Akita prefecture is known for its Akita dogs, Namahage, and the Kanto festival. Not to be confused with the Kanto Region (which encompasses Tokyo), these Kanto are large poles that carry a large number of lanterns. They require great balance and strength to handle, and when held expertly, provide a stunning sight for onlookers. Every year in early August, the city of Akita holds the Kanto Festival, where local teams compete in Kanto events and celebrate together at night with a marvelous parade down Kanto Street.
Kanto Symbolism and Pieces
The pole holds many parts and they have significance. The pole itself, with all of its lanterns, is supposed to resemble ears of rice, going in with the idea that the festival is supposed to ward off bad luck and pray for good harvests.
Starting at the top of the pole is the Gohei, which are strips of paper made as a Shinto offering. This is where the performers focus their concentration in order to keep their poles balanced. Hari-ito, or stretching strings, help keep the pole stable during the balancing, and can be seen coming off the top bit of the pole.
The main pole (Oyadake) holds cross poles (Yokodake) that hold the lanterns. In total, there are 46 lanterns divided into three distinct tiers. The first tier towards the top has the kanji for festival on the front and the name of the neighborhood on the back. The second tier has the crest of the community. Now, from here, things get a bit modern. Some companies participate in the festival, so instead of community crests for the next layers (three through nine), there will be the company’s logo instead. We saw such poles for convenience store chain FamilyMart and mobile phone service provider SoftBank.
When performers wish to really heighten their skills, they add Tsugidake, or extension poles, to lengthen the pole they are balancing. Some of these extensions can make the pole up to 15 meters (~49 ft) tall! The Akita Kanto Festival English website has a lovely breakdown of the different sizes and classes of these Kanto.
The Festival Environment
Even the local high school and middle schools get involved with the festivals. One high school, Kokugakukan High School, near the famous Senshu Park, had their own cafe they were managing in the school during the festival, with students out and about handing out Japanese and English menus, encouraging patrons to take the brief walk to their school. Another group of students, this time clearly marked as such by their uniforms, walked around with hand-made brochures explaining famous sites in the city, how to get around on public transit, and some famous foods and treats to partake in during the festival. The involvement and the friendliness of everyone in Akita during our time there was truly touching. It’s helpful to remember that not all cities are big cities like Tokyo or New York, where everyone gets wrapped up in their own business and are unable to or uninterested in greeting new faces.
Daytime: Display of Special Feats
At the Akita Art Museum courtyard, you can watch the competitions among the different neighborhoods and their pole-balancing abilities. They are judged based on the men’s performances balancing the poles, and the women’s performances with the musical accompaniment. The best part of this event is that if you get there in the morning, most of the spectators will be locals and friends of the performers, so you are able to get nice and close to the barrier and really take in the performances. They break around noon for lunch, but performances are usually every day.
There are also special foods to partake in! Aside from the Akita-famous kiritampo, you can easily try a special ice cream called Babahera (ババヘラ). It’s a mix of vanilla (yellow) and peach (pink) ice cream that has the consistency more like a sorbet than anything else. Older women use flat metal paddles to place the ice cream while simultaneously sculpting it into the shape of flowers. The most iconic is that of the rose, but I did see a few carts offering different variants for your dining pleasure. They’e all 200 yen ($1.90 at time of posting) and a great way to beat the heat without getting weighed down with too much dairy or sugar.
Nighttime: Kanto Parade
The night parade provides some of the most iconic and lasting images of the festival, when all of the neighborhoods come together to parade down Kanto Street (Nichome during the rest of the year). The sights are stunning, but how do you partake in them?
You can reserve bleacher seats for as little as 1000 yen, which line the middle boulevard of the street, or you can brave the crowds and attempt to stake a claim along the roads for no fee at all. Just before the parade, if you queue up near the crosswalk at the end of the street where the police have lined up, they will let in people at a set time to sit down and stand in a partitioned off area at the bend in the parade route (near Nichome Bridge, displayed above). This is where we ended up, quite serendipitously. It offers a great view, but if you miss that window, it’ll be just as crowded as any other free seating area.
This is a fantastic summer festival to visit if you have the time! I highly recommend it to all brave enough to face the heat and travel before the very busy Obon travel season.