Experience: Yamaga Lantern Festival

Everyone raves about Nagasaki’s Lantern Festival and truthfully, I can’t say a thing against it since I won’t be heading up there until the end of the month. But I’m putting in a major plug for the tiny town of Yamaga in rural Kumamoto which has its own February lantern festival with some of the prettiest scenes I have EVER seen in Japan. And that’s saying alot.

Yamaga is better known for its summer festival held during Obon, when an all night celebration culminates in a thousand women bearing lanterns on their heads dancing slowly until the sun comes up. The Yamaga Toro Matsuri is known as one of the three top fire festivals in Kumamoto prefecture, which is no small feat in the prefecture known as the Land of Fire.

Illuminated umbrellas and bamboo in Yamaga
Illuminated umbrellas and bamboo in Yamaga

In winter, however, the streets are lined with bamboo luminaries and delicate paper umbrellas in hues of red, purple and white. Cars are blocked from entering the main street of the old town, but some of the lit umbrellas lead down alleyways that end at shrines or temples that seem otherworldly in the soft glow. Even the flocks of photographers clustered around their tripods don’t diminish from the beauty of the scene.

An alleyway in Yamaga
An alleyway in Yamaga

I was lucky enough to stumble upon a performance of adolescent and teenage girls on an open-air stage at the bottom of town. Dressed in elegant, albeit miniature kimono, they performed both slow classical dances and  a few faster numbers. If you miss this show, however, there’s always the main event at the newly restored Yachiyoza Theater. At 8:30pm on festival nights, a recap of the summer dance extravaganza is performed in the hall for the bargain price of ¥500. It’s worth the price of admission alone just to see the painted ceiling and gilded walls.

A young girl performing on the open stage in Yamaga
A young girl performing on the open stage in Yamaga

There’s hardly any information in English at the festival and getting to Yamaga by public transport is not terribly easy (I definitely recommend the bus or a car), but festival goers were excited to see a foreign face in their midst and, as I said before, this is one of the prettiest sights I have seen in Japan to date.

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