One of my earliest memories of total culture shock in Japan was just a few days after first arriving in the country: I was walking through Shinjuku on a Saturday morning and suddenly saw a small group of gaudily dressed up people, from young to old, men and women come skipping out of a pachinko shop, playing a tune that did not make sense at all and in a total cacaphony of drums, cymbals, clarinets and banjos. To call their makeup pancake would not offer the thick layers of white paste and bright red lipstick they were wearing justice . Lopsided huge wigs, massive flower decorations, wearing hats, kimonos and costumes, plastic toys and banners on their backs it looked like they had been styled by a dozen clowns high on acid. The spectacle was amazing and mesmerizing. Now this was something we did not have in the the rest of the world. Welcome to the world of Chindon!
It all started in 1845 when a ambulating candy salesman in Osaka discovered that he had somehow turned into a local tourist attraction due to his unusually strong voice, calling out his list of goodies to make a racket that even other Osaka street vendors were unable to match. He figured out that he could make more money advertising the businesses of other people than he could from selling candy. This being Japan, people are not slow to see an opportunity and soon he had competition. In 1885 a businessman from Osaka started hiring performers to advertise in Tokyo. The Tokyoites were not easily impressed by a shouting street vendor, but they were impressed with the military marching bands that were introducing western music and marches to the Japanese, so the businessman hired large groups of performers that mimicked the popular marching bands and wore loud garish costumes playing a strange mix of military marches and traditional Japanese folk tunes. These bands were so popular they started performing in cinemas (movies at that time were still silent) and their big break came when Kirin hired them to go back to Osaka and advertise their beer. During the 1920s, the roaming advertising bands went into decline as other forms of marketing, neon signs and street lights reduced the need for noisy musical advertising. The final death blow came in 1929 when sound films became popular and over night thousands of performers were made unemployed. Striking did not help, and by the time of the war they were banned. After the war many shops had no way of advertising as newspapers, radio (and later TV) was far too expensive for the little shops that grew out of the black markets. Out of these noisy street performers came the Chindonya (chindon being a made up word that basically means “bing-bang”, or “a noisy racket”) we see today.
The chidonya today are hired by small businesses, festival, companies, parties and weddings to perform and if you are lucky you can catch them here and there as they perform in the street, most commonly to advertise pachinko parlors (at least here in Tokyo), but there are even politicians using them in their campaigning. The bands all have at least one person on a drum set up with cymbals, and at least one wind instrument (most commonly a clarinet). Apart from those you will find almost any instrument imaginable. This chindonya, the Donchiya group from Shimizu City in Shizuoka prefecture performed at a city festival in Fuji City’s Yoshiwara district that I attended. This group is probably one of the most serious I have ever seen, very professional! My favorite chindonya though is the Neochindon Kabocha Shoukai (ネオちんどん かぼちゃ商会) from Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa, formed in 1991. I even have their CD!
Here is a video clip from a 1963 movie with a Japanese chindon band performing in Hong Kong, and naturally, getting arrested by the police. Here’s a wonderful old newsreel from 1960 showing one of the few remaining old-style chinodonya, in Kawasaki City.
Yoshiwara station on the Tokaido line between Tokyo Station in the east and Kobe Station in the west is a typical station for an industrial town like Fujishi. Even though the station is on one of the major railway lines of Japan the city itself is quite far from the station. It is not hard to understand why as the surroundings mostly consists of light and heavy industries, like the Nippon Paper plant in the first photo. Every time I travel somewhere in Japan I am always interested in finding out what the economical heart of the area I visit is, and in this case it is easy to find. The station itself is a treat for lovers of stark industrial landscapes. When living in Tokyo it is easy to forget that Japan is a country built on agriculture first, industry second and commerce only third, which to this day almost perfectly mirrors the social order of the old feudal country. The growers, the makers and the movers. Most people who exit this station change trains to get into the city center itself, a few stops down the line of the Gakunan Railway Line. From this station it is possible to get a really nice view of Mount Fuji, but I missed my chance by a few hours. As usual, the closer you get to the mountain the harder it seems to be to catch it!
One of the many colorful traditions to come out of the back streets of old Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district was the Kitsunemai (狐舞ひ), fox dancing. Yoshiwara was the premier red light district of Japan’s premier city that at the time, around the 18th century, was already the biggest city in the world with over a million people. Here courtesans, entertainers, poets and dancers rubbed shoulders (and more) with the nobles, merchants and warriors visiting from all over the country. If ancient Japan was anything like the present day Japan, the competition between the entertainment houses must have been fierce, and one way to drum up patrons was to put on a show in the streets, much like event marketing today! The Kitsunemai was one of the most popular shows, and it must have worked because the tradition of fox dancing lives on today. I saw this troupe of fox dancers at the Oiran parade in Asakusa a few months ago. Their leader is Yurinosuke of the Yoshiwara Kitsune Troupe (吉原狐 百合之介). I am not sure but it might be that this is the first troupe’s first or second public performance in over 70 years here in what used to be the Yoshiwara district! I hope they can keep the tradition alive!
You might remember my post on the Three Bauties of Yoshiwara from last year: some exceptionally photogenic and devoted festival participants from the Yoshiwara Gion festival in Shizuoka prefecture’s Fuji City. Well, this year’s festival there were even more of them, and as energetic as ever! All of the dashi (mobile festival wagons or platforms) are wonderfully decked out and crewed by the most energetic members of their respective neighborhoods, but the dashi of the Rokkenchou (六軒町) neighborhood is just outstanding! It’s not all thanks to the beauties though, behind and below them there is a whole battery of drummers and flutists, not to mention the guy on the roof helping to navigate the wagon, or the men, women and kids in front that pulls it and help making sure that no stray tourists (or photographers) fall under the heavy wheels of the wagon! With young people like this, the future of Fuji City is looking bright indeed!