Wednesday, July 18, 2012

14th Annual Lantern Festival: A sort of Japanese festival

The Forest Hills Educational Trust has put on an Annual Lantern Festival in the Forest Hills Cemetery at Lake Hibiscus for 14 years. I heard about this event years ago and kept thinking I should go, but JP is a little out of the way when you live in the Cambridge-Somerville area and I never made it. Until last week!

You'll note the word "Japanese" is nowhere in the name of the event. Judging by the entertainment at this year's festival, I'd guess it's intended to be a multicultural event whose focal point is inspired by the Buddhist tradition of tōrō nagashi. This is the closest thing Boston has to an Obon festival. From the program:

Inspired by an ancient tradition
The Lantern Floating Ceremony is an ancient ritual, practiced in various forms throughout eastern Asia. At this time in mid-summer, ancient tradition holds, a gateway opens to the world of the ancestors. During Japan's Bon Festival, people light lanterns to invite ancestors to visit their famlies. Then, the lanterns are sent floating out to sea to guide the ancestors back to the world of the spirits. Prayers are offered so their souls may rest in peace.

Here at Forest Hills, The Lantern Festival offers a way to remember departed family and friends. Through inscriptions on the lanterns and through the candlelight that transforms the darkness, we send our own messages of love, peace and hope into the world and to those we love.

I arrived around 6:30 and found that the site was already pretty crowded with people camped out around most of the lake. It looked like some people had been there all day picnicking. There were lots of families with children.

There was an eclectic mix of entertainment. Unfortunately, people were really rude and were standing in front of the stage so those of us in the back couldn't see well. I went closer to take some pictures but didn't want to be among the people blocking the view, so I didn't actually see most of the performances.


  • Female students from Showa Boston performing to Japanese music.
  • Taiko by Grand Master Tsuiji and students from the Samurai Academy in Weymouth, MA (who knew you could learn taiko in Weymouth?).

For a $10 donation to the Trust, you can purchase a sleeve for a lantern and have a Japanese student from Showa write on it with ink and a brush. You can select love (愛)hope (希望)peace (平和), & eternal life (永生). (Google Translate says eternal life is Chinese.)

You can then personalize your lantern sleeve at tables with crayons and markers. The kids loved this. I saw messages to loved ones, including departed pets.

After that you pick up a frame that has a tea light in it. Slide your sleeve onto the frame and then you wait for it to become dark.

Before the official time to launch the lanterns we noticed a few impatient people had already lit and launched their lanterns. The lantern lighting portion of the evening was not well-organized. There were only a few volunteers with long reach lighters and it wasn't clear where to find them. If I go again, I'll take my own long reach lighter. Some people had matches and others were getting a light from other people's lit candles. My candle went out while I was walking back to my friends to launch and I had a hard time getting the candle out of it's little hole. I got a light from a stranger and then couldn't get my candle back into the hole so it sat there at a precarious angle.


The highlight of the evening in my section was a visit from a turtle! Very auspicious. Someone pointed out they're good luck.

Lucky turtle

The occasional breeze blew out lanterns once they hit the water and some capsized when a strong wave came along. But most lanterns stayed lit and afloat while we were there. It was quite beautiful. It's a nice way to spend a summer afternoon/evening.

Some folks don't know which way is up. See lantern on bottom left.
Love Love

Things you'll want to bring if you go next year:

  • Water & food - No food or beverages are sold at the site. Pack a bento & some mugicha!
  • Bug spray - Very important since you'll be near a lake at dusk.
  • Long-sleeved shirt or jacket/pants - It gets cool after the sun goes down and this will also help protect you from the bugs.
  • Long reach lighter
  • Flashlight - They do bring in some construction lights, but vast portions of the cemetery will be very dark.

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