The beginning of this year’s Kawagoe Matsuri was wet indeed, lot of rain that showed no signs of stopping, until it did, very suddenly. The rest of the evening was relatively dry. I felt sorry for the kids though, whose job it was to lead the decorated dashi wearing the wonderful costumes of this festival, all made up and with fantastically complicated hairstyles. You can make it out even beneath their rain coats. The kids were a tough bunch as usual though, and soldiered on nevertheless. The pace of the festival picked up as the rains abated and it became very crowded very quickly. I think a lot of people were taking cover inside the street stall tents and the cafes of Kawagoe. All in all, a great evening in one of Japan’s best festivals!
I had totally forgotten about it but at the Kawagoe Matsuri it is customary for the local firefighters to perform a traditional display of ladder acrobatics. This was a skill they developed during the eco period of Japan, when the civic government of Japan rapidly advanced and firefighting became vitally important to create the prospering cities. The cities were dense and built entirely in wood so in case of fire, the local firefighters literally had not a second to spare. One way for them to quickly locate the fire was the ability to raise a ladder anywhere within seconds and send a scout straight up to locate the source of the flames. The pole with the leather strips were used to gauge the direction of the winds and to figure out where the flames were likely to be headed. The firefighters would then use their hooks to pull down any building in the path of the fire. Since Japanese buildings were all light timber frame without any nails this was actually a plausible way of stopping the fire from spreading. The task of actually putting out the flames went to the local towns people who by law had to be prepared with buckets that were always filled with water. You can still see these buckets in the older towns of Japan. The importance of being able to perform all these tasks led to the firefighters developing great technique and this skill is still preserved today in these traditional performances. Readers of this blog will know that these performances are some of my absolute favorites here in Japan, and especially the local team of Kawagoe here in Saitama prefecture. The rain had just stopped so the team could briefly perform a slimmed down version of their normal set. Rain makes the bamboo ladders very slippery and very dangerous. Use the tags to find more photos that I have taken of this fantastic tradition!
Oh, and as a bonus you can see that I managed to snap a photo at the exact moment another photographer snapped a photo right in front of me. The intensly brief flash was captured perfectly! How’s that for good timing?
Scattered throughout the festival area during the huge Kawagoe Matsuri last weekend were these Hayashi stands, on the side of the street a group of dancers and musicians entertain the people with one of the four most common characters, the Hyottoko, the man with funny face, or his wife Okame, or the lion or the white haired fox spirit. There are others, but these four are the most common. It is considered good luck to shake hands with the Hyottoko, flirt with the Okame or get bitten on the head by the lion, so parents will often hold up their kids. Some kids are absolutely terrified at the prospect of being attacked by a crazy demon but some don’t seem to mind one bit. Some older kids know what is coming and are eager to test their courage, others are smart and run away before their parents make them endure it once again. It is all great fun to watch though, and a shared moment for both participants and audience. I took these photos in the rain, hence the plastic sheet coverings over the paper lanterns on the front of the platform. There were a lot of really brave kids this time! The smallest one did’t mind at all and even dabbed at the lion with his little towel.
The most famous aspect of the huge Kawaogoe festival that took place this rainy last weekend are the massive five or six ton dashi, wagons pulled by the local townspeople. These stop every now and then to let the top part of the wagon swivel so that it lines up with the viewing platforms set up by the local merchant associations sponsoring the festival. There are many of these scattered around the town and the wagons make a point of performing for them every time they pass. Passing one of these platforms with one giant dashi right on my heels I decided to pick as spot and wait, making sure I was in the right spot for when the short performance started. I was looking as much at the dashi as at the people both under and on top of the viewing platform, it was great fun to the the enthusiasm! There are several hayashi dancers on each platform, taking turns to perform. By the time the dashi had reach the platform the fox dancer had retreated and the comical Okame or Hyottoko dancer was out to perform (I can’t really tell which one from the angle of the photo). The men whose job it is to use hooks and poles to ward of bits of architecture, cables and street lights getting into the way of the dashi were waving us good bye as the dashi slowly lumbered of to the next spot along the street. These dashi move at about half normal walking speed so even in a full day and night of moving they seldom move past the same platform more than a couple of times per festival! On this first day of the festival (which was really rainy and wet in the beginning) there were supposedly nine dashi out and about! More photos to come!