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The Kanto Lantern Parade

Akita Festival Lights Up the Night Sky


The Kanto Festival lights up the night sky.

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Akita Prefecture is located in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, Japan's main island. One of the highlights in the region's calendar is the Kanto Festival, a 250-year-old spectacle in which thousands of lanterns are paraded through the streets suspended from giant bamboo frames. The sight of more than 200 of these frames lining the streets has made the Kanto Festival one of the most famous festivals in the region. Every year the event attracts tens of thousands of visitors from all over Japan, and even some from overseas.


Spectators are thrilled at the display of skill.

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A Summer TraditionLocated about four hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen bullet train, Akita Prefecture is renowned for producing some of the country's most delicious rice. The west coast of Akita, which lies on the Japan Sea, yields a vast array of marine produce, while northern Akita boasts the unspoiled natural beauty of Shirakami-Sanchi, a UNESCO World Heritage site. While the region basks in sunshine for much of the summer, in the winter it is often blanketed in snow, making it a popular destination for winter sports enthusiasts.

Akita City, where the Kanto Festival takes place, is a provincial city of about 320,000 people and serves as the capital of Akita Prefecture. In the central part of the city, where Akita Station is located, lie the ruins of a castle formerly occupied by Satake Yoshinobu, the lord who ruled this region in the early seventeenth century. The castle's expansive grounds tell of the city's long, prosperous history.

The Kanto Festival, which is held every year in early August, is said to date back to at least the mid-eighteenth century, when a similar ceremony was performed to drive away the drowsiness and evil spirits associated with midsummer. It subsequently became linked with Buddhist rituals to protect against misfortune, cleanse one's spirit, and venerate one's ancestors and with people's wishes for a rich harvest. It is this blend of influences that is thought to have resulted in the unique spectacle of the Kanto Festival in its current form.

Shining "Ears of Rice"

The centerpiece of the festival is the parade of giant sail-like frames (called kanto) bearing dozens of shining lanterns, each of which resembles a huge ear of rice. Around 230 frames, large and small, laden with a total of 10,000 lanterns illuminate the streets of Akita.


A delicious kiritampo hotpot.

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The frames come in four sizes, with the largest towering 12 meters into the air. These consist of a central pole crossed by nine horizontal branches, from which a total of 46 lanterns are suspended. The paper lanterns, some up to 64 centimeters high, are decorated with the names of towns or with town crests. The fully laden frames weigh around 50 kilograms.

Once the festival gets underway, the air is filled with the rhythms of drums and whistles as the giant frames are raised toward the sky. Men known as sashite (carriers) skillfully balance the frames as they raise them, keeping a close eye on the bending of the bamboo and the wind direction. The watching crowds gasp as the carriers nimbly shift the frames between their foreheads, shoulders, palms of their hands, and lower backs. Some of the men even hold umbrellas or fans in both hands while carrying the frames on their backs, each vying to outdo the others for the most breathtaking performance. Even when the frames threaten to topple over, the crowd cannot help but cheer the spectacular yet perilous beauty of the performance. Rotating every few minutes, the teams of carriers wave the giant "ears of rice" as they light up the Akita night sky in brilliant orange, transporting the spectators to a magical fantasy world.

Akita's dynamic, breathtaking Kanto Festival is popular throughout Japan, and in recent years it has become quite common for performances to be held in other prefectures. As representatives of traditional Japanese arts, the performers have also demonstrated their spectacular skills in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, South Korea, China, and other countries.


Akita's famous Inaniwa udon.

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Stay for the Autumn HarvestOnce the Kanto Festival is over, the next big event in the Akita calendar is the autumn harvest. The region's famed rice is harvested in late September, signaling the start of the kiritampo season. What is kiritampo? It is a delicious, hearty dish made with fresh Akita ingredients. First, new rice is steamed a little on the hard side, pounded to a paste, and wrapped around cedar sticks. These sticks are then charcoal-grilled before being simmered in a hotpot with Hinai-jidori chicken, an Akita specialty famed for its light, refined taste. The delicious broth from the chicken is absorbed by the rice sticks, making this a sumptuous, warming dish. It goes perfectly with a cup of sake locally produced with Akita rice.

Another unmissable treat for visitors to Akita is Inaniwa udon - thick, smooth wheat-flour noodles served al dente. In the past these noodles were an exclusive delicacy that producers would present to the local lord, but after World War II the previously secret production method was revealed, and Inaniwa udon became known throughout Japan. They are now one of Akita's most famous products. (November 2009)

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