A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about onsen

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.

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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.

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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.

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And kids, of course, some with their own floats!
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Many of the floats are displayed around a plaza at the end of the event - here is a panorama

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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.

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The details on the floats are amazing.

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Some of them even transform!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The tower in the background is the Sapporo TV Tower

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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....

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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)

More relaxation (and more food!)

and a visit to an onsen

semi-overcast 90 °F

After Robin left to go back to the real world, I had an additional week to explore. My plan was to head north to parts of Japan I had not yet seen. I first went to Akita to spend a day. I had a really pleasant day at Akita Senshu park wandering around and taking pictures. They have a beautiful lotus pond and lovely gardens. The restored castle tower has a nice view and some exhibits in Japanese.

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There is also a small museum on the grounds with armor, banners and art, again, with descriptions in Japanese but still well worth the modest admission price (a dollar, if I recall!).

One other fun thing I did in Akita. I had misplaced a cable for my phone (this happens way too often when I travel!) so I ended up in a shopping center adjacent to the train station looking for an electronics shop. I was delighted to discover that in the basement was a Tower Records! As it happens I had just watched a very enjoyable documentary All Things Must Pass about the history of Tower Records on the plane over. Now, I knew Tower Records very well because that was the first place I ever went to buy music. The store on Watt Avenue was great - it even had listening booths! I spent a lot of my modest funds there, in particular buying Beatles and Dylan (and Nonesuch classical albums for 99 cents!). I was unaware at the time that my store was the first Tower Records ever built and was the foundation of a national and international chain. Sadly, the US branch of Tower died, but the Japanese branches remain prosperous. I got my cable and laboriously explained to the guy who helped my that I had been shopping at Tower since1963 - I guess he was impressed...I know this guy was:

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After Akita, I wanted to get away to a less urban part of Japan so I decided to take a train down the west coast from Akita to the town of Sakata. Sakata is a small port town on the Sea of Japan that was once a hub for the rice trade in the region. A lot economic activity has moved to other ports, so the town is not what I would call prosperous, but it is a pleasant spot to visit. I saw some of the squid fishing boats that have such bright lights (both on board and on long lines that are dropped over the side) to attract squid that the fleet is readily visible from space.

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Photo credit

The old rice warehouses are now a tourist attraction. I enjoyed watching some documentaries on the history of rice cultivation in the history of rice museum there, in part because of the cool video display.

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I booked a room at the Wakaba Ryokan in Sakata and had a most relaxing and delicious experience. First, they have an onsen, or public bath. I hadn't been to one before, so I did some internetting to work on the etiquette. I did OK, but I missed a couple of small points. Bear in mind my expertise extends to a grand total of 2 onsens, so rely on the following accordingly.

Anyway, here's what I learned. The ones I went to were segregated male/female. Another item. The onsens I visited absolutely forbid anyone with any kind of tattoo from entering! Apparently there are some that will accept tattoos, but ask first if you're decorated. You enter a dressing room with either cubbies or lockable cubicles. You can put your keys, phone, clothing, etc. into one. The onsen will provide two towels; a large one for drying and a small one for washing. I didn't know, but learned, that you should leave your large towel in the cubby in the dressing room. When you enter the actual onsen there will be stools and plastic buckets in front of a low table. Your job is to use the provided soaps, shampoos, etc to make your self as squeaky clean all over as it is possible to be. Part of the fun is to soap up big time, rub down with the small towel and pour a big bucket of warm water on your head. Lather, rinse, repeat, repeat,.... Once you are confident that you are the cleanest you have ever been in your life, you are ready to enter the onsen.

One amusing thing is that it is apparently customary (my googling speaking here) to neatly fold your washing towel and balance it on your head while soaking. It is definitely the case that whatever you do with your towel (and many folks I saw just put it up somewhere well away from the water) never let it get near the water. Now, this is one of those totally cool random juxtapositions that make travelling awesome. Prior to going to the onsen, as I mentioned we visited Osaka Castle where some beautiful 15th and 16th century armor was on display. The remarkable thing is that one of the helmets we saw was described as representing a folded towel atop the warriors head. That guy must have loved his onsen!

Anyway, slip into the crystal clear water (that's why you bathe so much!) and reeeeelax. Some folks will get out after a bit and go over and wash again and then return. In both onsen there was a beautiful garden scene through a picture window to enjoy gazing at as you melt. Here's the garden visible from the Wakaba Ryokan onsen (more about Wakaba Ryokan below).

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I kind of hestitate go bring up this bit, but I do so in case you find yourself in the same situation and wonder if it's just you. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive and perhaps it's because I visited parts of Japan where I could go days without seeing a Westerner, but I got the vague sense that folks were not quite as comfortable in the onsen when I occupied it as well. It's nothing overt, maybe not even a conscious reaction, but I got that feeling on more than one occasion; things like folks leaving when I entered or moving to a different onsen if available. Not all folks reacted that way - an older guy and his grandson were quite friendly - but there it is for you to be aware of.

Nonetheless, I thought the onsen was great. The Wakaba Ryokan is a traditional ryokan with meals offered, traditional tatmi rooms, and yukata to wear (which I did at all times - anywhere in the hotel). They also have a large collection of really beautiful paintings and other artifacts. Here, for example is a portion of their kokeshi doll collection. These are traditional kokeshi that are associated with this region of Japan and with its onsens in particular.

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Here's my room set up first for day use and then for night.

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So, after a relaxing onsen I headed for the dining room. I had an epic meal.

To begin, a whole pan sauteed fish.

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Next, some lighter dishes including a mussel and jellyfish (in the glass). The vegetable to the right is not a sea vegetable, but a member of the nettle family. It was really delicous.

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Onward to some sashimi. Check out that fatty tuna on the right - it's a local specialty!

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And then, this - a whole steamed crab!

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How about some seared tuna in white and black sesame seeds?

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Don't forget the vegetable tempura!

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A bit of braised pork in miso?

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Ready for some delicous beef short ribs with local peppers?

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I'm sure you're really hungry by now and ready for a rich stew of local barnacle-encrusted marine snails!

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Hope you saved room for dessert.... green tea ice cream with red beans, fruit and a delicious little brownie

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and of course the meal was accompanied by a very fruity local sake. Two hours of solid eating, everything perfectly prepared at the height of freshness. and it cost, with sake, under $50. Yeah, a lot for a meal but for this meal? Whatta bargain. I stayed two nights and had two of these meals! By the way, the host of this onsen is most accommodating and fluent in English.

I finally dragged myself away, but not before I enjoyed the included breakfast.

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Yum - (If you like natto.... and I do)!

I have quite a number of other pictures of meals, some of which will come up in a later post, but I thought I would make a general observation. Food in Japan is great!!! Not only can you expect to find new and interesting foods wherever you go, but we never had any dish that wasn't of excellent quality and well prepared. While we did eat a couple of 'fancy' meals like the above, our daily fare was more modest but just as delicious. My traveller's tip is that if you are hungry and don't know where to go in a new town, head for the largest department store. Either in the basement or on the top floor (sometimes both) you will find at least a half dozen restaurants serving really good food for really reasonable prices. I will throw in pictures of a few meals we had in these places, most of which were in the $10 range.

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By the way, the shushi in the tray was from the local supermarket - about $5 - both supermarkets and what we would call convenience stores have really quite good quality food, so go in and take a look.

I think I have a couple of more posts in me to wrap this up. Stay tuned!

Posted by tdeits 10:51 Archived in Japan Tagged tower ryokan onsen akita records sakata wakata Comments (0)

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