A Travellerspoint blog

August 2016

Festival Season in Japan

Getting started

sunny 89 °F

I'm off to Japan again, this time in the summer to try and overdose on festival season. I'm fortunate that my son Robin is able to come with me for the first two weeks of my three week excursion.

My planning started off with typical airfare complexity. I priced a ticket from Detroit to Tokyo on Delta and others and it was running around $1800 plus - really too much! As Robin was considering joining me, he did the same and found that a Boston to Tokyo ticket on Delta was pricing at $1000! To add insult to injury, the itinerary went through Detroit. So it ended up being cheapest to buy the Boston to Tokyo ticket and then buy a Detroit to Boston ticket to join Robin there to start the trip. I guess the take home lesson for long international flights is to check every major airport in the US and if you can find a fare with substantial savings, just fly there to take advantage. Arrgh.

Our major goal was to experience a variety of Japanese festivals across the country, taking full advantage of our Japan Rail pass. It provides unlimited travel for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days and we expect to really exploit this flexibility! The best bargain is the 21 day pass if you can manage to find the time.

My trip started out in Detroit and my first new experience occurred at the Detroit airport (DTW). Workers were installing green walls in the newly remodeled Gate A-1 area.


The pioneer in this concept is Patrick Blanc - you can learn more at his site http://www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com/

Another bit of a surprise was the plane I flew from DTW to Boston which was a newly remodeled A 319. It looked nice inside with kind of spacey consoles in the ceiling, made more spacey by the clouds of condensation coming in through the ventilation system. The other new feature was a video screen at each seat. This is usually not seen on shorter flights such as this and coupled with Delta's new 'free movies all the time' policy it makes a nice distraction from the rather harder seats that newer Delta jets sport.

I stayed with Robin that night and we hit an early flight from Boston to JFK then on to Narita. This is always a challenge - it's a 13+ hour flight, but going west is the easier direction. We stayed awake on the flight watching movies and otherwise distracting outselves. It was a cool discovery to find the documentary 'All Things Must Pass' which is about Tower Records, a chain that started in Sacramento, went global and then died back to only Japanese branches. Tower Records was where I learned to buy and enjoy music; they even had listening rooms back in the day - and by 'back in the day' I mean like 1963! I'm sure lots of my HS buds remember Tower and would enjoy the flashback.

We landed in the late afternoon and went to the Narita Hilton where I had a cheap room with a few Hilton points. It's a really nice hotel and so much easier than trying to drag into Tokyo the first night. We crashed without even having dinner and woke up famished. Fortunately, the hotel has an epic breakfast buffet with American, European, Japanese and Chinese sections so I made up for lost time by having a Japanese breakfast followed by a more eclectic plate of just about everything. The Japanese breakfast includes (on the right) sticky rice steamed in banana leaf and (on the left) a dish of natto which is definitely an acquired taste that I enjoy.


Rested and fed, we struck out on our quest for festivals!

Posted by tdeits 00:55 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

First day, first festival

sunny 96 °F

We zipped into Tokyo and stashed out luggage (it seems every JR train station has luggage lockers which is extremely handy) then headed out. Our first destination was the Imperial Palace but it was not open to the public that day, so we browsed around outside - you can even sightsee at walls!


We then decided to visit a nearby museum,the Mori Center Art Gallery. At this point i will interject that this is my first time in Tokyo in summer and it is hot hot hot! It was a steamy 95 degree walk. Fortunately, Japan is loaded with cold drink machines dispensing a bewildering variety of beverages that are most welcome in this weather.

There was another event at the entrance to the museum with some entertaining figures.


Oddly, cats also played a prominent role in the intriguing exhibit at the Mori. the museum on the 52nd floor of a skyscraper so along with art you can enjoy panoramic views of Tokyo which only begin to reveal the sheer size of this city!


About the other cats. The show we saw was titled "Louvre No. 9 — Manga, the 9th Art." It represents a multi-year collaboration between French bande dessinee and Japanese Manga artists to place their work in the context of the Louvre as it might have been/might be. There was some English captioning, some French and most Japanese, so we largely enjoyed just looking at the various interpretations. They ranged from surrealistic to amusing and on to frankly confusing, especially as only selected panels from each artist's work were presented. Photography was not allowed, but there were some reproductions that could be photographed one of which, fortunately, was one of my favorites - 'Cats of the Louvre'


We revived ourselves with a snack at the cafe and headed out through the inevitable gift shop (which actually had some pretty interesting items, but it was too early to start adding luggage mass). Our next stop was a region of Tokyo called Kagurazaka for our first festival that evening.

