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Dazzled by 10,000 lanterns and mesmerising balancing acts: Akita Kanto Festival

Dazzled by 10,000 lanterns and mesmerising balancing acts: Akita Kanto Festival

Festivals are an enjoyable and exciting way to experience another region’s unique culture and traditions, so it is no surprise that many visitors (both local and foreign) flock to various parts of Japan to experience a matsuri (祭り festival). In particular, the Tohoku region’s summer festivals are some of Japan’s most thrilling and vibrant.

 

The Akita Kanto Festival is one of Tohoku’s Three Great Summer Festivals. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

One of Japan’s northernmost prefectures, Akita Prefecture (秋田県) is known for its magical winters, fantastic onsen (温泉 hot springs), cute Akita dogs, and most of all, the dazzling Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈まつり Akita Kantо̄ Matsuri). Together with the Sendai Tanabata Festival in Miyagi Prefecture and the Aomori Nebuta Festival in Aomori Prefecture, the Akita Kanto Festival is one of Tohoku’s Three Great Summer Festivals (東北三大夏祭り Tо̄hoku sandai natsumatsuri), and is something that both the local community and incoming visitors look forward to each year.

 

Kanto resemble the ears of rice plants waving in the air. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

For a prefecture with a name that literally means “autumn rice fields”, is it any wonder that Akita’s biggest festival is related to harvests? Held every summer from 03–06 August in the capital city of Akita (秋田市), the Akita Kanto Festival traditionally prays for a bountiful harvest, where the kantо (竿燈 kantо̄, bamboo poles attached with lanterns) resemble ears of rice plants waving in the air and scaring away bad spirits.

 

Origins of the festival

Although there are various theories regarding the origins of this festival, the most common one is that it has roots in an old Star Festival (七夕 Tanabata) tradition known as Neburi Nagashi (ねぶり流し). “Neburi Nagashi” means “to wash away sleepiness”, and was performed to ward off disease, pests, and bad luck, and to pray for a bountiful harvest.

 

The Akita Kanto Festival prays for a bountiful harvest. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

In the past, Akita was mainly an agricultural economy, and it was thought that the feeling of being sleepy was similar to the feeling of being sick. When farmers were sick, they couldn’t tend to their fields, and this affected their harvests. Thus, Neburi Nagashi was to wash away the sleepiness (symbolising disease, bad luck, pests, and anything affecting the harvests), so that the people could stay healthy and grow good crops.

 

Mesmerising balancing acts

Of all the matsuri I’ve been too, the Akita Kanto Festival has always been one of my personal favourites. Not just a festival, the Akita Kanto Festival is also a performance, and the kanto balancing acts are works of art. It is truly awe-inspiring to watch the performers, especially when thinking about how long they must have practiced to hone their skills and strength. 

 

Clockwise from top left: the four main ways to balance kanto: forehead, shoulder, hip, one-hand. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

With music from flutes and drums in the background, and chants of “Dokkoisho, dokkoisho!” resonating in the air, you can marvel at the highly-skilled performers deftly balancing the kanto on various parts of their bodies—the main four being the palm, the forehead, the shoulder, and the hip. It is said that the hip is the hardest of the lot, but the performers made it look easy!

 

The skill and artistry of kanto balancing are results of diligent practice and a sense of balance forged over many years. The kanto are lit with real candles, so performers have to not only balance the kanto, but also do so knowing that if they drop it, someone could get hurt.

 

Kanto come in different sizes. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

There are four sizes of kanto depending on their length—yо̄waka (幼若), kowaka (小若), chūwaka (中若), and о̄waka (大若)—with young children starting off with the smaller yо̄waka, and gradually moving up as they get older and more skilled. О̄waka is the largest of them all, and usually has 46 paper lanterns attached, weighs up to 50kg, and can be up to 12m long.

 

During the festival, up to 280 kanto fill the streets of Akita City, with almost 10,000 lanterns across the entire festival. And yes, the lanterns are lit with real candles and real flames.

