One of my all-time favorite events of the summer, the Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival held annually at Como Park on the third Sunday of August has become a tradition for me since at least 2006. A vibrant, yet intimate cultural event celebrating Japan’s “Obon” festival and the almost 60 year relationship between St. Paul and Nagasaki, celebrating peace and cultural understanding between nations.
Every year I have gone has been great, offering a taste of Japanese culture and history with a Minnesota twist, as well as good eats, music, shopping, and some great people watching (my Mom’s favorite hobby). Even with the rain and thunder this year, (the first time the weather has not cooperated since I started going), spirits were not dampened and a sizable crowd converged in Como Park to participate in the festivities. The heavy skies and low rumble of thunder in the distance added to the ambiance, if anything, making this a particularly memorable year. As the rain trickled down on the umbrellas of the diverse crowd, an enthusiastic audience watched performances of everything from traditional taiko drumming and classical shamisen, to J-Pop and martial arts performances. The rain was finished by the time it came around the the penultimate event of the Festival, the lighting of the lanterns themselves as they are set afloat in the park’s Frog Pond.
The largest Japanese cultural festival in Minnesota, Como Park’s Lantern Lighting festival pays homage to a Japanese holiday that occurs in the later summer, under humid skies, summertime heat, and the droning of cicadas. Not too different from the Minnesota summer. Known colloquially in English as the “Japanese Day of the Dead,” when family members visit grave sites to honor dead loved ones. Along with this, of course, there is plenty of dancing and delicacies as well, and these aspects are definitely present at Como Park. Dances such as the Bon Odori welcome the spirits to the celebration, ending with the lighting of small paper lanterns which are set adrift on a body of water, here the Frog Pond near the McNeely Conservatory.
The Lantern Lighting Festival began at 3:00, and, while the rain seemed to lessen the crowd somewhat, there was still a large and boisterous group gathering. Like most weekends at Como, if you are driving, it is advisable to arrive early in order to find parking nearby. The entire park is quite crowded on any given nice summer Sunday, let alone with an event. A better option would be to take public transit, as Metro Routes 3 and 83 provide bus service to the park, and there are plenty of bike routes as well. The park also offers a free shuttle bus from the nearby District Service Center.
Arriving at the park, finding a place to spread a blanket and set on the grass with a view of the stage, one can watch one’s fellow festival goers arrive as well, a diverse group wearing all manner of costume, from traditional summer yukata (summer kimonos), to cosplay. Many umbrellas were on display this year, in particular. Set up around the park are a multitude of booths and stands, representing local Japanese-American cultural and educational institutions and other local organizations sharing their missions with entertaining games and contests, often traditional to such celebrations. In addition, you can often find booths selling Japanese antiques and specialties, where you can get some pretty good deals on a used kimono or obi, some pottery, or some used manga. While I am unfortunately not proficient in the language, I scored a few cool English language cultural books as well.
By this point, you are probably hungry, so there are also the food vendors set up to offer a variety of delectable Japanese street food from local restaurants. The Tea Source, my favorite purveyor of tea in the Twin Cities was there offering Japanese teas this year, both iced and hot (the hot was particularly appreciated on the cool, wet, blustery afternoon). In addition to this, I had some takoyaki (octopus balls) and agedashi tofu from local restaurant Saji-Ya, and some red bean paste treats, a dorayaki and a steam bun as well. These provided energy as I explored the beautiful Marjorie McNeely Conservatory and the Ordway Japanese Garden. No matter how many times I visit these gardens, it seems there is always something new to look at, and wandering the elegant paths and stones of the garden is made even better with a volunteer playing folk tunes on a shakuhachi.
But of course, the big draw are the performances, and each offer something unique and different; this year, in spite of a handful of cancellations due to the rain (and the damage humidity can do to delicate instruments), there was a lot to see. A variety of martial arts groups, demonstrating various forms of Japanese martial arts, such as kendo, karate, and kyudo (Japanese archery), practice their forms on the field, offering membership for those interested- it is always fun to see people chopping apart bundles of bamboo with their katana! I particularly liked the taiko drumming, always an energetic and dynamic show, performed by two different groups this year, Sansei Yonsei Kai and the ever popular Mu Daiko. In addition, the classical Japanese koto tunes of Sakura Kai and folk and popular songs of Mu-Min are also fun to listen to.
Among the most popular performances are the dances, with a Japanese school group showing off some J-pop moves, while others exhibited more traditional forms, but even these had their own local twists. Many of the dances invite the audience to participate as well, though, this being Minnesota, many do prefer to watch. The most important dance is the Bon Odori, which welcomes the spirits of the dead and rounds out the performances, as the dancing procession is lead over to the Frog Pond to begin the lighting of the lanterns. This year was particularly awesome, with an original Bon Odori song being performed by drummers Mu Daiko, the Mu-Min choir, and dance troupe Mikaharu Kai, celebrating the blend of Minnesota and Japanese culture.
As the sun set, the sky started to clear as the lights of the Conservatory shine down upon the Frog Pond, upon which has been set a raft of small, glowing lanterns, floating slowly, gathering in rafts as the wind rippled the water. Gentle koto melodies were played in the background as people gathered in the dim evening light to watch the lanterns begin their journey around the pool, allowing watchers to reflect upon those who have passed on. The St. Paul night seemed quiet, serene. It was a great and relaxing finale to a vibrant and exciting event.
Next year will be the 60th anniversary of St. Paul and Nagasaki’s Sister City relationship and it is promising to be a very big deal, with visiting dignitaries from Japan and a lot of fanfare, so if you have not been yet, 2015 might be the best time to go. I’m definitely looking forward to it!