This was kind of a neighborhood event, in that there weren't hundreds of thousands of foks attending, and we sat on the curb of a small street and watched the festival pass. There were about 20 groups performing; we were kind of surprised to find that each group had largely the same numbr and type of participants, and each group performed the same song. There were also call and responses but when we did research later, we found that they were singing nonsense - the parade is kind of a 'Crazy Days' event. There were variations, of course, but was kind of like imagining ]the Rose Parade where every band played Stars and Stripes Forever in their own unique style. Nonetheless, the obvous enjoyment among the spectators and participants was infectious. Notably, every group had a contingent of little kids who really lit up the experience. Here are a bunch of pictures -


We dragged ourselves back to our apartment and agreed that the one thing Japanese festivals are is a fantastic photo op!

Posted by tdeits 05:38 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Second day, two more festivals!

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival and Sumida River Fireworks

sunny 92 °F

We headed out into a second sweltering day in Tokyo on the lookout for more festivals. We headed for Shinjuku station and looked for the Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival, a festival of Okinawan culture transplanted to Tokyo.

As we were trying to get our bearings in the enormous Shinjuki station, we passed a large number of political activities, as the election for governor of Tokyo was scheduled for the next day (a Sunday). We saw one moderate sized crowd listening to a woman giving a talk and headed onward. Little did we know that we had just passed by the woman, Yuriko Koike,who won the election the next day as a maverick candidate. If you watched the Olympics closing ceremony, she was the woman in the kimono representing Tokyo - quite a change from standing on a street corner haranguing a crowd three weeks earlier!

We found the festival but we were in need of food so we found a good ramen place. It took us about an hour in line, but it was worth it - excellent broth and noodles (and good beer!). Ramen places often have a very odd (to us) structure. The eating area consists of small booths for each diner, all in rows. When you enter the shop you use a vending machine to pay for a ticket that represents your meal. Next, you wait until a booth opens up and you are taken there by a server. They take your ticket and in a few minutes a slot opens up in the wall in the front of the booth and a bowl of ramen comes through. There is usually water available (this place had individual water taps in each booth) or you can usually order a beverage.

The Okinawan dance group that we saw was a definite contrast to the prior evening's event. Much more energetic dancing by all, accompanied by vigorous drumming, and much more individually improvisational.


Here's the whole troupe posing.


We watched until early evening then headed over to see the Sumida River fireworks. We naively assumed we could just wander over by way of a nearby subway station. However, when we got off the subway we found ourselves in a stream of people being funneled inexorably down streets (often with cross streets blocked by several parked busses) to ultimately emerge on a main street filled with people. And when I say filled, I mean it!

It was an eerie experience. Fireworks were nowhere to be seen, and all we could do was shuffle forward with thousands of people in front of and around us. There was crowd control in the direction we were heading, consisting of multiple police officers shouting orders into megaphones, all of it completely incomprehensible to us. To add to the surreal nature of the situation, there was a searchlight aimed right at us, so we felt that we were in some kind of weird 'walk into the light' situation.


As we slowly worked our way forward, the crowd grew to gargantuan proportions behind us.


After maybe an hour, we passed the searchlight and were then subdivided into groups of several hundred people and literally herded across the Sumida River bridge.

While crossing the bridge, it was possible to see some fireworks, and they were pretty dazzling.

tokyo_fireworks_5_rlhd.jpg (photo credit Robin Deits)

However, we got maybe 10 minutes to glimpse them before we exited the bridge. There were actually two shows going on simultaneously, one upriver and one downriver. However, I saw more fireworks as reflections in a nearby office building than by direct observation.


About 20 minutes after we crossed the bridge, the show ended. There were undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of people in the vast populus behind us who never got a glimpse of the show at all. Clearly, if you plan to view this show, much more careful planning for finding a viewing spot is called for. We enjoyed the experience anyway, and just seeing the kind of crowd that the show attracts was extremely cool. Robin thought that we had been in a bigger crowd at the Rally to Restore Reason several years ago in DC, and that crowd was about 600,000. I think there were at least that many people there. Bear in mind that even if it were a million people, it would represent only about 5% of the population of Tokyo!

Long day, long trip back to our apartment, time to collapse.....

Posted by tdeits 17:47 Archived in Japan Tagged japan festivals dancing okinawa fireworks ramen Comments (0)

Festivals, festivals, festivals

sunny 90 °F

We continued to jaunt around Japan visiting festivals from as far south as Osaka to as far north as Sapporo (yay, Japan Rail Pass!). Some commonalities emerged, and I will indulge in just a little strictly amateur cultural anthropology, for which I ask your indulgence.

