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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)

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