Akita (秋田) is a prefecture famous for its rice, beautiful women, and its annual summer event, the Kanto Festival (竿燈祭り), which is held every year to pray for a good rice harvest. Let’s find out more about this incredibly fun event!
Akita City in Akita Prefecture is located in Japan’s northwest region called Tohoku (東北). It is about four hours by bullet train from Tokyo, or a one-hour flight from Haneda Airport (羽田空港). Akita is a beautiful city bordered by the mountains and sea, surrounded by rolling green rice fields and home to some of the best sake in Japan. Once a year, Akita holds the unique and beautiful festival known as Kanto Festival. Kanto refers to a pole with lanterns hanging from it, which represents rice. Historically, the festival is celebrated as a means of praying for good rice harvests in the coming year.
Kanto Festival is held over four days between August 3rd and August 6th. The nights are warm, but the weather can always take a turn, as it can in Japan, so take an umbrella if there are signs of rain. This time of year is busy in Akita because of the festival, so if you’re planning on staying, book a hotel well in advance. You could also stay in neighboring cities such as Yokote (横手) and Yuzawa (湯沢) and get the train to Akita for the festival.
The festival runs from around 6:00pm to 10:00pm on the street called Kanto Odori (竿燈大通り). It becomes filled fairly quickly, but it is easy to see the kanto from wherever you stand. The performers file into the street and march around playing music and getting into position. Once ready, they assemble the kanto and light the lanterns, ready to show off their strength to the crowd of thousands.
The kanto performers are accompanied by taiko drummers, flute players, and singers to cheer them on and entertain the crowd. When the order is given, the performers lift the kanto together and the sky is filled with the warm light of hundreds of lanterns, swaying together like a golden rice field.
The crowd cheer “dokkoisho dokkoisho!”, a term not unlike “heave ho!”, to encourage the kanto performers. While the event is beautiful to witness, it is also filled with an atmosphere of excitement. The performers exude incredible strength, balance, and concentration as the kanto pole and lanterns can weigh up to 50kg each! The performers balance them on their hands, hips, shoulders, and even on their foreheads.
It is a sight to behold, especially the raw crack of the pole if it snaps, which often happens. The city places safety wires along the street to stop the crowd from being hit, but if a kanto pole is falling, it’s best to just get out of the way!
There are three main festival food areas, one at either end of Kanto Odori and one in the middle, opposite the E-Hotel. Be sure to try some Akita specialties, including kiritanpo, Yokote style yakisoba, and babahera ice cream. There are also a number of craft beer stalls, selling beers that are locally brewed in Akita Prefecture. And of course, don’t forget to try some of the best sake in Japan, made in Akita from Akita’s own komachi (小町) rice.
At the end of the festival, be sure to try out taiko drumming or have a go at lifting the kanto pole. The groups let the crowd try it out and will help you if you’re struggling to get it off the ground. There are also smaller kanto poles that the elementary kids carry, which only weigh about 15kg. If you happen to miss anything on one of the nights, don’t worry; the festival runs for four nights, you can see and try everything at your own leisure.
When: The festival is held on August 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th at 6:00pm to 10:00pm
Cost: free (or you can reserve seating for around 2500 yen)
Kanto Festival is a one-of-a-kind experience that embodies the pure, raw beauty that is Tohoku and Akita. If you happen to be in northern Japan this summer, stop by Akita in August for four nights of beauty and excitement.