The ‘Kanto-matsuri’ or ‘Pole-lantern festival’ is one of three ‘Great Festivals’ of the Tohoku region (Kanto, Nebuta, and Tanabata). It is held every year in Akita prefecture between the 3rd and 7th of August, taking place nearby Akita station. Here’s my experience of my visit to the Kanto festival last summer (2016).
Transport: The cost of the Shinkansen ride from Sendai station to Akita station is 11,210 yen, but I decided to take a normal train which took around 6 hours. We used the ‘Seishun 18 kippu’ (special discount ticket for regular trains), so it only cost us around 2000 yen per person!
After we got off train from Sendai to Akita, we were welcomed by this lovely Japanese musical band. In the band there were traditional instruments and singers. They sang Japanese traditional songs. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to understand meaning of lyrics, but I could guess the feeling of the song! Like they say, music can overcome the language barrier right? Lol.
Not so far from the station, there was a competition. The competition was between groups of locals. In the competition each team had to keep holding the lanterns up against the strong wind. The competitors could not use their hands to grip the pole, but they had to balance the end of the pole on different parts of their body. From what I saw, they used their hips, palms, foreheads, and shoulders. Not only did they have to balance the pole against the wind, they needed to stay within a circle marked on the competition stage.
After a while, the next teammate came and took the pole, continuing to keep it raised. In each team there were not only male competitors but also female members who kept the pace by the rumbling sound of Japanese drums or ‘Taiko’. The competitors’ age varied from teenager to senior citizens.
After the competition finished, it was time for the highlight of the day – the night parade! In my opinion, this night parade was the most attractive event in the Kanto matsuri and was the event I expected the most from – and it did not disappoint me at all! I don’t think it disappointed anyone in the audience.
First of all, before you can enjoy the wonderful festivals of Japan you have to experience another famous event in Japan – waiting!! No one can deny that the Japanese are very patient when it comes to waiting for something, whether it is food or festival. On the day, we arrived at the place where the night parade was to be held, around one hour before the starting time. Most of the good places were already occupied. As you can see in the picture, it was very crowded but everyone was waiting patiently. I strongly recommend those who want to come to come as early as possible and reserve your seat! You can reserve your seat by using duct tape to make a space for you and your friends. By using this method, you do not have to worry about fighting for a good seat anymore (I learned this tricked from the Japanese locals at this very festival)!
Everyone came early to get the best spot possible, there were reserved seat options opposite where we were but we chose to take the free seats because it was more fun (and because it was free)!
The night parade was composed of three parts: the first part was the locals in traditional dress, the second was the lantern teams and the last part was the Japanese festival-floats.
As you can see in the pictures, not only adults but even young children participated in the night parade, with some parents even taking their young babies to participate. The members of this team also included musicians who played traditional Japanese instruments, giving of the feeling of Japanese tradition from a previous era.
The next part of the parade was the main focus of this festival, the lanterns! After each team arrived at their designated positions, they lit the lanterns with real fire! After all the lanterns were lit, strong men started to lift the lanterns up against the wind. This event held out for longer than two hours! They kept the lanterns up in the sky the whole time. After the lifter got tired there was another person there ready to take the poles and hold them up – they never let them down, not for a single second!
But there was one unexpected occurrence which happened right in front of me! One of the lifters made a mistake when the strong wind blew and the lanterns fell down in front of us. Fortunately the lanterns were stopped by the decorative wire above us and no one got hurt.
Now we come to the last part of this beautiful parade, the decorative festival floats. From the picture you can see the letters JR written on the lanterns of this cart. These letters are the same as the JR letters of train stations. Not only did JR (Japan Rail) participate in this event, there were many other companies who also took part in the festivities.
As all great parties come to an end, so did this impressive festival. Even though I did not want to leave, the time to go had come and I had to say goodbye to the festival and to Akita. For anyone who is interested in the festival and also a big fan of Japanese culture, I strongly recommend you to put Kanto matsuri on your bucket list!
From Tokyo: Akita is about a four-hour journey from Tokyo on the JR Akita Shinkansen (costs about 18,000 yen and all seats require reservations). The trip is fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass, JR East Tohoku Area Pass and JR East South Hokkaido Pass.
From Sendai: Akita is a little bit over tour-hours from Sendai on the JR Akita Shinkansen (costs about 11,000 yen and all seats require reservations). The trip is fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass, JR East Tohoku Area Pass and JR East South Hokkaido Pass.
Festival Area: The parades of the festival are held along ‘Chuo-dori’ street which is around 15 mins from Akita station on foot. The daytime events are held slightly closer at the Agora Plaza (about 5 mins walk from the station) and the Kanto competitions take place next to the Akita Musem of Art, about a ten minute walk from the station.
August 3 ~ August 6 (annually)
It is free to view the festival. Some reserved seats are available for 2500 ~ 3000 yen.