Ever balanced a 55 kilo weight on your head? No, neither have I, and I don’t intend to start any time soon after what I took part in today.
We left our traditional style Japanese hotel (with sliding panels, beds on the floor and other things that make you feel like you’re living in a film) and set off on the one hour drive to the city of Akita. They’re currently enjoying their Kanto Matsuri festival, and in the evening the streets are bathed in colourful light as teams of people parade through the streets carrying huge bamboo poles with numerous paper lanterns hanging off them. They can weigh up to 55kg and knowing how to handle them is such an art that people train for up to 5 years. During the day the teams take part in competitions to see who can hold them in the trickiest positions whilst moving as little as possible. Johny and I were set to go head to head… with 30 minutes training.
When we arrived there were some teams warming up on a square outside a department store and I was instantly impressed. There were 3 or 4 kantos being balanced to the backing of drummers and flute players. The kantos are constructed from several bamboo struts covered in lanterns hanging across a central pole, and individuals were passing them between each other after showing off for 30 seconds or so. They looked ridiculously hard to balance, and heavy, and I saw people balancing the base of the pole on their hips, shoulders, palm of their hand and even forehead.
After a quick interview with one of the team captains we moved to a larger square outside the art museum where crowds were gathering for the main event. They were getting us to balance one they use in children’s competitions which weighs 15kg, but it was still huge as far as I was concerned. On both our first attempts Johny and I were absolutely useless, but we improved slightly on our second go (although I did nearly drop mine into a crowd of children next to us which might not have gone down too well). Then we were told to crack on with our contest as they were running out of time before the official start (everything has to run like clockwork here in Japan or people start to get very twitchy).
Johny went first and the kanto team and I surrounded the circle marked out on the ground and chanted as he tried to keep it on his palm for 30 seconds whilst not moving out of the designated area. He floundered around a bit, but not half as much as me when it was my go. I nearly dropped the towering structure on the kanto team and then, because you have to keep your eye on the pole at all times, wandered way out of the circle and disqualified myself. I was, officially, the loser (I felt a bit better once the proper contest started and I saw a few of the contestants crash their kantos in the judges’ tables).
Once we were all packed up and said our goodbyes we had a stunning two hour drive to our next hotel through the kind of landscape I always imagined Japan would have – wooden mountains and valleys of paddy fields, dotted with simplistic modern houses. Beautiful in the setting sun.