Part 3: The Festival / Part 4: Oyster Farming / Part 5: Camp Life
Floating lanterns are usually in memory of the dead, but this year in Ishinomaki, the main aim was specifically to console the spirits of those who lost their lives in the tsunami and earthquake. According to the unofficial “fan” website, each lantern has the name of a tsunami victim written upon it.
When I first heard about the floating lantern festivals of Japan almost ten years ago, my aunt had recently passed away. I asked my Japanese teacher if I would be allowed to launch a lantern-boat for a relative at such a festival, even though I wasn’t Japanese, and she said it would be okay. Even though the idea was merely theoretical, her answer touched me at a difficult time. Since then, Bon dances and the floating lanterns have felt special to me.
The lanterns themselves (in the case of Ishinomaki) consisted of a round waterproof paper tray with a candle and coloured paper forming a rectangle around it. Of course, you can’t just buy 10,000 waterproof paper trays, which was where our team came in. On the morning of the festival, we systematically sprayed the lantern bases with waterproofing liquid, piled them in pyramids so they could dry and then stacked them again.
Before the lanterns were launched, there was a carnival-like atmosphere in the city centre. Food vendors, free mikan juice from POM and charity suika-wari. TV camera operators lined up on the bridge in front of the Mangattan Manga Museum (The white, egg-like building in the photographs). A group of us were even asked to help light the candles around the ceremonial site. The vendors and matsuri are for another post though, and the mood quickly shifted once the event got underway.
As the first lanterns were released, Buddhist chants played over the loudspeaker. Most people around me got out their cellphones and took pictures until the prayers started. I wouldn’t have dared to take pictures myself otherwise.
The sky got darker until we could really see the lanterns and the prayers and chants continued. The section on the other side of the river is comprised of gutted buildings and rubble beyond; in most cases the lighting comes from floodlights presumably set up to discourage criminal activity. In near darkness, the lanterns floated by in complete silence. It was lonely and heart-breaking.
The priests started chanting the names of everyone who had been killed in the recent disaster. I couldn’t pick out individual names, just the rhythmic murmur of voices. It would take them hours to go through them all. It’s the same number of paper lanterns we waterproofed.