In Kumamoto, there are three great fire festivals celebrated in the month of August. One of which is the festival that brings light to a dark night called the Yamaga Lantern Festival. Let’s find out more about it!
The Yamaga Lantern Festival, also known as the Yamaga Toro Festival (山鹿灯篭まつり), is held at the Omiya Shrine in Yamaga City (山鹿市), Kumamoto on August 15 and 16 every year. It is one of the three great fire festivals of Kumamoto, together with the Hinokuni Matsuri of Kumamoto City and the Nagomi Town Ancient Tombs Festival of Nagomi, which are both held in early August.
The Yamaga Lantern Festival has a long history and traces its origins to the ancient times. It is said that when Emperor Keiko and his attendants were hindered by fog during their travel, the villagers lit torches to illuminate their path. This story is re-enacted and is one of the highlights of the two-day festival.
The Yamaga Lantern Festival is also sometimes referred to as the “Yoakashi Festival,” meaning “staying up all night,” which is no surprise since most of its activities are held at night!
There are three major activities on the first day of the festival. Lanterns called “hono toro,” which are shaped like shrines or castles, are displayed around the town. By 6:30 PM, a dance for the dedication of the lanterns is held at the Omiya Shrine. Then, around 4,000 fireworks light up the night sky in a fireworks display at the Kikuchi Riverside by 8:00 PM.
The main events for the second day of the festival begin with a dance at 6:45 PM. The Sennin Toro Odori, or the One Thousand Lantern Dance, is the traditional dance of 1,000 women bearing kanatoro, which are special lanterns that fit on their heads, as they sing the song “Yoheho.” “Yoheho,” when sang slowly, is said to literally mean, “Let’s all get drunk!” This dance performance is held at the Yamaga Elementary School.
After the Sennin Toro Odori, men wearing traditional costumes re-enact guiding the Emperor out of the fog with the Pine Torch Procession at the Kikuchi Riverside by 8:00 PM. By 9:00 PM, the Sennin Toro Odori resumes.
The second day of the festival ends with the Agari Toro to pray for gratitude. It involves offering the hono toro, or the lanterns displayed around the town on the first day of the festival, to the Omiya Shrine.
Yamaga lanterns are artworks made with the traditional skill of lantern craftsmen using only paper and glue. After the festival, these lanterns are displayed at the Yamaga Lantern Museum. You can also see craftsmen at work in a demonstration at the museum.
The museum is housed in a Romanesque building which used to be the Yasuda Bank Yamaga branch in 1925, then the Higo Bank Yamaga branch until 1973. Admission fee is 210 yen for adults and 100 yen for elementary and junior high school students. The Yamaga Lantern Museum is open from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
Yamaga City, located north of Kumamoto Prefecture, is accessible by public transportation. Take the train on the JR Kagoshima Main Line (鹿児島本線) from Kumamoto Station (熊本駅) to Tamana Station (玉名駅). Then from Tamana Station, ride the Kyushu Sanko Bus bound for Yamaga Onsen.
Relive the tradition of Yamaga City by experiencing the fire festival that brings light and life into the dark summer nights!