Lighting the way for ancestors

Summer is a time of festivals and celebrations in Japan. An interesting one is toro nagashi, a Japanese tradition where paper lanterns lit with candles are released into a river. A yearly event in Tokyo is held along the Sumida River, where upwards of 2,000 lanterns are set afloat. IMG_7919

Toro nagashi is a tradition in which the lanterns are released on rivers to guide the spirits of the ancestors back to the other side during the Obon holiday. Obon is an annual Buddhist event for commemorating ancestors. It’s a time when many Japanese travel to their home towns, to reunite with their families and pay respects to ancestors. The festival lasts for three days, but dates vary from region to region.

This year, the Sumida River toro nagashi was on the evening of August 11. Although not the biggest crowd I’ve seen in Asakusa, there were still thousands of people who turned out on a hot, muggy summer night.

For those who want to participate, a lantern can be purchased for 1,500 yen (a little under $15 US). Those with lanterns are directed to a line where the lanterns can be released into the river, beginning at dusk. Some people also release lanterns from party boats that position themselves in the river.

Even if you don’t participate in the lantern release, it does make for an interesting evening. Just watching the people makes attending this festival worthwhile. Although the majority are Japanese, Asakusa also attracts many foreigners. Walking through the crowd, it’s easy to hear English, German, French, Chinese, Italian, and a number of languages less obvious to identify.

The big crowds and unfamiliar culture may seem a bit intimidating for first-time visitors to Japan. But set aside any concerns, and you’ll find festivals like the Sumida toro nagashi to be a fascinating glimpse into Japan’s amazing culture. IMG_7934


The heat and humidity of summer are here, but people in Tokyo don’t let that stop them from having fun. Summer is a time of festivals and celebrations in Tokyo. And it a time for…fireworks!IMG_7601

The Japanese seem to love fireworks displays, and there are some impressive ones here. I recently observed one of the biggest – the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival.

They say this festival dates back to the 1700s, and it’s a popular one. Roughly a million people converge on the Sumida River area of Asakusa every year to see this remarkable event.

This year, the fireworks display had to be postponed a day. A little thing like a typhoon interrupted the festivities. But the typhoon passed, and the fireworks – originally scheduled for Saturday night – proceeded one day later on Sunday.

This year, I walked to the Asakusa area. There are trains that go there, and if you go early, it’s not a problem. But with so many people coming to the show, the trains get very crowded. And, be on notice – there is never a full train in Tokyo. You just push harder to get on. You’ll get to know your fellow passengers better than you might ever want to…

I walked around the Sumida River area for awhile, and crossed the bridge over the river. I found a street that was closed and people were beginning to settle in. Many bring blankets, coolers, and food. It’s a street party in every sense, with hundreds (thousands?) of people having a good time.

I made a good choice of locations. I had a (mostly) unobstructed view of the fireworks. I couldn’t see the river from my vantage point, but had a great view of the fireworks. And it was an amazing show, lasting a full hour.

Then, when the fireworks are over, you have a million people all trying to leave.

I quickly dismissed the trains – the line just to get in the train station stretched more than a block. So, I started walking towards home. The nice thing about Tokyo is that you can walk just about anywhere at night, and not feel unsafe. I walked along the train tracks, down past a few stations. And was able to find a station with almost no line. An easy commute home.

Tokyo’s summer festivals are often very crowded, and the heat can be intense. But bring some water, maybe a snack, and a lot of patience…and you’ll be rewarded with some amazing experiences.