First, food. Every festival has everything on a stick ready for you. It could be grilled sweetfish, beef, pork, squid, chocolate coated bananas (!) or whatever. Eating street food is a big part of the experience.

street_food__Aomori.jpg Photo by Robin Deits

Now street food is all over Japan just about all the time, but the interesting thing is that outside of festivals, you rarely see Japanese people eating street food (or drinking beverages from the myriad beverage machines) while strolling down the street. Typically folks tuck into a side area at a street food stall or stand next to the beverage machine until they are finished. Most beverage machines (and this can include beer and liquor vending machines, by the way) have a recycling bin adjacent.

If you were to choose to wander down the street with your food, not only would you look a bit out of place, but you would find yourself with your trash in hand and no place to put it. I don't think we ever saw a public trash container anywhere in Japan except inside train stations. Despite this, there is virtually no litter on the streets in Japan. If you are stuck with litter in hand on the street, your best bet is to find disposal facilities outside a convenience store (Lawsons, Family Mart and 7 11 are three of the major chains).

Next, form. Every festival has a very distinctive style of performance. All floats in a given festival will be constructed in a similar format, all teams accompanying the floats will have similar subgroups of performers such as drummers, dancers, musicians and some folks pushing a cart full of beverages for the performers to keep them going in the heat. In addition, every one of the groups will perform the same song continuously! Imagine the Rose Parade where 50 bands perform Stars and Stripes Forever all....the....time! There are even customary styles of dress.

However, some variation is allowed. For example, in my previous post on the Kagurazaka festival I posted a picture of some 'close order' dancing by one troupe. This was their unique style. Many other groups wore essentially identical costumes but their dancing was just a bit different. So there is kind of a (watch out, pop cultural anthropology ahead!) sense that folks take comfort in the commonalities, but then, in that context, give themselves freedom to innovate just a bit within the common framework.

Interestingly, and I only have a few pictures of this, there were also occasional participants who were completely outside the norm.

okinawa_festival_5.jpg90A47C53FA2F3E12283451640AF13FE9.jpgAomori_Nebuta_Festival_1.jpg Morioka_festival_1.jpg

Some may represent mythical figures, but others just appear to be folks who want to 'step out' of the traditional role and the festival gives them permission. Another way folks can be a little more spontaneous is that at most parades after the last float passes, folks are welcome to join the procession and just dance along the street whether they know the prescribed dance or not.

This spontanaeity is most evident in the Bon festivals. Bon (or Bon Odori) are ubiquituous in Japan. They, too, seem to have a prescribed format. There is a raised platform in the center of a plaza on which musicians, singers and event leaders stand and perform. There also appears to always be a table for dignitaries/judges (?) just outside the plaza. The musicians strike up a song and folks gather around the platform and slowly process around it doing a set of steps and hand gestures in more-or-less unison. Generally it seems that the most skilled and traditionally dressed dancers begin the procession, but as time goes on more and more people join in, many of whom are just trying to follow along with the dance but may be in street clothes. In some Bons such as the one in Sapporo, a goodly number of westerners chose to join in. The striking thing is that a single dance and song can last upwards of 1 1/2 hours! There are tag teams of singers who repeat verses from a long song, sometimes with a choral accompaniment and as you can imagine the effect can be rather hypnotic for dancers and observers.

Of course, in every case, outside the ring of dancers is the essential myriad of foods on a stick!

Just one more observation, and then some pictures from a variety of festivals we attended. For all the structure, cultural expectations or effort involved to haul yourself miles through stifling heat, the bottom line is that a whole lot of people are having genuine, infectious fun. It's a great experience and a fabulous photo opportunity. If you have a chance to see a Japanese summer festival, count yourself fortunate. I certainly do!

OK, let's just have some pics from various festivals/bons that we attended:

Aomori Nebuta Festival

At this festival, the focus is on backlit brilliant floats and marching units.



And kids, of course, some with their own floats!


Many of the floats are displayed around a plaza at the end of the event - here is a panorama


Hachinohe Sansha Taisai

The Hachinohe festival is built around more 3 dimensional floats, all of which include a drummer or drum group, young or old.



The details on the floats are amazing.


Some of them even transform!


As we walked back to the Hachinohe train station we ran across a shop where one of the floats had been built. Here's a close up showing the amazing detail as my son Robin stares down a demon.


Morioka Sansa Odori Festival

This festival features lots and lots of drumming by lots and lots of groups - it is reckoned to have 10,000 drummers participating, and I find that entirely plausible.