 

Enjoying the festival

After learning a bit more about the background of the Akita Kanto Festival and the kanto, let’s go enjoy the festival!

 

Visiting the Akita Kanto Festival in 2011 (left) and 2019 (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

I first had the privilege of experiencing the Akita Kanto Festival back in 2011, while I was on a volunteer program for the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. The Akita Kanto Festival was my first ever matsuri experience, and since then, I had been longing to experience it again. In 2019, I finally did, and it was every bit as impressive and enchanting as I remembered it to be!

 

Kanto decorations around Akita Station and Akita City. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

After exiting the gantries of JR Akita Station, you will be greeted with a large kanto hanging from the ceiling that says “Welcome to the Akita Kanto Festival”. If you come at the right time, you might even be able to see local singers performing Akita folk songs as the atrium, like I did. All over Akita City, you can see kanto decorations adorning walkways and streets.

 

Afternoon kanto performances. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

You might have the image of the Akita Kanto Festival being at night, but did you know that there are also daytime festivities where you can enjoy the thrilling performances in daylight? Head over to Agora Square (アゴラ広場 Agora hiroba), which is in front of Seibu Department Store and just 250m from JR Akita Station, to see kanto balancing practices and performances in the morning and afternoon.

 

Watch the dynamic daytime competitions. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

To check out the individual and team kanto competitions (妙技会 myо̄gikai), Area Nakaichi’s Nigiwai Square (エリアなかいちにぎわい広場 eria nakaichi nigiwai hiroba)—the area in front of the Akita Museum of Art (秋田県立美術館 Akita kenritsu bijutsukan)—is where you want to be. The daytime competition segments have strict conditions, but are ultimately meant to build the skills of the kanto performers.

 

Watching the competition, you will amazed by the mastery of their skills, and enchanted by the beauty of their balance and stability. In comparison, the night parade has a more casual atmosphere, being more of a performance to entertain the audience.

 

Akita Kanto Festival Daytime Competition (秋田竿燈祭り妙技会)
Date: 04–­06 August annually
Time: 09:20–15:40 (04–05 August) / 09:00–15:00 (06 August)
Venue: Area Nakaichi’s Nigiwai Square (10-minute walk from JR Akita Station)
*Based on 2019's details. Schedule might change.

 

Lotuses blooming in summer. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

During the daytime, other than the kanto practices and competitions, you can also see these beautiful lotuses blooming across the street of Akita Chuo-dori, which you will likely pass by as you walk from JR Akita Station to Area Nakaichi. These lotuses bloom in summer, and you will usually be able to see them during the Akita Kanto Festival period. While waiting for the night parade to start, you can also explore a bit of Akita City, or grab a bite to eat.

 

Akita Gourmet Festival stalls. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

What’s a festival experience without food? During the Akita Kanto Festival, you will find an area designated as the Akita Gourmet Festival grounds, where dozens of yatai (屋台 street food stalls) selling local street food from all over Akita Prefecture can be found.

 

Tonight’s dinner: yakisoba and grilled squid. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Other than usual favourites like takoyaki (タコ焼き octopus balls), meat skewers and choco-banana, one of the most popular items here is yakisoba (焼きそば stir-fried noodles), which comes in many regional variations such as Yokote Yakisoba from Yokote City, and Shottsuru Yakisoba from the Oga Peninsula. Since this would be my dinner, I got one of the yakisoba variations, as well as my all-time favourite festival food—grilled squid (焼きイカ yaki-ika).

 

Babahera ice cream is an old favourite in Akita. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

But first, to beat the summer heat, I had to start off with something icy cold—babahera ice cream (ババヘラアイス babahera aisu), a nostalgic favourite in Akita. “Baba” means “old lady” in the local dialect, while “hera” means spatula, the tool that the vendors (usually old ladies) use to scoop out the ice cream.

