Thousands gather for annual Lantern Festival

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August 20, 2006 was a beautiful summer day. It wasn’t too hot, the temperature stayed in the mid-80s and people enjoyed it, especially those who came, volunteered and performed at the Como Park Lantern Lighting Festival. It seemed to volunteers, performers and those who attended in other years that more people came to this year’s festival.

Well, more people did come this year, the crowd was estimated at 6,000 plus. And what did those 6,000 people see and enjoy? Dancers, musicians, singers, martial arts performers and many food and activity booths. The Lantern Lighting Festival is a joint venture of Como Park Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, The Saint Paul Nagasaki Sister City Committee and the Japan America Society of Minnesota.

Many of the performers have been performing at the festival for years, such as koto (a long 13 stringed Japanese zither) player Fern Davidson and shakuhachi (Japanese flute) player Leo Hanson. Davidson and Hanson spelled each other off playing half-hour sets in the Como Ordway Japanese garden. The garden designed by Nagasaki Master Gardener, Masami Matsuda was a gift to the City of Saint Paul from the Ordway family in memory of their mother Charlotte Ordway.

The five martial arts groups excited people through their defenses skills at their own stage. They were: Aikodo Yosho Kai, Upper Midwest and Midwest Karate, Minnesota Kyudo, the Kai Society and Bujinkan Mizu Nagare Dojo.

The American Kite-Flyers Association fascinated people through their booth and an aerial show seen not only in the park but in surrounding neighborhoods as well.
The big show, though, was at the main stage that sat in front of the Ordway Japanese Memorial Garden and the Conservatory. It ran smoothly through the apt informative and entertaining emceeing of WCCO-TV’s Maya Nishikawa. Three taiko (drum) groups, three dance groups and a singing group made up the day’s entertainment.
Past Emcees to the festival sat on chairs provided for them at the side of the stage. Nishikawa, however, sat with her audience on the lawn across from the stage and enjoyed the performances only returning to the stage to announce the coming acts and numbers, which made a positive impression with the crowd and performers.

Two veteran Taiko groups, Kogan Taiko and Mu Daiko performed, as did Misora Taiko. Kogan Taiko and Mu Daiko are always in demand for classic and traditional Taiko drumming. Misora Taiko blended in a touch of jazz into their playing.

The Mu Min Singers have sung at many Lantern Lighting Festivals. They are composed of 15 singers ranging in age from 20 to 90 — 11 sang at the festival. Their specialty is Japanese children songs. Mu Min’s leader and pianist, Chiemi Onikura Bly said she was well pleased with the large attendance this year.

Linda Hashimoto van Dooijeweert’s Sansei Yonsei Kai (third and fourth generation) could easily add Gosei (fifth generation) to their name, they have been dancing for many years. The group also has several small children as members who always seems to steal the show.

Mikaharu Kai has been around a long time too — since 1978. They are known for both their classical and folk dancing. Sometimes instructor, Tamakiku Katsura (Hisako Wendt) will take a group minyo (folk dance) and through her choreographer skills, transform it into a classical solo dance. She is just as apt at turning classical solo dances into group minyos.

The new kids on the block this year were the University of Wisconsin at River Falls Japanese Dance Group (Japanese exchange students). They are acrobatic dancers and their rendition of Soran Bushi (the Fishermen’s dance) with leaping, kicking and other energetic maneuvers created an exciting dance that was felt by their audience. It was a fun way to close the afternoon program.

Then Mikaharu Kai taught and led people in the blocked off street by the stage into a Bon Odori dance while on the stage the Mu Min Singers sang the Tonka Bushi and other minyos often played at Bon Odories, as Mu Daiko members played taiko and flute. Bon Odori is part of Obon, a Buddhist holiday were people remember love ones who have passed away. It is said during Bon Odoris dances, departed souls often join in the dancing. After the Bon Odori candles were lit in paper boats representing deceased love ones and launched in the garden’s pond and Como’s famous Frog Pound. Lantern lighting is part of Obon too.

Yes, it was a big year, or as Hashimoto van Dooijeweert, who also has the Sansei Yonsei Kai activity booth put it, “We did quite well.”

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