Gwanju Toechon Tomato Festival

Liberating madness

About forty foreigners gathered for a day trip to Gwanju to witness Korea’s version of a Tomato festival. Why I say Korea’s version is that compared to Spain’s ‘World’s biggest food fight’ with over 100 metric tons of over ripe tomatoes strewn into the streets, coupled with fireworks, parades, dancing and music, and from anything between 20,000 to 40,000 visitors, Korea’s Toechon Tomato Festival is child friendly, relatively contained with a mere ton of tomatoes and hosts a meagre 10,000 people for the weekend.

The trip was organised by Warren Il Seung Kim, the founder of a group on facebook – the Seoul Hiking Group. I highly recommend joining if you are in the area and enjoy day or weekend trips of a relaxed nature, with hiking, exploring, sight seeing and usually a great crew.

We took about 4 to 5 hours to get there, with what was supposed to be a 2 and a half hour journey. Thanks to Seoul’s massive grid of traffic. I think we were all relieved when we disembarked the bus and whilst I can’t speak for the rest, I was nervous to see what the festival held. And to start off with, I was very really disappointed.

Stands lined either side of the road. Each stall sold either a Korean food variety (mostly variations of rice cakes), stuffed toys, or discounted tomato packs. In the middle of the main road there was a large plastic ground sheet with inflatable sides and tomatoes lining the bottom where a soccer match had been held.

The highlight of the day however was the actual hunt for the gold rings hidden in 5 lucky tomatoes. Here, most of the visitors to the venue crowded around a second ‘arena’ – a plastic ground sheet. We all crowded around and watched, amused, as trucks with thousands of tomatoes reversed into the square offloading their loot by tipping the load. Thousands of tomatoes cascaded out of the side and onto the floor, preparing the field for the tomato battle.

What surprised me was the intensity and seriousness of the crowd, knowing that there were 5 annointed tomatoes holding a gold ring worth about 200,000 won or 200 dollars. Further, that children were standing ready to jump into what would become tomato madness, all waiting, all poised… holding onto their parents, knowing that the chaos might render them lost in red caked strangeness.

And then, in a frantic rush, hoards of people rush into the tomatoes, all in search of the gold rings, some on the ground, fingering the ripe red fruit, some mashing the balls underfoot, making for a tricky entrance, navigating around people crouching to people standing, people behind and in front. Soon enough, the tomatoes are all crushed and squashed and have turned into soup with the assistance of nearby sprinklers. At this point, war has been waged and tomato bombs are being thrown. The surprise of having tomato mashed into your hair, face, chest and back is over, and free tomato liberating madness ensues.

I think some of the children took delight in being able to throw this red purée at the English Teachers. It seemed to be time to take revenge without consequences. What happens in the tomato pit, stays in the tomato pit.

Eventually, the great folly ends as people tire of the rampage, or perhaps generally feel the need to wash the acidic mess from their eyes, noses and ears.  It was time to get lunch at this point which was not very appetising to my vegetarian stomach with a selection of  roasted chicken, strange fish dishes or spicy noodles.

Whilst the tomato fight was the highlight of my trip, many took pleasure in the cooking competition held in the events hall, a fish catching competition held in a portable pool just left of the main arena and of course, merely kicking back at a table, snacks in hand, quietly watching the day unfold.

Truly the most abandoned fun I have had in Korea to date!

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