This city halfway around the world has a giant Christmas tree from Nova Scotia
How a Halifax gift became the main event of an annual Japanese festival
Floating on a barge at the fore of a seaside city halfway around the world, a Nova Scotia balsam fir casts a glow 50,000 lights strong that people from all over Japan come to see.
Every year for about two decades, a giant Christmas tree has travelled from Halifax to Hakodate.
The holiday tradition is little-known here but highly celebrated in the city 10,000 kilometres away.
Twin cities half a world apart
Hakodate, located on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, boasts stunning mountain vistas and bay views.
It is also home to hot springs where monkeys like to bathe. You can find daily radiation reports for the city online after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011.
But Hakodate also bears similarities to Halifax — it has a busy port, a star-shaped citadel and northerly climate.
In fact the two are twin cities, a designation more than 30 years old.
The Christmas Fantasy festival
From that bond was born the tradition of gifting a massive balsam fir to Hakodate for its annual Christmas Fantasy festival.
Thomas Trappenberg, president of the Halifax-Hakodate Friendship Association, has seen first-hand how big a deal the tree is during that holiday event.
The tree stands tall on its floating barge, overlooking the city in front of a row of red brick warehouses that line the waterfront.
"It's really the centrepiece of the whole festival," Trappenberg said.
Five years ago, Trappenberg attended a ceremony with his family and got to flip the switch for the lights on Christmas Day.
He said the tree means a lot to the town.
"They're very proud that they have this festival which is so well-known in Japan now," he said.
Big balsam fir, big voyage
This year's Christmas tree was a 13-metre balsam fir from New Germany, N.S.
"It was tough to get in a container," said John Simmons, Halifax's urban forester who managed the tree from its choosing to its shipment to Japan.
This year's tree left Nova Scotia on Sept. 28 for its voyage to Japan, which takes over a month.
From truck to train to ship
Simmons said the tree was trucked to Montreal, travelled to Vancouver by train, then shipped across the ocean to Hakodate in order to arrive well in advance of the Christmas Fantasy festival's opening ceremony Dec. 1.
Halifax pays for the tree — which usually costs about $3,500 — and its truck ride to Montreal. The city of Hakodate picks up the tab for the tree's journey from Quebec to Japan.
As for why the annual tradition is not better known to Nova Scotians, Simmons said Halifax could probably do a better job of tooting its own horn.