Last week I was in Omiya, the center of Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo. Saitama prefecture has a population of only 7.2 million people but if it was a country it would be about the 40th biggest economy in the world, just above the UAE in the Middle East, but it is much smaller even than the territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Amazing. Every time I visit Omiya (which is famous among Tokyoites for the great railway museum) I try to visit the large Hikawa Shrine, the mother shrine of all the Hikawa related shrines across Japan. In Tokyo most wards have one of these shrines. Naturally they also had one of the giant ema (votive plates) to celebrate the year of the dragon, but when I took a closer look at the regular ema I noticed a large proportion of ema that had been decorated with little drawings and anime characters! I’ve never seen this at any other shrine and the reason turns out to be very simple, Omiya city is the home of a major anime business college and it’s also one of the centers of the Japanese anime industry. The stuff you learn from just being curious about ema!
These are the last of my photos of the Hikawajinja festival. I have a few hundred more but I think this will do just fine. Many festivals in Japan are a multiday event and this one was no exception. I didn’t really imagine that they would go to the lengths of putting on two completely different noh performances for the same festival! I lucked out! I saw a few people that came the night before, but this time they came only to watch the performance, which was even more lavish than last night’s. This show had three performers: the old man, the demon dog and the warrior. From what I imagined watching their tale (there are no words spoken in pure noh theater), an old man is cooking at his home, and just as his dish reaches perfection a demon dog enters his house to eat his dinner and drink his wine. The old man finds no other solution than getting a warrior to slay the demon dog, but in the end he takes pity on the demon (even demons must eat to stay alive, and a properly cooked meal is much better than feasting on the children of the village) and stops the warrior from finishing his task. After a stern lecture to the demon he send him off with his tail between his legs. All’s well that ends well, and we got to see some nice swordplay.
If you ever get the chance to watch a noh performance like this, on a small open stage with local people viewing, go for it! Avoid the bigger concert halls and cultural events, it’s a huge difference. The black background in some of the photos by the way, is the night sky. I used my relatively noise free Nikon D3s and a 135 f2 DC lens. With an ISO setting at 1600 I could freeze the movement with a short shutter speed such as 1/500 for most of the pictures. I shoot in JPG, as I always do. Unless I’m shooting for fine art I never use the RAW format. JPG is more than good enough for print, magazines, web and even posters.
What would a festival be without festival food? Much healthier, for starters. The food we have at these festivals are great for setting the mood. Sure it’s a little bit pricier and difficult to eat (sometimes they have seat though) but we still love it. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese local festival (a matsuri) you’ll know most of the standard food stalls by heart: takoyaki, yakisoba, okonomiyaki, yakitori, yakiika, watame, etc. There’s a few more standards, please feel free to add some in the comments section! You might notice the common “yaki” in many of these food names, yaki is Japanese for “fry”.
The first picture show the entrance to the festival, you can tell it’s really local by the number of kids bicycles at front. Usually there’s a few police officers around at all times during a festival but for some reason there were no people in uniforms for this one! The first thing you do after entering a shrine is to wash your hands and then proceed to the shrine to pay your respects. As you can see from the second picture, even the Gods got some nice treats this evening, sake bottles and (probably) grape fruit.
After that it is time to head to the food stands and check out what they have. Yakitori perhaps ? The chicken on the third and sixth pictures looks great, but by far the most appetizing smell was from the yaki-ika (see the fourth picture), for some reason fried squid smells fantastic. The girl was busy scraping the frying table when I passed by. I loved her t-shirt which I saw on sale at probably the most popular t-shirt store in Japan (at least with foreigners) Jeans Mate. Every time I have foreign friends in Japan I casually walk past their store in Shibuya and get about 20 minutes of rest time while waiting for my friends to finish shopping.
Back to the festival. Fifth picture shows beef and onion on a stick, fried to perfection. Well, the beef they use is not exactly tenderloin quality so it took some chewing but the choice of salt sauce or tare sauce makes it worth it. Tare sauce is easily one of the tastiest sauces in Japan and you owe it to yourself to try it at least once. You’ll be hooked. People normally use it on meats but if you are a vegetarian this is the perfect sauce to add to your barbecued veggies. A good opportunity to turn some meat eaters perhaps?
One of the stands had these pretty plastic festival decorations, you might notice the Japanese/Chinese character for festival in there. But festivals are not all about food and art, there’s games too! I think I have written about the “kingyousuku” before, the name roughly translates as “save the goldfish”, a very apt name. For 300 yen you get a plastic or wooden handle with a thin piece of paper attached. You task is to scoop as many goldfish (or sometimes, as in this case, turtles or crayfish) into a bowl. Usually the paper disintegrates in about 1.2 seconds, but some kids seems to have a magic ability to make it last. This girl got at least 6 or 7! I have never gotten a single one but the guys running the stand usually takes pity on the clumsy foreigner and give me a goldfish as a consolation price.
The last picture shows a takoyaki stand run by what must be a very dedicated father-daughter team. Takoyaki is octopus in batter, fried into a ball shape. It is easily one of the most popular Japanese fast foods with foreigners in Japan. But take care eating them, they are always too hot!
Until I visited this small local festival I haven’t been able to drum up a lot of interest in Japanese traditional music and theater, I always felt it was too far removed from it’s origins to be of any use to me. But seeing this small group perform at Hikawa shrine here in Tokyo really opened my eyes. Of course the performance was perfect, equally on level with the big productions I have seen in gilded cultural halls across Japan, but taken down to the level of ordinary people the meaning and truth behind this art really came alive. If you ever have the chance, please skip the concert halls and try to catch this kind of performance at a local place like this.
The costumes and the masks are marvelous and the actors move in ways that are unlike any normal acting you have ever seen. I guess the fox mask was a little bit scary, just look at the face of the little girl clinging to her mother in the last picture!
Tomorrow I will write a little bit more about the food and games at the festival. Enjoy!
It is also interesting because there’s almost always a strict no photography rule at these performances. But in this case I was able to get right up to the edge of the stage and snap away. Luckily I had a D3s with me which makes about 1/3 of the noise of a D700! All photos shot with my wonderful 135mm f2 DC. The greatest lens in the world.