Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Night falls on the Kawagoe Matsuri

As we reached the furthest area of the festival, dusk was fully upon us. Of course, in a Japanese festival, night time isn’t an excuse to go home and have a quiet dinner, but rather a time to hang out the lanterns, light up the streets and keep partying!

The floats had been pretty impressive in the daylight hours, but bedecked with lanterns and lights they were even more so. At first the daytime crowds seemed to thin a bit, but that was an artifact of our location at the fringes of the action. As we headed back towards the central streets, things got even busier and more packed than they had been. 

At each major intersection a troupe of acrobatic old fashioned firemen did a performance. They would lift a ladder far above the crowds, and then members would climb up and do tricks high above our heads. Their skills were impressive, and a large crowd gathered around. A very large crowd. As the performance ended, we had to all hold on to each other to make sure we weren’t separated as we ploughed through the teeming horde of people.

Things got so busy that we eventually took to a side street to avoid the crowds. While we did miss the bright festival booths in that area, by this point each of us had overindulged in festival food, and weren’t in a mood to do much more buying. We were in the mood to sit down and relax, and to sing. Once we found a good karaoke booth, we stayed for three hours of badly belted melodies and draft beer. It was a perfect end to a great day.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Daylight Kawagoe Matsuri

Last weekend I met up with some friends from around the area to go to the Kawagoe festival and celebrate my friend Peter's birthday.One of the first things we ran into was a mikoshi headed out of a shrine. This is very like the one I helped carry at the Maebashi Matsuri the week before. I'm glad they didn't try to press me into action again, as my shoulder was still a little sore from the last one.

One of the best reasons to go to a festival has to be festival food. The mingled smells of a street or courtyard full of food stalls is sure to set your stomach to grumbling. From yakitori to okonomiyaki to ramen burgers to fried twisty potatoes to doner kebab, just about anything is available and it all tastes great.

The festival is a popular one, and one of the largest I've seen. The food stalls, toy booths and fairground games of chance stretched from the station to the old town, and filled the grounds of every shrine and temple in between. The whole stretch was jammed with plenty of festival goers, though during the day the crowd wasn't too bad to elbow through.

Along the way there were large floats with dancing, drums, flutes and more.

Though not everybody on the floats seemed to be totally enthused to be there. 
Like the portable shrines, the floats are all human powered. Luckily, they have wheels so there is probably less of a chance of a painfully bruised shoulder. 

As we snacked our way from one end of the festival to the other the sun went down, and the festival geared up for the night...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Careening down the Canyons

Some weeks ago I had a chance to go Canyoning with a group of local
English teachers. Canyoning is a newish sport that involves, well,
traveling through a canyon by any means necessary. In the States it is
more of a solo adventure, involving technical rock climbing and
rappelling. But our trip was a group trip, led by a seasoned Kiwi
guide. He had been guiding various adventure sports all around the
world for almost ten years. He had meant to stop off in Japan for a
season while heading home from Europe, but that one season had turned
into something like four years!

We had traveled into the mountains in the far northern corner of
Gunma, to the resort town of Minakami. Minakami is a popular place
year round, with canyoning, bungee jumping, rafting and more during
the summer months and plenty of skiing come winter.

The first stop upon arrival was to get geared up. One wetsuit, helmet,
and rock proof seat guard later we were ready to get wet. The trip
started out easily enough, floating down stream dodging the occasional
rock. It was relaxing and fun, the perfect way to lull the group into
a false sense of complacency. We came to a few small waterfalls and
slid down them like we were at natures own waterpark. As a devoted
lover of Colorados giant Water World waterpark, I loved the natural
waterslide effect.

Then we came to the big one. A 20 meter waterfall blocked our path,
the only way through was to jump and ride it down. The guide had a
rope set up to lower us into the stream and let the water, and
gravity, carry us into the deep pool at the bottom. He could either
let us go near the top, or at the midway point for those a little
worried about the heights involved.

