Every year in August, all the parks and heritage sites in the city of Nara in Japan are bathed in the glow of tens of thousands of candles.
It’s called the Nara ‘Tokae’, from the Japanese word for a shape that resembles flower petals that sometimes form around the wick when a candle is lit. The shape is said to represent good fortune.
Every year since 2003, a similar scene unfolds thousands of kilometres away in Canberra’s Lennox Gardens.
This is because Nara became Canberra’s first ‘sister city’ on 26 October 1993 – the youngest capital city in Australia teaming up with one of Japan’s oldest capital cities, and both with similarly sized populations. Beijing, China, followed in 2000 and Wellington, New Zealand, in 2016.
Then ACT Chief Minister Rosemary Follet and Mayor of Nara Yasunori Ohkawa agreed to promote exchange activities between the two cities, starting with various school-to-school programs and followed by connections in the business, sports, technology and tourism fields.
To celebrate the relationship, the citizens of Nara raised $100,000 for the development of the Canberra-Nara Park in 1999. This included two of the largest stone lanterns ever made in Japan and a large wooden gate feature – all still on display in Lennox Gardens today.
In 2003, in the wake of the devastating bushfires, the Nara City government and council also donated $150,000 to the ACT Bushfire Appeal – the same year we kicked off the first ‘Canberra Nara Candle Festival’.
This weekend marks not only the 30th anniversary of the start of our sister-city relationship but also 20 years of the festival. The Mayor of Nara Motonobu Nakagawa and the Japanese Ambassador to Australia, Kazuhiro Suzuki, will be making guest appearances.
“Fantastic for this year, we’ve got a delegation coming from Nara to support the event and the sister-city relationship,” Ross Triffitt from Events ACT said.
The rest of the program will look very similar to previous iterations. Think Japanese cuisine, cultural demonstrations with music, ‘taiko’ drumming, martial arts, calligraphy and origami demonstrations and traditional toys and activities for the family.
“It really celebrates Japanese culture and promotes the values of peace and goodwill,” Ross says.
The event wouldn’t live up to its name without the candles. While it’s not quite the tens of thousands in Nara, Ambassador Suzuki and ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr will light the first of 2000 candles at dusk.
Ross says despite the fact it’s not promoted as significantly as Floriade or Enlighten might be, the festival never fails to draw a crowd.
“Our record attendance was over 17,000 in 2018, just before COVID, so it’s a very popular event and with all Canberrans, really.”
Elsewhere, the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG), on the corner of London Circuit and Civic Square in the city, is also hosting an exhibition this month to celebrate “30 years of friendship and cultural exchange between Nara and Canberra”.
This covers the history of the relationship, including milestone moments and personal stories.
The Nara Candle Festival will be held on Saturday, 4 November, from 4 pm to 9 pm.
A free shuttle service will run between the Parliamentary Triangle and Lennox Gardens on the night. Visit the ACT Events website for more information on this shuttle or parking options.