I am extremely fortunate in that I am born a walker. I love walking. Can’t get enough of it. And few cities are so perfectly walkable as Tokyo. I often get off trains a couple off stations early just to get the pleasure of walking the final part of my journey, and I seldom use connecting trains, preferring to get somewhat in the right direction and then walk the last bit. Yesterday I lucked out again as I walking to a place two stations Shinagawa, and halfway there I lucked out and happened to find myself at a street performance by one of Tokyo’s most famous taiko drumming groups, the Daigen group, who has won several top awards both nationally and internationally. Even their junior members looked tougher than most grown up men in the audience! Their manager kept asking us to get closer but from where I was at front every beat of the drums brought sharp pain to my ears so I can understand the audience for keeping their distance!
One of the most spectacular aspects of the Kurayami Matsuri in Tokyo’s western Fuchu City is the huge drum. There are six of these massive beasts that can carry four men and are drawn by up to two dozen others. Instead of normal drumsticks they use two thick and stubby baseball bats, one in each hand. There is a certain rhythm, three quick strokes, followed by a slow draw during which the overseer standing on top of the drum lowers his paper lantern while chanting a single drawn out word. Two drummer per drum, and six to a festival, spread out over a square kilometer, creates a sound almost like a scene from a war movie. It’s an almost hypnotic thing to see! In the old days only the strongest men were allowed but these days women and kids take part in the drumming as well and I caught one young man eagerly awaiting his turn at the drum. The most enthusiastic drummers who manage to combine massive strength with a decorum fitting the occasion usually draws a lot of applause and the appreciative nods from the more experienced old men in the crowd. One day I wouldn’t mind having a go at them.
In January I visited the furusato matsuri at Tokyo Dome and saw, among many other things, these Okinawan drummers perform! I have been twice to Okinawa but never seen anything cultural so this was a treat. Scores of drummers and dancers showing us their traditional high stepping dance complete with a very un-japanese drum rhythm, slow and methodical, with high pitched singing voices and the almost drone like string instruments they use. Almost hypnotic. Any man looks better with a drum but I guess these handsome men wouldn’t look bad even without their drums.
I’m posting quite a few photos to give you a sense of how the movement looks like, not sure if it works! The performance took place on a massive stage and I was nowhere near the dancers, luckily though I had my Bigma with me (a Sigma 50-500mm 3.5-6.3 super tele), also known as “Dr. Backercracker” and the “Widow Maker”. A huge lens I bought second hand that I almost never have the energy to carry around with me. My back is thankful to me for not using it too often. It was dark and with a dark lens like this I had to crank the ISO up to almost unacceptable levels to bring the shutter speeds up and above 1/500 (for handheld photography). Enjoy!
Last weekend I visited a festival put up at a local shrine associated with one of the largest shrines in the Japanese shinto religion, Hikawajinja (or Hikawa Shrine). This shrine which is located in Saitama just north of Tokyo has roughly 290 associated shrines throughout Japan, there’s even two within 5 minutes walk of my house! The Hikawa shrines are all dedicated to a God called Susanoo, God of Summer Storms and brother of the Goddess of the Sun and the God of the Moon.
Usually when a local shrine throws a festival it’s purpose is to appease and honor the local gods as well as to entertain the kids and reaffirm the bonds between the locals. Vigils are held to welcome the gods at various shops and street corners around the area. In the countryside tents are set up and fires lit, but here in the city a vacant store front or empty parking lot will do just as well. Locals stop by to chat and bring presents to the people manning the vigils and it seems like a great place to exchange gossip and information (see the last photo of this post).
The branch of Hikawa shrine that I visited wasn’t easy to find, located on a back street and with a railway running right in front of it I wouldn’t have found it if it weren’t for the brightly colored lanterns guiding visitors. This was easily the smallest festival I have ever visited in Japan, the were about 10 food and games stands on the shrine grounds and not more than 75 people.
Little did I know that this festival would teach me so much about culture! Not to be daunted by the small narrow space, the shrine had engaged a group of traditional Japanese noh theatre performers. A small band of 4 four played flutes and drums in a musical style I have heard performed countless times before in school festivals, concerts and cultural events. But never like this. This was intimate. This was on our level and for us. This wasn’t sponsored by any corporation or cultural agency. This was folk art as it was supposed to be.