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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Shining Light on Kobe

Dec. 9, 2016

The annual Kobe Luminarie festival has come to symbolize the city’s reconstruction following the Great Hanshin Earthquake 22 years ago. Each December, thousands of light bulbs are switched on in the city, transforming wooden structures into brightly lit art.

The event began as a memorial for the victims of the earthquake, and to cheer up local residents. On January 17, 1995, a magnitude 7.3 quake ripped through the Kansai area of western Japan. 6,434 people died.

As the reconstruction efforts dragged on, the atmosphere in the city became gloomier. To counter this, Kobe authorities decided to hold a light festival inspired by Buddhist bonfire ceremonies, and it has since become an annual event.

On the festival’s twentieth anniversary in 2014, some people proposed making that year’s festival the last. But the people of Kobe had grown fond of their new festival, and the tradition lives on.

"I experienced the earthquake, but my children were born after it. I want Luminarie to help me share stories about the devastation and the long road to reconstruction," says one man there.

Daniel Monteverde has been working with Luminaire for 17 years. Since last year, he's served as the festival’s creative director. The Italian national has lived in Japan for more than 30 years.

Light festivals originated in Italy and the name Luminarie refers to Christian prayer festivals that have been held around Europe since the 16th century. The idea is said to have been influenced by architecture that relies on artificial light. The current use of electric lights began in southern Italy, where light festivals are held every summer.

The lights used in Kobe are custom ordered from a workshop in Italy. The most important task for the creative director is to choose the right design. Monteverde held many discussions with the designers in Italy before they finally settled on a plan for the illuminations.

"People have been coming here 21 years. They bring different feelings, with them," he says. "So I chose design quite different from last year, so they come and get surprised."

Monteverde held many discussions with the designers in Italy before they finally settled on a plan for the illuminations.

He has employed symbolic, baroque-style patterns. The corridor’s ceiling is 2 meters lower than last year. The front of the gate has also been made to look more 3-dimensional, and it's been filled with light so that the visitors walking through it are enveloped in a glow.

The colors of the lights are also more suitable for the Kobe event. In Italy, where luminaries are held in the summer, the primary color is blue but Monteverde decided to use warmer colors for this year’s festival. He increased the number of colors used from 7 to 9, and added 30,000 more lights than last year.

"It's winter here, so it's cold outside, so you need warm lights," Monteverde says.

Luminarie experts traveled from Italy to help assemble the installation. Some of the structures are as tall as 21 meters, and they have to be put together by hand, up to their very tips.

Lighting expert Tommaso De Martinis has been working in this field for 40 years. He says he is very excited to participate in the Kobe Luminarie.

He checks all 330,000 LED light bulbs to make sure they work properly and that the colors are balanced. It’s time-consuming work but he works patiently every day.

"I'm very happy that the people of Kobe have chosen a luminarie to honor the victims of the earthquake, just as we do in Italy," De Martinis says.

The workers continue to make adjustments until the very last minute. Finally, the big night has arrived when the lights are switched on.

Kenwa Narita, a native of Kobe, is the event’s official photographer. Like other survivors of the quake, Narita has drawn strength from the Luminarie. For 10 years, he has been taking photographs of people admiring the lights -- the same people who hope this festival will keep running for many years to come.

"There are so many people who look truly happy, who even look like they’re praying. It reminds me that lots of people need Luminarie, that it’s become the kind of event people live for," he says.

Also at the ceremony were the Italian technicians who joined the people of Kobe in a moment of silence for the victims.

Monteverde feels he has accomplished his goal of bringing joy and hope to the people of Kobe.

"This is really a unique event, I think, in the world, because it was born out of the tragedy, and it has such a beauty and feelings of millions of millions of people are here. It's not just lights, it's the people who make this event so great, so wonderful," he says.

The first Luminarie offered a ray of hope during one of the darkest periods in Kobe’s history. Now the festival and the unchanging beauty of light continue to brighten the hearts of the people.