If you are in Tokyo or neighboring Saitama prefecture this weekend the best way to spend it is of course to visit the massive Kawagoe Festival. A huge two day festival in the city nicknamed “Koedo” (Little Edo) for its many Edo period buildings and streets still remaining. The festival is known for its many dashi, mobile platforms each representing one of the neighborhoods in the city, paid for and operated by the towns people themselves. The weather is usually pretty good this time of the year but this weekend has seen nothing but rain and it was pouring when I visited Kawagoe yesterday. I took these photos of on dashi maneuvering through the narrow streets next to Kawagoeshi station, covered in plastic sheeting and pulled by rain coat wearing townspeople. The Tokyo and Kanto areas are usually blessed with fantastic weather most of the year so being outside shooting in the rain is a little bit exotic for me. On each of these dashi there is a hayashi team, a team of folk musicians and dancers performing for the crowds. Flute and drums, usually. If you feel brave enough to ignore the rain the festival kicks off in an hour or so!
Many festivals in Japan feature the huge wheeled shrine platforms called dashi (山車) that often carry dancers and musicians. Some of these have engines, others rely on manpower and others a combination. Some are so large that they have to be lifted up and rotated because they can’t turn! On the first day of the Akasaka Hikawa Shrine festival a week ago they only had the one dashi out, but it’s a beauty. It is always so fun to see these very traditional handmade wagons being pulled around a modern city center, full of glass, concrete and neon signs. Very few people still live in these commercial districts so the omikoshi teams usually rely on staff from local companies and shops and even night clubs to help out, which makes for a friendly bunch of fun loving people, as you can see in some of these photos.
Still the festival season isn’t over, although it is drawing towards a close as the weekends see fewer and fewer festivals. Better enojy it while it lasts!
The bigger the town, the bigger the festival, and the bigger the festival the bigger the parade! As anyone who has been part of a large ceremony knows, there is a lot of waiting involved! I walked around at the head start area of one of the first of the many parades on this day, one of three days making up the festival period, and grabbed the opportunity to take some photos of the parade as it gets ready to move ahead. There are shrine maidens, priests, men carrying holy items, the omikoshi teams, dashi (huge mobile votive platforms) for entertainment and banner carriers and musicians of all kinds. It can imagine it takes a lot of experience and many years in the community to learn to manage this. Just look at the cool older men in charge of it all!
These kinds of festivals are not solely for fun and entertainment or even religion and tradition. The kinds of skills and community relations needed to pull a massive festival like this through without the use any sort of technology higher than a notepad, are skills that are vital in protecting the community in case disaster or war strikes. If you and your neighbors can navigate and arrange even a small part of a festival like this, you will be able to quickly organize vital life lines in case of a big earthquake, or rescue teams when large fires or floods happen. You will also know each other, the neighborhood, who to go to, who the natural leaders are, what kind of skills people have and what you can expect from people when things get tricky. I saw this with my own eyes in 2011 at the tsunami disaster area, and as much as I hate to imagine it, there will be more disasters, large and small, here in Japan. So the next time you see the old dudes and ladies staring silently out over a festival in full swing, you know that they are probably both proud over a job well done and happy over their heard-earned skills!
One of the most gorgeous of the many neighborhood traditional dashi teams at the huge Hachioji festival in Tokyo’s western Hachioji City was the Nakamachi (中町). Not only did they provide some excellent hayashi music, colorful road decorations and a beautifully lit dashi (mobile festive stage wagon) with handsome liveried crew, they also had a most unusual doll performing the hayashi dances. Dolls or puppets are traditionally handled by black clad and masked kuroko (黒子), who are not supposed to be seen or acknowledged by the audience in a kabuki theatre or puppet show. They are also the originators of the popular look of the ninja, as their special look and role on stage blended perfectly with the image of the stealthy assassins. The real ninja would probably never dress in something so conspicuous as an all black fighting suit! At normal kabuki shows the kuroko are dressed in black and functions like stage hands or assistants to the actors, but in certain scenes they can wear all white (in a snow filled winter scene) or all blue (on an ocean scene). If you visit a festival in Japan and see a dashi with one of these kuroko you are lucky indeed!