09/20/2005, 00.00
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More than 20 million Koreans on the road for Chusok

by Theresa Kim Hwa-young
This ancient rite, linked to memories of relatives who have died, has changed to make concessions to modernity: many no longer have time to visit family graves, choosing instead to have a state company clean them

Seoul (AsiaNews) – More than 20 million South Koreans have returned to their place of origin to mark the Chusok festival (full moon), when tradition calls for visits to the graves of deceased relatives. But this ancient rite has been compromised by progress and the pace of modern life.

Chusok, which is celebrated in all the far east (known also as the Feast of Autumn), falls on the 15th day of the 18th lunar month: this year, it took place between 17 and 19 September. It is one of the most important festivals in South Korea and it serves as a useful time to strengthen family bonds. It is a time to thank one's ancestors for having provided "rice and fruit", that is, sustenance for the whole family. In the early morning, relatives celebrate a rite in memory of their deceased loved ones and then they go to the cemetery to put grave stones in order. Catholics also hear Mass.

Recently however, the pace and demands of modern living have gradually introduced changes to this ancient tradition. This year, for example, many people decided to forgo the long and exhausting journey back home for Chusok and they found easier ways to stay connected to tradition.

Since the early 1990s, the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation (NACF) has been providing "polcho," or grave cleaning: a useful service for all those who couldn't make it back to their hometowns during the holidays. Agricultural federation officials say the number of people using this service had shot up in the past few years.

Many choose other times of the year to visit the cemetery, due to a pressing lack of time available. One girl said:  "The five-day working week allows me to visit family members more frequently and on holidays other than Chusok. Spending all day on the road doesn't seem worth it anymore."

The Hana Tour Service – the largest Korean travel agency – said it received more than 6,000 customers for their tour programs during the holidays.  Although the figure is a drop from the 8,700 customers during the holidays last year, company officials say the number is still high considering that the Chusok holidays were only three days this year compared to five last year.

"We expect the number of outbound travelers around Chusok to reach over 14,000 next year," a Hana Tour spokesman said.

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