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古河提灯もみまつり (Koga Chouchinmomi Matsuri), also known as the Koga Lantern Fighting Festival

January 9, 2013

Every year on the first Saturday of December, all of Koga congregates to participate in the city’s most famous festival, known as the 古河提灯もみまつり (koga chouchinmomi matsuri), or as we English speakers in Koga call it, “The Koga Lantern Fighting Festival.” This year marked the 152nd gathering, which was a huge surprise for me.

The premise of the festival is this: neighborhoods around Koga create teams and congregate at the festival to battle each other using paper lanterns strapped to the top of long bamboo poles. Each team constructs their own structure, and a side competition is held to see who built the tallest one. My team won, with a final measurement of 22.78 meters (74.74 feet). The general shape is this: A paper lantern is attached at the top of a very long bamboo pole, which is then supported by three more poles. Think of a tripod with a fourth central leg. Five team members hold onto a leg (meaning twenty people holding onto the structure itself) and then the paper lantern is lit. The teams then crash their lanterns into each other until the lantern goes out, the lantern burns itself to bits, or the bamboo poles break. It can get pretty dangerous, what with hot wax and/or fire raining down on you, and by participating on one of the teams I got experience the festival firsthand.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “How did she ever manage to get on a team?” It was pretty simple really. As many of you know, over the summer I participated in Koga’s summer festival by carrying a 神輿 (mikoshi), a portable shrine, with members of the neighborhood surrounding my Tuesday school. They were kind enough to invite me to participate, and we had so much fun together that they made me promise to join their team in December’s festival.

My joining the neighborhood team was important to them, because my Tuesday elementary school is part of a separate team. When neighborhoods are too small to create their own teams, they rally behind the elementary schools so the children have a team they can participate in during the children’s battles. Therefore, the teacher who joined us in carrying the 神輿 over the summer had to be part of the elementary school team.

The members of the surrounding neighborhood didn’t want me to join the “enemy team,” as they called it, so after the second day of the summer festival the head of neighborhood came up to me and made me pinky promise to join their team. And a pinky promise is one you can’t break! They kept reminding me over the next few months that come December, my teachers and I were to become enemies and that I should fight with all of my strength.

Fast forward to December, to the festival. Since I was a little nervous to be the only female fighting on the team (and a foreigner at that), I invited Jess to join me. Luckily, she was all for participating and we were briefed on where we should be as well as some things we should expect, especially since being on a team can be slightly dangerous. For example, you have to be wary of hot wax from the lantern dripping down onto your head or face, or even worse — when burning pieces of lanterns detach themselves to fall on you. I say it’s dangerous, because you’re cramming hundreds of people into a tiny narrow space, so there really isn’t much room for you if you want to dodge. All you can do is duck.

The overall goal of the festival is for the teams to enter a narrow wooden alleyway and bash their structures together until the fire goes out, the lantern is destroyed, or the bamboo structure is destroyed. The catch is that there can only be five people holding onto each leg of the structure when you first start out, so a total of 20 people handling the poles. Those rules tend to go a little lax when the fights are underway and the crowd end up pinching you away from your team and you have to fight your way back through. There are also team members who will line the sides of the alleyway who yell instructions if a tripod leg needs to move in order to make sure the whole thing doesn’t fall over.

There are two types of battles that the adults fight at the festival. The first to happen is a regulated tournament, where teams are grouped into two blocks and they take turns to determine the last few teams standing. Then those teams duke it out in the finals. So, in total there are about three rounds. These rounds are timed and if teams don’t determine the last one standing within that time frame, all of the remaining teams go to the finals.

The second type of battle is a Battle Royale, where all of the teams are fighting at the same time and as long as you survive within the allotted time it’s considered a win. And oh man, is it ever a Battle Royale! There was a lot of body slamming, snarling, tripping, blocking team members from rejoining their teams, kicking your foot to regain your ground (and hitting someone in the process), and there were even a few fistfights breaking out amongst some of the other teams. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser.

Unfortunately, since Jess and I were both participating in the festival, we weren’t able to have our cameras on us. Originally, I had passed my camera onto Kris and our friend Samuel was also going to take pictures, but they both got suckered into joining our team when they came to visit Jess and I at the tent. So, our team boasted four foreigners from three different countries: America, England, and Germany! Luckily for me, however, my principal from my Wednesday Elementary school had his camera and made a compilation of pictures to give to me the next week at school.

I look deranged, right? Probably all the bloodlust and adrenaline.

I look deranged, right? Probably all the bloodlust and adrenaline.

While we had to bow out of the Battle Royale with two minutes to spare (one of our bamboo poles broke because of too much pressure in trying to move it) my team won the regulated battles! We let out a loud roar when we realized that we had won. Supposedly it’s the first time in a really long while that this particular neighborhood won, so my team members were definitely pleased when we were announced as the champions.  Afterward, a few of us paused to take a quick group photo and then started in on the cleanup.

Group photo!

Group photo!

Participating in the festival was loads of fun, and already my teammates are attempting to make me promise to join next year as well. I wasn’t able to say yes, because who knows where I’ll be in a year? While I have decided to sign on for another year as an English teacher (no surprise there, I’m sure), I have no idea whether or not I’ll be allowed to stay in Koga.

So, for now, all I can say is, “Wait and see.”

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