I have no shame in admitting I went for the halfway point drop.
Standing twenty meters above my friends and cohorts, the distances
involved certainly made me a little weak kneed. Its funny, I really
don’t have much fear of heights. I will clamber and scramble on rocks
all day long, and I eat tall buildings and observation towers for
breakfast. But I do fear falling, hence a general distaste of roller
coasters and rock climbing and any other situation where I face
exposure. This sort of drop was almost too much for me, though once I
was down I must admit the thrill of death and dismemberment was
remarkably fun. In an oh God Oh God OH GOD sort of way.

       The rest of the trip wasn’t nearly as terrifying, and the many falls
and currents were amazingly fun to navigate. At the very end we had a
chance to jump off a small cliff into a deep pool. To make up for my
weakness earlier I clambered up to get in line. All was well till it
was time to make the jump. From below it seemed so easy watching my
cohorts doing back flips off the ledge.. Standing up there looking
down was another thing entirely. Leaping into space like that took me
to and beyond my comfort limit, but I did it anyway! Not only that,
but I did it twice! It was almost excessively exhilarating, and a
perfect way to end the trip. We all trooped back to the bus in high
spirits, ready for a big lunch.

All canyoning photos credited to my new friend Allen Bo Agundy and his borrowed waterproof camera.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Maebashi Matsuri

I apologize that I haven't updated in a while. I've beat off two successive colds over the past two weeks, and so I haven't really done much that is blog worthy over the past couple of weeks.

Until today that is.

The Maebashi Matsuri is THE major festival for the city. The weather was gorgeous, so rather than take the train into town, I rode my bike. It was a long ride, but it felt great to get out and about. Sadly, my camera didn't have a memory card, so I didn't get any photos of the festival at all.

Things kicked off with a dance ceremony. The very first group to take the stage were a series of young girls doing cheerleader dance routines set to American pop music. I couldn't help but laugh at the fact that here we are kicking off an event with great cultural and even religious import with kids dancing to Avril Lavigne. Though I have to say that the kids did a great job, they really knew their stuff. Later groups were a bit more traditional, including one that used two huge flags to backstop their performance. These flags were so large that the poles were in danger of hitting the powerlines, and sometimes did! I could see the flag bearers working harder than the dancers to keep them flapping, and the effect was very impressive.

Next on the schedule was the reason I came, the elementary school marching band parade. Now I know a lot of readers probably did a bit of a double take, I'm well known for a general dislike of parades and marching bands. However, all that changes when it is YOUR kids doing the marching. And while I may only see these kids once a week, they are still my kids. It was great seeing them all spiffy in their uniforms, and I think they got a kick out of seeing "English Teacher" on the sidelines. After the parade, I walked over to the ending area to say hi to the kids and the teachers. My kids know me well, their first question was, "Are you hungry?"

Being that I was a little hungry, I headed back into the maelstrom to see what I could find to eat. While I was perusing the plentiful purveyors of festival food I came upon an all female taiko troupe doing a performance. I love taiko drumming, and throw in a group of gorgeous 20 something women and I really love taiko. It doesn't hurt that they were very good at what they did. The performance banished all thought of food from my mind, at least until it was over.

As people were filtering away from the area a new call went up, a mikoshi was coming through. Mikoshi are portable Shinto shrines, and are often a part of festivals. I had seen a few tromping about, but this one was coming right up the middle of the pedestrian mall, pushing the crowd out to the sides as it came. I watched them pass and thought to myself that it looked like the mikoshi was very heavy, the bearers were working hard to keep it moving. As they were almost by me an elderly gentleman came up and asked if I wanted to wear his happi, a sort of coat that all the bearers wear, and help carry? I jumped at the chance, and soon found out that yes, the shrine was indeed very heavy. Brutally so. Painfully so. Still, it was amazing, trying to chant, carry, and move simultaneously without falling into a heap. Definitely a highlight of the festival.

From there, exhausted I made my way over to a karaage (fried chicken) stand where I finally got something for lunch. I can say for certain that the festival was amazing, and really just the Japan only sort of shot in the arm I needed this month.