The Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 has widely been regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in Japan’s recent history. Over six thousand lives were lost and there were billions of dollars in damages. However, in all the chaos and pain something beautiful and bright began. The Italian government donated over 200,000 painted lights for a fundraising exhibition in Kobe city. What started as a one off display of light and hope has now become a permanent fixture of the holiday season– the Kobe Luminarie, a reminder that there is always light in the darkest of times.
The experience is a magical one. A few minutes before the lights go on, a hush falls over the crowd. While anticipation begins to rise, voices drop to whispers. A countdown begins in the dark, a collective breath is held, and then, like a wave, the lights bloom along the street. The whole world seems to glow in a myriad of colors as intricate patterns light up the street. The entrance itself is a work of art, but the truly remarkable display lies at the center of the park at the end of the illumination: an all-encompassing ring of endless color and light.
Groups of friends, families and couples wander the maze of lights. The holiday season allows otherwise dissuaded acts of affection, such as holding hands, hugging and kissing, especially at Luminarie. Perhaps it’s the memory of loss, but during this time the normal stoic nature of the Japanese people fades and something gentler takes its place. There’s a shrine for those who were lost, so under the laughter and excited chatter silent prayers can be found. Despite it being a joyous occasion, everyone knows this event commemorates those lost in the earthquake. A night at the Kobe Luiminarie can feel like a moment stopped in time, an experience outside of normal Japanese life. There’s something magical in this event that can only be experienced if you’ve been there.
Annually, the Kobe Luminarie begins in the first week of December and runs for two weeks. This year, the Luminarie will be open from the 4th to the 13th of December and while admission is free, there are opportunities to make a small donation if you like. The display runs from the Daimaru department store a short walk from Motomachi station, to Higashi Yuenchi Park next to Kobe city hall which is about a 600m walk. It begins at 6pm weekdays and 5pm weekends, running till 10pm on Friday and Saturday and 9:30pm every other night. It is best to arrive about half an hour to an hour early in order to get a good spot when the lights turn on. Along with the lights, there are festival type food stores and souvenirs of the event, but be warned: it gets very crowded. Finally, be sure to either leave early or late as the trains once the lights go off tend to be packed to bursting. For those of you who are interested, do join the Hyogo AJET Luminarie event (Facebook Event) on the group page. Be it with your friends, alone, or otherwise, Luminarie is an unmissable event.