Osaka Naniwa Yodogawa fireworks

We also headed south to Osaka and caught the fireworks festival there. This was more successful. We managed to position ourselves down by the river where we had a good view. You can see the extent of the crowds in the panorama shot - notice the bleachers extending for a mile or so at the back of the shot.



Just by chance, while visiting Arima Onsen, just outside of Kobe (more about this visit in a later post) we encountered our first Bon Odori.


A few days later, after Robin had headed home, I traveled north to Sapporo and came across another Bon. In this one, there was a children's Bon preceding the full-fledged event. In addition to food, there was a large beer garden. This Bon is evidently a nightly event through late July/early August.


The tower in the background is the Sapporo TV Tower


Just for fun - while I was taking a break on a bench and eating grilled beef on a stick (yum) I noticed a kind of eerie effect involving one of those cutouts where you stick your head for a photo op....


What a remarkable experience! Go! Dance! Eat things on sticks! Take pictures! Be happy!!!

Posted by tdeits 06:29 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka festival yodogawa bon onsen hachinohe morioka aomori sansa nebuta odori kagurazaka sansha taisai naniwa arima Comments (0)

Rest, relaxation.....and food

It isn't all about festivals!

overcast 86 °F

I thought I would pull together some non-festival activities that we had in Japan because even with our breakneck pace we did have time to do a bit of wandering.

Geibikei gorge

We took a short train ride to Geibikei gorge, where you can take a boat ride up a beautiful canyon.


The water is full of tame ducks and fish (sweetfish, or ayu) probably because you can buy little bags of food to toss in the water as you cruise.

geibikei_gorge_1_rld.jpg photo by Robin Deits

And since turnabout is fair play, when you finish the cruise you can buy sweetfish grilled over a coal fire just outside the boat ride office, or watch folks fishing for them.


I also spotted a large golden carp in the river - an escapee?


On the way back, our boatsteerer broke into a beautiful Japanese song about the river.


She had an outstanding voice but in probably the first and only instance of what I would call rudeness that I observed in Japan, some passengers in the boat simply continued to chat over her singing.

Osaka Castle

Before heading out for the Osaka fireworks, we went over to Osaka castle. It's a beautifully restored park dominated by the main tower which is now a museum. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the museum, but the grounds and castle are great.


Kobe - Rokko furnicular and aerial tram

Just one more beauty spot. After the fireworks, we hopped the train over to Kobe and decided to go up in the mountains behind town. We caught a bus outside the train station that took us directly to the furnicular train station and climbed the hill. Great views, of course.

Kobe_Rokko_furnicular_rld.jpg photo by Robin Deits large_96A84CB1FE1B7F2A7B092EE2B7D681B1.jpg

Rokko-Shidare Observatory

There is a remarkable art installation at the top of the mountain. From a distance it looks like some kind of navigational beacon.

Kobe_furnicular_3.jpgkobe_furnicular_5_rld.jpgphoto Robin Deits

but it is in fact an environmental artwork. The outer framework is designed to capture frost in the winter and to resemble frost on trees. The plazas leading up to the central feature are used to harvest ice during the winter which is then stored below ground to facilitate cooling of the inner space, driven by convection from the central chimney. The entire building is built of beautiful cedar and there is a quiet space at the base of the tower to enjoy the beauty and the cool comfort.


There is a aerial tram from the top of the mountain down the other side into Arima Onsen, outside of Kobe. There is a lovely park just outside of the tramway exit that is worth a visit.


We wandered into town - it's clearly an enclave for wealthy folks; saw some amazing homes and some pricey hotels for sure. We did a bit of googling for a restaurant and found ourselves in a beautiful restaurant dining on this:

Kobe beef (of course!) (picture by Robin) and beautiful sashimi


After dinner, we wandered back to the train station and our usual serendipity intervened, as we found ourselves in a Bon Ordori, which I convered earlier in the 'festivals,festivals,festivals' entry.

I only want to add one thing to this, that to my eye and with my background in community planning, looked like a vision of heaven. This picture is of downton Arima Onsen; above, across the bridge, the Bon Odori is in full swing. Here is the rest of the downtown park, with a river to dip your feet in, plazas to meet with folks and hundreds of people just plain enjoying their city. Yes, it is a wealthy enclave, and yes there was a festival going on, but if only we could create more spaces in the US that combined such beauty with such community building!


I'm going to end this post here - getting kind of long. I guess I will do one more post on some serious relaxation and eating!

Posted by tdeits 09:26 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka aerial castle gorge kobe beef observatory tramway sashimi armor ayu geibikei sweetfish rokko furnicular rokko-shidare Comments (0)