Traveling in Tohoku Part 3: Kanto Festival, Akita

This is the last of my three-part summer series, which is still more of a photoblog than anything else. For Part III’s mood music, I recommend “Changeling (New Beginnings)” by Zack Hemsey. So without further ado, on to our final destination!

AKITA CITY — AKITA

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There are three extremely famous summer festivals held in the Tohoku Region of Japan every year — collectively known as the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri, they are Akita’s Kanto Festival, Aomori’s Nebuta Festival, and Miyagi’s Sendai Tanabata Festival.

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My family only had time to experience one of these festivals, so I chose the one I was most anxious to see — the Akita Kanto Festival.

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Held in Akita City every year from August 3rd through August 6th, this festival features performers who show off their skills of balancing tall bamboo poles (called kanto) heavy with paper lanterns. These kanto poles can reach up to 12 meters in height and 50 kg (110 pounds) in weight! At night, the paper lanterns are lit by candles, and it’s a wonder that none of them catch fire.

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My parents and I arrived early and grabbed front-row seats on the sidewalk for the festival. For the first few minutes, the performers simply walked around carrying the kanto poles to the beat of the drums, relighting the lanterns whenever a candle would blow out.

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But suddenly, a cry was heard, and all the performers stopped to reorganize. In the darkness, glowing lanterns were hoisted up in every direction — up and down the street, onlookers could see hundreds of lantern-ladden poles rise up into the air. In that moment, on that warm summer night, shivers ran down my spine.

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And the festival had truly begun.

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The performers were absolutely incredible. Men would balance the heavy poles on their palms, on their hips, on their foreheads, or, as the man above is doing, on their shoulders.

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Some of the more practiced performers even showed off their skills by balancing the poles while simultaneously doing a little dance with a handheld fan.

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And even children were encouraged to try their hand! We watched in amusement and subsequent delight as this little boy tried valiantly to balance his “starter kanto pole” while his father looked on. The lanterns on the boy’s kanto pole were not lit, though — and with good reason. Although the father stepped in whenever the pole was teetering, he was not always fast enough. This set of poles crashed to the ground (and onto the audience) more than once!

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In fact, by the third and final round of the festival, even some of the adult performers were losing control over their kanto poles. You could pick these teams out by how many of their lanterns had gone dark, and by how the once-perfect lanterns seemed a little… shredded… by the falls.

There was a particularly… unpracticed… team of performers whose kanto pole went crashing down numerous times. During the second round, they were across the street from us, and we witnessed the falling lanterns with surprised amusement. During the third and final round, however, they were one of the teams performing right in front of us, and it was a little more real.

Of course, there are wires set up above the audience members, so the falling lanterns will be caught by the wires and not do any harm… but I must say that there is something quite exhilarating about watching a 110-pound bamboo pole of candle-lit lanterns falling towards you, and being stopped only seconds before crushing you!

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It was our final night in Tohoku, and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. Akita’s Kanto Festival exceeded my expectations in every way, and my shoddy pictures don’t do the night justice. Being there was absolutely incredible, and I only I hope to return again someday to experience it all again.

To anyone visiting Japan, especially in the beginning of August, I highly recommend taking a trip up to Tohoku. Tokyo isn’t the only amazing place in Japan! Take the path a little less traveled and see for yourself.