Spirited Away at Akita Kantō Festival

There was a scene from a Japanese animation that has been ingrained into my memory ever since my eyes engulfed it as a child. I do not remember the name nor plot of the movie, but I do remember this one scene as though I was present. I was enchanted by the midnight parade of the gods, the floating lanterns of the spirits as they leave behind a trail of exotic music, enticing me to join in. Something about the flashing colors that painted the screen left a vivid impression in my childhood-self, although over the years it was buried somewhere and forgotten.

And recently this scene came flooding back into my mind…

…All because of the Akita Kanto lantern festival.

Japan comes alive during summer with the countless festivals happening simultaneously throughout the country. This summer I was lucky enough to experience Akita’s Kanto (Bamboo lantern) festival, although I honestly wasn’t expecting much. Matsuri is already a familiar part of my life, and really, how much more extravagant can it get?

The answer is much more extravagant.

As soon as the lanterns appeared, bobbing along the road on the shoulders of the eager performers, I could feel the bubbling excitement within me as I realised this festival will be like no other.

The music flared up, lanterns a flaming red and rising high up into the sky. It was as though everyone’s breath was sucked away by the million candles, the flames the star of the show. I was spirited away.

I felt like I was watching the parade of the spirits, just like the scene that imprinted itself in my mind many years ago. I felt like a part of the procession, the people around me all bursting with excitement and awe. If air was alive and could tremor in excitement, then that night of the Bamboo Festival would be exactly that.

The steady beating of the drums pulsed throughout my veins like a part of my heartbeat. The high whistle of a hundred flutes, all with a different personality mingled together like eager bird calls. The cheers of the people and the roar of the crowd. The night was alive.

It was only after returning to reality do you really start to comprehend the effort behind this parade.

Each bamboo lantern weighed an average of 50kg — held up by one man. As though this wasn’t impressive enough, they alternate between tricks by balancing this pole on one palm, the forehead, or even their hip. It wasn’t just about strength but also balance. The weight distribution is extremely unbalanced with the weight hanging off the center towards to the top, which means the weight the performers are burdened with is actually well over 50kg.

To make matters worse, the wind was extremely strong that day, blowing the lanterns in all directions. This made a great show for the audience, but intense labour for the lantern bearers as they ran around in order to balance the lanterns.

That is not to say that some lanterns did fall; to the distress of the performer but to the delight of the audience. Despite the sympathy we felt for the performers, the collapse of a lantern really did make for a dramatic sight. What is truly amazing about the whole ordeal however, is how fast the performers got back on their feet. No matter what happens they continue the performance with the same, if not more, amount of energy.

One time, the wind blew so hard that the bamboo lantern actually snapped; like a crack of lightening announcing that something went horribly wrong. The collapse was so dramatic, yet rather than excitement and awe, I was just overwhelmed with sympathy for the performers that were unable to perform anymore.

…or so I thought.

The supporting performers immediately rushed into action as they miraculously fixed the lantern. They bound the broken pole to a new bamboo, relit all the lanterns, and was performing with the others once again. Their spirit and determination really touched me, and I think this undying drive within all the performers is really what made this festival so fascinating.

The glowing lanterns soaring in the night made for an out-of-the-world scene like that of a passing breeze through a field of wheat.

This festival originated from the purpose of praying for good harvest, and seeing it for myself, I can understand why. After all, if the gods where looking down from the sky, these swaying bamboo lanterns would really look like a field of wheat to them.

The passion of this festival really reminded me of why I love Japan; their efforts to preserve their culture and traditions despite modernization. Akita’s Kanto festival is really the voice of the love and respect Japanese people have for their country, and this passion I will never forget.

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