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.
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!
One of the main attractions in the southernly town of Atami in Shizuoka prefecture south west of Tokyo and Yokohama is the fantastically extravagant Kogashi Matsuri, where on one hand youngsters from different neighborhoods team up and compete to create the most over-the-top dashi, or ritual wagon, while on the other hand much more religious and conservative teams of older men and women uphold the traditional shrine omikoshi, carrying them around town. When the two festival cultures clash spectacularly on the streets of Atami during the jam packed festival it looks absolutely chaotic. To get out of the way of the dashi train (these are huge lumbering vehicles drawn by hundreds of townspeople with scores of teenagers banging and shouting strapped tight on top) and the oncoming throngs of omikoshi I entered a side street on a whim, which turned out to be the main street of the Atami Ginza (same name as the Ginza in Tokyo due to a shared history of minting) thinking I would be able to catch my breath. After less than a minute I turn around and see the most of the town omikoshi teams piling in behind me. Out the ash into the fire! I got these shots before being manhandled out of the way completely. You can tell that Atami is an old seaside resort – these people really know how to throw a proper summer festival!
I took these photos last year and in a few months it is time again. Don’t miss it!
Two and a half years ago I posted about one of the great joys of Tokyo, the live jazz street bands that play for free outside some of the major stations, like this band. A couple of weeks ago I happened to see them again in the very same spot, some new members, but the fantastic drummer was still there! You can see a short 45 second clip of him in this video. Before I got my camera ready another photographer (blogger perhaps?) started shooting in front of me. It’s always fun to see other photographers at work!