park. In the end, we decided not to move because, by the time we realized it, most of the “good” seating areas were already occupied. In addition, after the initial start of the event, the smoke and ash dissipated so, I guess it’s just something to take into account (i.e. if you are someone sensitive to campfire-type smoke, have allergies, etc.)

I also want to point out that even with the occasional smoky breeze, the festival itself was beautiful, ethereal, and peaceful – even while we were surrounded by thousands of people! Because Nakhwa isn’t explosive, the strands of Korean paper crackle quietly, a din in the background of the music and light chatter.

The festival was so captivating that, although we originally planned to leave a little after sunset, we ended up sitting, watching, and recording until the end.

Since this type of event seems to only happen in May, near Buddha’s birthday holiday, I hope that we have another opportunity to see a Nakhwa Festival again. If anything, I think I’d like to see a version that takes place across a river or lake – to get the full (-K-Drama) effect. However, if that’s not available, I would happily come back to the Sejong Nakhwa Festival again next year.

Check out our YouTube and Instagram videos about the Sejong Nakhwa Festival (and more!).