Lighting My Way: Lantern Festival in Beautiful Onomichi

By Fiona Dwinger

Edited by Liz Millership

I unfolded the 4-page pink copy of Onomichi Information while sitting at my designated grey square metre of desk space at one of my seven schools, cooling fan in hand.

What to do this weekend?

Before I even began to browse through the bi-lingual pamphlet distributed monthly by the Onomichi Association for International Exchange Promotion, I knew that there would be something to do. There are memorable experiences to be made, positive impressions to be gained, bizarre occurrences to be remembered in my new home – quaint, beautiful, bohemian, heart-warming Onomichi.

During October alone there was a costume contest and concurrent parade, sumo wrestling, a yacht race, gourmet food and sweets festivals (where local delicacies could be tasted), moon viewing, Chrysanthemum-viewing festivals, and organised walks across to the neighboring island of Mukaishima. That’s not to mention a plethora of traditional, seasonal, dance and drum festivals that I’m certain more than a few new JETs have experienced recently in their respective towns and cities.

One in particular however, stood out even amongst the outstanding, and that was the Onomichi Lantern Festival, which was to be held on the 12th of October. So that’s what so many of my students had been crafting, cutting, painting and drawing for so diligently during the past few weeks…

Fiona- Lanterns

30,000 Lanterns, Each One Unique.

The grassy area in front of the station, often frequented by international clientele (e.g. ALTs) and lovingly dubbed “The Grassy Knoll” (or just “the GK”), was abuzz with evening activity. The many temples and shrines dotting Onomichi, Yutori Square, Soraiken Garden, Onomichi’s Museum of Art, and the Shotengai (a street lined with small boutique shops, specialty stores, distinctive cafes and restaurants which sometimes make me wonder how some of them stay in business, particularly considering their odd opening hours), were lit up by thousands of candles protected from the rising wind by the lanterns that had been lovingly crafted by the children of Onomichi.

Our group of five ALTs enjoyed following the trails that these small but bright pieces of art made, and, using our rudimentary knowledge of Japanese kanji, we tried to decipher from which school each group of lanterns came. Perfectly parallel lines of lanterns lined the usually dark stairways, trails and alleys, or were delicately arranged into bigger designs and fun forms – rockets, stars and violins. And all around children were laughing, running, screaming and having fun. Yet throughout the evening, I did not see even one lantern knocked over by either whirling child or wind.

Fiona- Lanterns

I felt remarkably at peace in the middle of this dazzling display. It reflected the reasons for my growing love of this town, and my first impressions of Japanese society – attention to detail, awareness of aesthetics and (a)symmetry, appreciation for beautiful things and an undeniable love for children. After three months of living in Japan, I cannot emphasize enough how these kinds of events calm me and instill in me a sense of balance. Perhaps some other ALTs out there might be able to relate. The atmosphere that emanates from this friendly, safe environment cannot be stressed enough, and should not be taken for granted.

Many families, parents, children, teachers and school personnel came out to enjoy the hard work of their charges, and we were frequently greeted on spiraling stone staircases or whilst exploring revealed paths. Often, these greetings evolved into small talk in budding Japanese. The delicately flickering candle lights were accompanied by artists playing traditional Japanese instruments and students performing with their school bands.

Happiness. Harmony. Cold.

Fiona- Portrait

The feeling I got here is the kind of feeling that I imagine I might get from strolling across a traditional Christmas market in Europe, while eating candied nuts and drinking mulled wine. Perhaps it was the sudden drop in temperature on that day that also contributed to this feeling; earlier that day I had been merrily consuming sake at Saijo’s sake festival dressed in a summer skirt and sandals, while that same evening found me donning jeans (for the first time since arriving in Japan!), a jersey, scarf, socks and beanie. And again I thanked my mother for sending a care package of winter clothes the week before!

I recommend Onomichi if you ever feel in need of refueling your heart, mind, body and spirit. Just looking at the islands, the sea, and the mountains from Onomichi port, and taking a deep, fresh, pure breath of serenity is enough to relax me for the entire day. You can check out the city’s website for upcoming events. And, even though I despise the cold, I am now slightly more enthusiastic about the impending winter in Japan.

Coming from a sunny South African, that really is a declaration of love.