Saturday was the opening day of the annual Kawagoe Spring festival, the start of over a month of weekly events, performances and exhibitions in Kawagoe’s historic “Little Edo” district. One of my favorite Japanese performance traditions is the traditional fire fighter’s ladder acrobatics, the hashigonori (梯子乗り), which was first performed as a show in 1659. Today it might look strange but in those days fire fighters really needed to be able to raise a tall ladder anywhere in the city in a matter of seconds and have the courage to climb it and find the spot where the fire was. The ladders were made of bamboo and in the narrow streets of old Japanese towns they had to be very mobile, so the teams would use their hooks to steady it while their bravest member would climb up to locate the fire. These teams would consist of volunteers and be financed by the local communities so in an effort to give something back to the community and keep their skills honed the tradition of ladder acrobatics were born. Another tool you’ll see used it the matoi (纏), a pole with the fire fighters mark on it that was quickly put up on roof near the fires. By looking at the way the tassels blew in the wind the fire chief could tell where the wind was blowing and direct teams of men armed with hooks to quickly pull down any buildings that risked catching fires. In those days once a house had caught fire there wasn’t any chance of putting it out, all you could do was to make sure the fire didn’t spread, and Japanese town houses were built with this in mind: all houses were made of wood without any nails so all you had to do was to pull out the plugs that held the timbers together and then pull it all down. You can see this in old houses still, even what little furniture they used was designed to be able to survive having the roof fall down, and after the fire, if the piles of houses survived they could be quickly raised again with comparatively minimal damage. By comparison, during the Great Fire Of London in 1666, the King had to personally order certain houses blown up by placing kegs of gunpowder inside, just in order to create fire lanes to stop the spreading of fire.
I think I better stop here before I geek out on the history of firefighting completely! If you haven’t already seen it, Japanese historic fire fighters have already been turned into a great anime, Combustible, by Katsuhiro Otomo. In the trailer you can see some of the real use of hooks and ladders, in a beautifully drawn classic style. Enjoy!
You might have missed it but there’s a story making the rounds in the newspapers and blogs right now about a Swedish department store displaying their clothes with mannequins who are not quite as skinny as we are used to seeing mannequins (and indeed models). I would just like to point out that Japanese stores were way ahead of the west on this – or what about this mannequin I found today in Kawagoe City, Saitama prefecture? She is definitely not your typical wafer thin Twiggy look-a-like, and quite senior to the not so thin but still stunning mannequins in Sweden.
I hope you aren’t getting tired of my photos from the Kawagoe Matsuri, or the Kawagoe Festival late summer last year! I keep going back to the photos I took and finding interesting faces and situations from hundreds of photos I took during those to days and evenings. The festival itself centers around a few main streets and alleys, but it really sprawls out over a very large area, covering over three stations and everything in between. Even on non crowded days it can take 30 minutes to walk from one end of the festival area to the other, and during the festival itself it can take hours! There’s of course the huge mobile festival wagons battling it out whenever they meet up, but there’s also a number of stages put up around the area where performances take place almost around the clock, traditional dance and music. It really is one of my favorite festivals!
More photos from last year’s Kawagoe festival I’m afraid! I took got so many good shots of the great people of Kawagoe city in Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo, I just have to keep posting them. The best thing about these groups of people pulling the festival floats is that you can just stand still and keep finding great moments to capture in your camera finder. My favorite this time is of the two boys shouting! When I first came to Japan I was really surprised at how a lot of young people were encouraged to shout, both in martial arts but also in ordinary sports and activities, even old ladies rarely lift something or get up from a chair without saying something. A friend of mine who is a teacher told me that the reason Japanese focus so much on this shouting is because they are naturally timid, and there are few opportunities to make themselves heard in the course of normal life so in order to build a stronger character, children are accustomed from a young age to let out a blood curdling shout even when playing table tennis or throwing a basket ball! It’s a nice tradition and it actually works! The best thing is to hear a couple of hundred neighbors shout together when pulling one of these huge festival wagons though!