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Japan: Akita City (Kanto Festival)

The Kanto Matsuri together with Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri and Sendai’s Tanabata Matsuri makes up the three great festivals of the Tohoku region. Held annually in early August, this three day event originated over 260 years ago and was organized to keep away the evil spirits and to pray for a good harvest. It takes place in Akita City, the capital of Akita Prefecture which is only a four hour journey from Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train).

The highlight of the festival is an impressive display of skill in which performers balance kanto (long bamboo poles) of various lengths weighing at their maximum over 100 lbs. each and extending up to 40 feet with arrays of paper lanterns attached to the end. The lanterns are lit by candles and the performers hoist the poles on end using various techniques. A single performer carries his pole down the street balancing it on his hip, shoulder, forehead or palm. The performers change every few minutes and gradually add extensions to the pole until the kanto are at their maximum height. There are over 200 poles being carried down Chuo Dori Street in the center of the city at night. The event lasts about 90 minutes and at the end of the evening’s performance there is a 15 minute session during which audience members are invited to talk to the performers, take pictures and try their hand at hoisting up a kanto.

The festival also has daytime events held in Agora Plaza in front of the Seibu Department Store. The events feature taiko drums, dance and musical performances, as well as kanto demonstrations.

There is a kanto skill contest on the final day of the festival. The event is held in Senshu Park next to the Hirano Masakichi Museum. Participants in this contest are required to perform great feats of skill with enormous kanto that extend to heights of 59 feet.

Around the park where Kubota Castle once stood, people sometimes stand in long lines to get Babahera Ice, ice cream served by baba (old women) with hera (spatulas). The ice cream is shaped into a beautiful rose and is a very popular item during the Kanto Festival.

The Kanto Festival was designated as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 1980 and draws 1.3 million people to Akita annually. So why not witness what the fascination is for yourself and join the spectators along Chuo Dori or participate in the events held in Agora Plaza? Certainly it will be an incomparable experience that will keep you talking about it for many years to come.

The Kanto Matsuri’s Night Parades take place along Chuo Dori, approximately a 15 minute walk west of the JR Akita Station. Daytime kanto demonstrations are held at the Agora Plaza in front of Seibu Department Store, only a 5 minute walk from the station, while the kanto competitions can be witnessed along the road next to the Akita Museum of Art, a 10 minute walk from the station.

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