 

Using the spatula, the vendors carefully scoop and mold the ice cream into the shape a flower, how lovely! At only ¥200, babahera ice cream is a cheap and delicious treat that’s great for combating the scorching summer temperatures, which were 35–38°C when I visited.

 

Akita Gourmet Festival (ご当地グルメフェスティバル)
Date: 03–­06 August annually
Time: 15:00–21:30
Venue: Area opposite E-Hotel (15-minute walk from JR Akita Station)
*Based on 2019's details. Schedule might change.

 

Everyone waiting in anticipation for the festival to begin. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The evening parade takes place along Kanto Odori (竿燈大通り Kantо̄ О̄dо̄ri). Thanks to my wonderful colleagues Mr. A. and Mr. S., I snagged a seat for the ticketed area. Of course, the event can be enjoyed for free from sides of the road as well, just be sure to come early to grab a good spot! Although the kanto parade started at 19:25, at 17:30 I already saw dozens of people saving their spots along the street. Everyone was excited for the upcoming main event.

 

Top: Kanto by ANA, Lawson and Mitsubishi. Bottom: Akita Tourism Ladies and the Akita City Mayor greeting attendees. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

At around 18:50, 35 minutes before the parade starts, performers carrying the kanto will start to stream in. Many of the kanto performers are part of company groups, so you might see some kanto emblazoned with familiar logos: ANA (airline), Lawson (convenience store), Mitsubishi (automotive)…do these seem familiar? Akita Tourism Ladies (あきた観光レディー Akita kankо̄ redī) and even the Akita City Mayor also joined in the festivities, waving to and greeting festival attendees before the start of the parade.

 

The first group of performers in my area. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

One thing to note is that unlike most parades, the Akita Kanto Festival is partially fixed. Once the performing group gets to their spot, they will stay there for about 20 minutes, so the group that you watch remains the same. Over the course of the night, you will probably only see two changes in the groups.

 

An experienced performer stunning the crowd. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

This seasoned individual from the AAB (Akita Asahi Broadcasting) group of performers left the crowd mesmerised with his exquisite performance. Do you see how much the kanto has been extended, and how it is bending? This is the largest о̄waka size with 46 lanterns, and remember that the kanto is lit with real candles inside…

 

Yet despite this, the gentleman could still balance the kanto on his hip, which is said to be the hardest part to balance on, while simultaneously holding a parasol in one hand and a fan in the other. And if that wasn’t enough, he was also walking left and right. The cheers for him were some of the loudest of the night; everyone was dazzled, we just couldn’t take our eyes off him.

 

A young performer. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

But even experts have to start from somewhere. Other than performances of veterans, you can also enjoy performances by the younger participants, like this young talent. Despite his tender age, he is already able to balance kanto on his forehead. Give him a couple of decades to hone his skills, and he too might end up a seasoned veteran!

 

Same floats in 2011 and 2019? (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

I saw this cute Japan Post vehicle and thought it looked familiar…turns out I saw the same (or similar) one back in 2011 as well. The photo on the left is from 2011, while the one on the right is from 2019.

 

I love revisiting places I’ve previously visited, and experiencing things at a different time. No two experiences are the ever same, and you learn more details that you might have missed during the first time. Someday, I’d like to experience the Akita Kanto Festival again for a third time!

 

Try holding the kanto and take commemorative photos after the performance. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The performance segment of the parade ends at 20:35, and after that spectators can mingle with the performers, and even check out the kanto up close. You can take photos with the kanto and with the performers, as well as try your hand at balancing the kanto (for safety reasons, only yо̄waka and chūwaka sizes). The event ends at 20:50, with the kanto being carried off the streets.

 

Akita Kanto Festival Night Parade (秋田竿燈祭り夜竿燈)
Date: 03–­06 August annually
Time: 18:50–­20:50
Venue: Kanto Odori (15-minute walk from JR Akita Station)
Website: English | Japanese
*Based on 2019's details. Schedule might change.

