Sometimes the titles of my posts just makes no sense to non-Japanese speakers. Let me explain this one: Ogano (小鹿野町) is the name of a little town in Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo, Harumatsuri means Spring Festival (春祭り), and Kamicho Dashi means a Dashi (山車, a portable festival wagon) belonging to the neigborhood of Kamicho (上町) inside Ogano town. There!
I took these photos at the springfestival of Ogano Town. The little town is rightfully very proud of its festival and it was great to see how almost everyone took part. The town being exceedingly remote (by Japanese standards almost isolated) made for very few tourists like myself but I saw a handful of foreigners. It is in towns like this you get as genuine and experience of the country and its people that is possible, very seldom have I been so warmly welcomed even though I was hiding behind my camera as usual.
The town has four districts, Kasuga, Kamicho, Koshinone and Shinhara and each one manages one of the giant Dashi. Two of them are normal dashi representing the female, while in this town they also have two other dashi representing the male! I learn something new everytime I visit a festival. These dashi with the long stage part is very typical of the Chichibu region of which Ogano town is a part. I have read that the design is from the early 18th century (about 300 years old) and has since spread to other parts of the country. According to local tradition the Dashi represents the female, and in this region they are always paired up in even numbers with a “male” hanagasa type of dashi that are much rarer. Although you can’t see it in these photos, the rear of the Dashi is very richly decorated and is said to imitate the obi (the sash or belt) of a rich woman’s kimono. I will post photos of the rears, and the hanagasa dashi later. Another interesting details is that the stage area is set to be the same size as three tatami (Japanese floor mats), not much smaller than my first room in Tokyo where I lived for four years! These richly decorated Dashi are fiercly protected by the people of the Chicibu regions and have been registered as especially protected cultural assets of the region. Still, they are paid for and maintained by the townspeople themselves, typically costing about 300 000 USD, I think that these Dashi are much more expensive due to the unusually rich decoration. Some Dashi last hundreds of years so you are lucky if you ever see a new one!
Operating the Dashi is the job of all generations. The kids of the neighborhood take up the front and the rear: the girls are up front in colorful dresses pulling metal staffs, they are called Kanabouhiki. At the rear (no photos in this blog post) are the (mostly) young boys playing flutes. The young men of the town pull the wagon and steer it, which is no laughing matter with these wagons! It takes all their strength to steer it even an inch to the left or to the right, leaning, pushing and shoving the wagon in the direction they want it to go. They are directed by Yakubito which are the experienced or the older men, who ride on top of the wagon, guard the wheels (accidents do happen, almost in every festival) or direct the whole procession from the front. Inside the wagon there is usually a musical troupe of performers called Hayashi. To pull the Dashi from one part of town to the other is a massive effort that requires skill, planning, cooperation, food and water, countless artisans, musicians and dress makers. The purpose of course is to build a community, a functioning unit of people who learn to work and act as one, together for the good of the people. Friendships are made, skills are developed and quite a few children are made during these festivals. I envy these communities for their cooperation!
Of course, this intense community building pays of in times of real need: fires, earthquakes, tsunami, and even the day to day hardships of life.
I took these photos at the massive Kawagoe Matsuri a few weeks ago, the last of the major summer festivals in the Kanto area. From now on there is a handful of winter and festivals and then preparations start up for next year’s festival season once again! Kawagoe Matsuri is famous for its historic Dashi, large mobile wagon that look and feel more like mobile platforms complete with lights, lanterns, performers and dancers. If made new, these dashi costs between twenty and fifty million yen and it is very rare for new ones to be delivered, I have only seen one I think, so far, and that was in Shizuoka prefecture.
The point of the dashi is not mere entertainment though. It is paid for, maintained and housed by the local residents in the neighborhood it represents, making it far too expensive to be a thing for simple fun. Instead, it is purposefully made to be as big and cumbersome as possible, in an effort to involve as many local people as possible in its maintenance and handling. It isn’t merely expensive and dangerous by accident, it is supposed to be! The real objective of course, is to create, maintain and train a cohesive social community where everyone from the smallest children to the oldest residents are both welcome and needed. This constant training, this constant communication and decision making, fund raising and operation glues the community together in a way that would be impossible in any other form. Having a socially cohesive and functioning community in peace time is vital in times of war or natural disaster, and the dashi becomes the focal point for this community building and training. In the countryside this happens naturally at the farmers associations and cooperatives that all farmers, hunters and livestock keepers in Japan must be a member of. You won’t get far in Japan trying to do things alone, and the lone wolf is just a short step from social outcast. In the city where there is a more competitive commercial atmosphere, the people are even more dependent on this sort of training to build a community that can guarantee their survival in difficult situations. Obviously, city people are many hundred times vulnerable to natural disasters than people in the countryside. I saw this social structure in full working order when I visited the tsunami hit regions of the north west in March and April 2011. I am quite sure that things would have been worse for everyone if people had not had this constant training and community spirit.
I am sorry for the blurry poorly exposed photos in this series, but I was entering the street just as the huge dashi and the dozens of people attending to it sprung into action, and people running to take up their positions. It is a fantastic thing to be near one of these as they come rumbling at full speed (slightly slower than a leisurely stroll for the average pensioner…) down the street. It is a little bit like watching a well oiled crew operating an old sailing ship!
This year’s Kawagoe Matsuri (matsuri being the Japanese word for festival) was not quite as crowded as usual. The cold rain kept so many people away that the streets were walkable. Usually at this festival it is so crowded that it is quicker to walk around the entire city block than to just keep on slowly inching your way through the crowds on the main street. I took a few detours around the streets around main street to see what was going on and it was the first time I noticed all the buildings with their lanterns and decorations. I also took a couple of pictures of the famous Tokinokane, the old bell tower which is now a famous landmark of this part of town, the old Honkawagoe. The many original 18th and early 19th century buildings remaining in the area has given the city the nickname of Koedo, or Little Edo. Not too long ago all of Tokyo looked like this! Koedo is also the name of the delicious local beer.
The famous dashi, the mobile towers being pulled along the streets by the local townspeople were also out, not quite as many as last year, but still enough to put on a great show. More photos to come of this fantastic festival!
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!