From humble beginnings, what is now Nagasaki Lantern Festival was initially known as the "Shunsetsu Festival" and was started by inhabitants of the city's Chinatown as a way of celebrating Chinese New Year. Since 1994 however, the festival has grown into the biggest winter event in Nagasaki, encapsulating a number of sites across the city. Around 15,000 lanterns adorn the city centre and Chinatown. These together with beautifully crafted and vividly coloured costumes and ornaments, as well as parades and Chinese performing arts, create a wonderful atmosphere of celebration and Chinese culture that transforms Nagasaki each January.
Since the docking of the first Portuguese ships in the port of Nagasaki in 1571, the city has seen a long succession of cultures arrive. Situated on the western edge of Kyushu, the port was ideal for trade with the west and other Asian countries and the legacy of this cultural exchange can still be seen at numerous historical sites around the city today.
At a time when Nagasaki was the only Japanese port open for overseas trade, merchants and sailors settled in the city and Chinatown began to be established from around the 17th century. It was from these early settlers, seeking to carry on the traditions of their native China, that the Shunsetsu Festival started. "Shunsetsu" is traditionally seen as New Year's Day on the lunar calendar and is the most important festival in China. The day before Shunsetsu, families gather together and spend the night waiting for dawn to bring in the New Year.
On the 15th of January by the lunar calendar, the day of "Gensyousetsu" arrives, a day on which many believe that spirits can be seen flying through the night sky. To ensure they weren't missed even when cloudy or foggy, people lit lanterns and wandered the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive spirits. This itself of course grew into the festival we recognize today, and people would also prepare rice dumplings, an important custom that represents family happiness. You can sample this delicacy for yourself as free dumplings are served up on the last day of festivities at Soufukuji Temple!
For 2014 the festival will be held from January 31st until February 14th. With the end coinciding with Valentine's Day this time around, the historic streets of Nagasaki, bathed in the warm light of thousands of delicate lanterns, really does offer visitors a romantic and captivating getaway.
The festival will be spread over 7 main sites around the city, (Shinchi Chinatown, Chuo Koen, Tojin Yashiki, Kofukuji Temple, Kaji-ichi, Haman-machi Arcade and Koushi-byou (Confucian Shrine) with each location and the surrounding streets to be lit with lanterns. The festival actually runs day and night for the duration of the 2 week period however, as the lanterns are the star of the show, after dark really is the best time to go.
To complement the lanterns, there will be several other events held at the locations mentioned above, one of which is the Mazu Procession, a re-enactment of the arrival of Chinese crews at Nagasaki port during the Edo era. In authentic and vibrant period costumes, participants walk from Tenkodo Shrine to Kofukuji Temple to honour the god Mazu, who it was hoped would provide protection whilst voyaging out at sea. You can also take in the Emperor's Parade, which sees the Emperor's palanquin carried through the city accompanied by 150 flag bearers, all in beautifully crafted costumes. In other events, breathtaking traditional Chinese acrobatics can be seen as well as the "Dragon Dance", a ritual performed to bring rain and a good harvest in which the performers call out to the sky as their 20 metre long dragon weaves and darts its way through the streets, mouth gaping wide trying to swallow up the moon! In addition to the festivities, you can easily spend a couple of days visiting any number of historical sites in a city which reflects both western, east Asian and traditional Japanese influences in its architecture and cuisine. You can check out the best places to see at
The Lantern Festival is the centrepiece of the city for the 2 weeks that it is held however, with so much on offer in the area, the hardest part of extending your visit is deciding where to go first! In addition to the lanterns, the nearby summit of 333 metre high Mount Inasa offers an evening panorama voted as one of the new top three night views in the world! It's just a short bus ride from the city centre and, if your feet are sore from following events in town, don't worry as the summit can be reached by ropeway!
Of course, no trip to Nagasaki would be complete without a trip to the port, and just a 50 minute ferry ride away is the island of Gunkanjima. One of the key sites of the Kyushu-Yamaguchi industrial revolution during the Meiji era, Gunkanjima has recently been put forward as a candidate for World Heritage status. Deserted since 1974, the island formerly served as a coal mine and, with over 5000 residents crammed onto the 480 by 150 metre island, it was at its peak the most densely populated area recorded in human history! After the closure of the mine, the island was abandoned to the elements and, after being exposed to many typhoons over the past four decades, the remaining derelict buildings provide a rather eerie insight into what was once a thriving and unique island community. Guided trips have been run since 2009 from the port and you can also enjoy fantastic views of Nagasaki from the ferry.
Please take a look at the following link for Nagasaki Lantern Festival 2014 access information.