The word “luminarie” is the plural form of the Italian word “luminaria” which means Illumination with miniature bulbs. Every December since 1995, Kobe has been set aglow with over 200,000 individually hand-painted lights in what is known as the Kobe Luminarie. (http://www.kobe-luminarie.jp/)
On January 17, 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe killing more than 6,000 and causing $100 billion in damages. Since Kobe was the closest to the epicenter, it experienced the most damage both in terms of infrastructure and in lives lost. Many of Kobe’s surviving residents had to live in darkness due to supply cuts in electricity, gas, and water. Eleven months following the devastating earthquake, the Kobe Luminarie was held to not only pay tribute to the thousands who perished but also to give hope to the surviving citizens that their city could, one day, be restored. The lights were donated by the Italian government and the installation was spearheaded by Italian designer Valerio Festi and Kobe native Hirokazu Imaoka.
The Luminarie was held for a period of twelve days and major streets in the vicinity were closed to traffic in order to allow pedestrians to fill the streets and enjoy the lights. Although the event was intended to be a onetime occurrence, it drew 2.5 million people on the first day. Thus due to its popularity, the Kobe Luminarie is now an annual event which symbolizes the hope of Kobe citizens.
During the opening ceremony, silent prayers are offered to the victims of the earthquake and the names of those who were killed are posted. The theme changes every year and the event attracts around 4 million people, raising $1.3 million in donations and $6.1 million in sponsorship and merchandise sales. The Kobe Luminarie relies on its audience to keep going. Visitors support the event by putting coins in the donation boxes set up around the brightly lit structures.
In 2011 when a sizeable earthquake and ensuing tsunami devastated the Tohoku region, a special exhibition was held during the Luminarie to raise money for the victims. In 2012, drawings by children from that region were used to make lanterns displayed at the event.
The Kobe Luminarie is a must see event if you are ever in the Kansai region in December. Held two weeks before Christmas, it is a wonderful opportunity to get into the holiday spirit by viewing the magnificent light displays.