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!
At the end of February and the first days of March every year, all Japanese families with daughters put out the traditional “hinaningyo“, to celebrate the little girl’s day and to make sure they are set up to be happily married sometime in the future. The saying goes that if you leave the dolls out too long (past the third of March) your daughter risks getting married late as well. In the town in Inatori (in the city of Higashiizu) on the Izu peninsula west of Tokyo, in Shizuoka Prefecture, for the last few hundred years at least, the local mothers have taken the tradition one step further, by making the Hinanotsurushi Kazari, or Hina Doll hanging Decorations”. It is said that the crafting of these dolls represent the love of the mother towards the daughter. These dolls can take almost any shape imaginable as long as it is something cute and cuddly that will help the daughter in her future marriage and are hand made by the mother by odd and ends, scraps of cloth and paper or anything else that they had at hand. They are then strung up and hung around the house as decorations. In accordance to the Japanese tradition of renewal and ritual fire cleansing, these dolls were traditionally burnt at the beginning of every year so there are no really old dolls left, but the local tourist association has started collecting some of the best into a special exhibition open to the public in January to Match. I visited earlier this year but I think they hold it every year. It’s a great place to see the many hundred possible varieties of this colorful custom.
If you are in Izu or in Shimoda early in the year I recommend going to see this. You can easily combine it with what is usually the first cherry blossoms to bloom on the Japanese mainland, in March every year!
If you visited Atami City far to the south west of Tokyo you might have seen this year’s Kogashi festival. I missed it this year but I went there last year. I posted yesterday about preparing and waiting for the festival and here is a photo that reminded me of that theme. A few members of the Atami Yuraku (友楽) neighborhood team waiting out the noon-day heat before joining the rest of the city in one massive parade. And speaking of massive, how about that huge paper lantern in the background? This one is slightly bigger than the more common 40-60cm long lanterns used handheld in these festivals!