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Japanese lantern lighting and 60 years of sister cities

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Japan has some of the most celebrated summer festivals in the world. While you might not be able to hop on a plane to experience the magic in person, heading over to Como Park Zoo & Conservatory this Sunday will give you a kind of Japanese-American hybrid version of what it could be like. The Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival, held on the grounds of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Como Park, is held around the time of Japan’s annual Obon holiday honoring ancestral spirits. 

This is the 16th year of the festival, which also happens around the 60th anniversary of St. Paul and Nagasaki becoming Sister cities. Besides loads of performances, demonstrations, games for kids, and the lantern ceremony, the festival will include a visit by Nagasaki’s mayor, Tomihisa Taue, who is will be in town all weekend for various events.

According to Rio Saito, program manager for the Japan America Society, the Lantern Lighting Festival began as a picnic for Japanese American people living in Minnesota. Over the years, the event has grown and evolved into a celebration that carries out the Japanese Buddhist tradition of lighting lanterns so that ancestors will come back to visit.

In Japan for Obon families traditionally decorate their houses so that the spirits will know where to return. There’s also a big meal, and lanterns are placed in a river or ocean. Depending on the region, the lanterns are set in the water either at the beginning of Obon, so the lantern can lead the way toward one’s home, or at the end of the festival, showing the ancestor back to where they go.

For Como Park’s festival, the lanterns are made with a wooden board, protected by four walls of paper. Park volunteers create the lanterns, which are lit with electric lights rather than the traditional wax candles.

Since the Japan America Society have become involved with the event, they have tried to bring a more authentic feel. For example, there will be activities such as goldfish scooping (kingyo), and a game played with water balloons (yoyo-tsuri), both of which are traditionally played at Japanese summer festivals. There will also be a chance to write in calligraphy, or to have an expert calligrapher write something for you.

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However, there will be a Minnesota feel as well. “We’re not trying to copy,” Saito says. “We believe we can create a hybrid of what Japanese and Americans can do together. It’s the Minnesota flavor that makes us original,” she says.

In addition to the Lantern Lighting Festival, this weekend also includes a number of events celebrating 60 years of St. Paul being a sister city with Nagasaki. The city's mayor, Tomihisa Taue, will be making a number of stops throughout the weekend, including the Vision of Peace statue at St. Paul City Hall, the Japanese Gardens at Como Park, the Saint Paul Saints stadium for Saturday’s game, and the opening of an exhibition, called “From War to Reconciliation,” at the Landmark Center with photographs from the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. (See here for details.) 

Sunday’s festival includes dance performances, with two shows performed by artists from Nagasaki. There’ll also be traditional Japanese festival games, taiko performances, archery and martial arts demonstrations, and Japanese street food.