The grand Narita Gionsai in Chiba Prefecture’s Narita City (there’s more than just an airport) is pretty much one of the most perfect festivals in the whole of the Kanto area. It’s huge, the setting (Narita’s historic center) looks great, the people are exceptionally dedicated to their festival and there’s a huge amount of stuff going on. Anywhere you go there is something to see, do or taste. And I didn’t even visit on the main day of the event!
I took these photos of one of the many Dashi processions that take place throughout the festival as the many neighborhoods represented in the festival pull their giant festival wagons up and down the streets, putting a huge effort into getting them safely up and down the hills of the city. The processions are usually led by young girls who dress up in something similar to a geisha. These young girls (sometimes boys but very rarely) are called Tekomai (手古舞) or in the old days, Tekomae (手棍前). They represent a continuation of the steeplejacks, young carpenters who would be skilled in building tall steeples and structures and were traditionally assigned to construct the often very tall (much taller than today’s modern short dashi – the reason being electrical wiring of the city) and after construction to walk in front of the dashi procession and make sure people did not get too close to it, for their own safety. These steeplejacks, or Tobishoku are still around though and you seem them almost daily in most Japanese cities on constructions sites and building projects. They have long since left the guarding of the dashi though. The steeplejack dressed showily (as they still do when given the chance) and eventually local geisha figured out that dressing even more showily and taking up the role of the Tekomae was a good way to advertise their services. This eventually evolved to the daughters of geisha and eventually the young daughters of the townspeople dressing up and adding even more beauty to the local festivals and parades. The girls wear richly embroidered half coats tucked into tattsuke hakama (a variation of the regular hakama which in turn is a sort of kimono made into trousers). They are supposed to have ichomage hairstyle (same as the samurai used to wear) but it is much to complicated for most parents these days so they often settle for something easier to set up, like a nihongami style. In their hands they most often carry a lantern and a kanabo, a metal rod with rings. These rods are dragged in the ground rhythmically and accompanying their traditional singing (a form of keyari). However, these festivals often take place in extremely hot summers and the kids wear thick layers of costumes and carry a surprisingly heavy metal rod so in most cases there is very little energy left for actual singing! If you think they look tired, remember that they walk up and down these streets from early morning to late at night with a few breaks thrown in here and there.
Last Saturday saw the one day only, once a year Kitamachi Awaodori Festival in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward, just next to Tobu-Nerima Station. Kitamachi is the original heart of the modern day Nerima Ward and it was one of the biggest way stations on the Edo period highway between Edo (ancient Tokyo) and Kawagoe to the north in Saitama prefecture. At these way stations transports of goods, people and information was made easier by the reserves of men and horses standing by and the way station in Kitamachi was famous for being able to provide a full compliment of horses unlike other way stations that often had to call for help from neighboring villages when large groups or big transports came through. This pride in their horses and the local people’s skill in taming them became the base for the modern name of the ward, Nerima (練馬).
The old highway is perfectly suitable for festivals and parades like the Awaodori summer festivals being organized every year around Tokyo. I saw many teams, some new, some familiar, some famous and some peculiar ones. One of the most famous must be the Shinoburen who did a great performance despite the weather. The end of July is usually one of the hottest periods of the year in Tokyo and temperatures stay in the mid thirties well in to the night making the three hours of dancing extremely hard on the performers. I have even seen members of the audience drop down from the heat and all they did was sitting down and enjoying the show! Despite Kitamachi being one of the physically most demanding Awaodori festivals in Tokyo it remains popular with especially the locals.
Of the many things to see at the Narita Gionsai held in Chiba Prefecture’s Narita City is the mad dash of the dashi (山車). Dashi are generally huge wooden wheeled platforms large enough to house a band of traditional musicians and often even a little stage for dancers or performers. These are pulled around town by teams of people from the neighborhoods they represent and are common in many Japanese festivals. The thing that makes Narita different is the many hills these wagons have to go up and down! Each these wagons weigh several tons and to pull one up a steep hill or slope is just unthinkable, instead the locals have developed a technique where they will dash up the hill with the ropes and sort of yanking the wagon up after them. With hundreds of dedicated townspeople, scores of captains overseeing the effort and a concentrated effort even these heavy wagons can be successfully pulled up. It is great fun to see the preparations and the teams of leaders running up and down to make sure everyone is prepared and ready for the signal. When the signal comes the townspeople start running and naturally the audience cheers them on. As the wagon crests the hill and it is clear that the pull was successful there is always a huge cheer and lot of smiles – what would happen if the pull failed halfway is just unthinkable!
Naturally going downhill is also a difficult task but much less dramatic.
If you visit the Narita Gionsai make sure to position yourself at the top of a hill to see this dash for yourself. It is quite exciting and a great show of the importance of cooperation!
A few weeks ago I visited the fantastic Narita Gionsai in neighboring Chiba Prefecture’s Narita City, famous for hosting Japan’s biggest international airport as well as the grand Naritasan temple. The street from Narita station to the temple itself is wonderfully quaint and old fashioned, and I managed to catch the omikoshi procession as it made its way to and from the temple. The main attraction of this festival however, is the massive festival wagons, hence the rather low key omikoshi ceremonies!
I will post more about the grand Narita Gionsai later in the week!