 

Experiencing kanto outside summer

Inside the Neburi Nagashi Kan. (Image credit: 秋田県観光連盟)

 

Even if you cannot make it to Akita during the summer festival days, good news, you can still experience kanto all year round at the Akita City Folk Performing Arts Heritage Center, also known as the Neburi Nagashi Kan (ねぶり流し館). The Neburi Nagashi Kan is a 15-minute walk from JR Akita Station, and showcases exhibits and videos on the Akita Kanto Festival, as well as other festivals in Akita.

 

Here you can learn more about the festival, and even try your hand at balancing a kanto. Between 13:30–14:10 on Saturdays, Sundays, and Public Holidays from April to October, you can also watch live kanto balancing demonstrations by pros from the Kanto Association.

 

Akita City Folk Performing Arts Heritage Center “Neburi Nagashi Kan” (秋田市民俗芸能伝承館・ねぶり流し館)
Address: 1-3-30 Omachi, Akita-shi, Akita 010-0921
Access: 15-minute walk from the West Exit of JR Akita Station (秋田駅)
Opening hours: 9:30–­16:30 (Closed during the year-end and New Year holidays)
Admission fee: ¥100/adult

 

Tohoku's Five Great Summer Festivals

Clockwise from top left: Morioka Sansa Odori, Aomori Nebuta Festival, Yamagata Hanagasa Festival, Sendai Tanabata Festival. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

If you can, I highly recommend visiting Tohoku in summer when the cities come alive with their festivals. Other than the Akita Kanto Festival, Tohoku has a plethora of stunning summer festivals in the same week (the first week of August) that are equally magnificent and enjoyable.

 

Calendar of major Tohoku summer festivals. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

These include the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り), the Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り), the Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り), and the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠祭り), which together with the Akita Kanto Festival make up the Five Great Summer Festivals of Tohoku.

 

If you’re game for it, it’s totally possible to visit a different festival every day. In 2019, I got to enjoy Tohoku’s Five Great Summer Festivals plus Niigata’s Nagaoka Fireworks Festival on the same trip, and you can visit more if you squeeze in the other regional festivals. In fact, festival-hopping something the local Japanese tourists do too, though perhaps more commonly two to three festivals over a 3-day weekend.

 

For reference, this was my 2019 itinerary:
03 August | Nagaoka Fireworks Festival
04 August | Morioka Sansa Odori
05 August | Akita Kanto Festival
06 August | Sendai Tanabata Festival (AM) and Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (PM)
07 August | Aomori Nebuta Festival (AM float parade, PM boat parade + fireworks)

 

Getting there

The Akita Shinkansen’s E6 Komachi bullet train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

JR Akita Station (秋田駅) is a 230-minute bullet train ride from JR Tōkyō Station (東京駅) via the Akita Shinkansen Line. If you are planning to visit multiple Tohoku summer festivals, I recommend basing yourself in Morioka, so that you don’t have to change hotels every night. However, I do recommend staying the night in Akita for the Akita Kanto Festival if you want to enjoy the night performances (which end at 20:50), because the last shinkansen out Akita departs at around 20:15.

 

Resort Shirakami

The Resort Shirakami Joyful Train runs betweeb Akita and Aomori. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

At the Akita Kanto Festival, I saw this festival vehicle decorated with images of trains, including the Resort Shirakami, one of JR East’s first Joyful Trains to be launched. The Resort Shirakami plies the Gono Line along the coast of the Sea of Japan, offering breathtaking views of both the sapphire sea and the verdant green fields. This train runs between Akita and Aomori almost every day, with up to three trains per direction per day, so why not check it out the next time you visit Akita? The train is free to ride if you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area).

    

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Akita and the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Akita (~¥36,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive.

 

You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to one month in advance, here. After exploring Akita, you can also visit the nearby prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, Yamagata, and more.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh

 

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