More of the fantastic ladder acrobatics as performed by Saitama prefecture firefighters at the Kawagoe Harumatsuri (Kawagoe City Spring Festival) opening day at the end of March 2014. The ladder is simple and handmade out of hemp rope and bamboo poles. The only thing that keeps it upright is the support of the hooks and bills applied by the team members on the ground. The method allowed firefighting teams in the Edo period of Japan to quickly and safely raise the ladders anytime and anywhere in matter of seconds, regardless of conditions. Ladders were not used only to scale walls or buildings, but also as mobile observation platforms to find fires and routes in the densely packed wooden cities of Japan. The traditions are being kept alive by the modern firefighters although in those days the positions were often hereditary and passed down through special families of samurai or commoners tasked with keeping an eye on fires. The official system that we can see in these performances was introduced in 1720.
Tokyo, or Edo as it was known then, was famous for its many fires. People in other parts of Japan even made fun of Edo by coining the saying 火事と喧嘩は江戸の花 (“Quarrels and fires are the flowers of Edo”, in Japanese to be the flower of something is the be the pride and joy, the finest and the best). During the 267 years of the Edo period (1601-1867) there were 49 massive fires in the city, ten times as many as in the other large cities of Japan. If you include smaller firest there were a couple of thousand during the Edo period. The number of fires increased as the population growth and the inability of the Shogunate government (the feudal ruler of Japan) to handle the growth of the city is part of the reason why the Emperor was able to regain government control of the country in 1868. Without the many fires of Edo this blog could have been called Edobling. The greatest fire of Edo was in 1657 when 107 000 people were killed (about one fifth of the total population). Compared to the 8 official deaths of the great fire of London 1666 it seems even larger. The worst months of the year for fires was in January, February and March, when strong winds, cold and dry weather mean that even small household accidents could easily sweep the entire city if left unchecked. People were so afraid of these fires that many men who had relations outside of the city sent their wives to the countryside in these three months.
Of all the photographic subject available in this fantastic country few beats the ladder acrobatics for photogenics! These teams of gravity defying fire fighters are really something to see. I took saw the Saitama prefecture Kawagoe city team at the Kawagoe spring festival opening last week. In the old days samurai families tasked with fighting fires in the cities of Japan developed a technique of quickly and safely raising ladders using not much beyond bamboo, ropes and hooks. The bravest would then race up the ladder and quickly be able to locate the source of the fire and the direction it was likely to travel in. A low tech solution to problems faced by firefighters in many cultures. To keep their skill up the teams would practice on the ladders in a form of acrobatics that is now the “hashigonori engi” (梯子乗り演技). There are different traditions but most of them center on a dozen core positions centered around where on the ladder they are performed (up, middle or moving downwards). Most teams follow the traditional 69 positions although very few of them are every used be the individual teams. Can you spot the position called the “sea turtle”?
There are even some extremely scary looking two man positions that I have never seen in real life (not to be confused with bigger ladder teams where two or three men do their own routines on different parts of the ladder at the same time). I took so many photos of their three different performances on this day so I will a second bunch of photos for later. Enjoy!
I took these photos at the massive Kawagoe Matsuri a few weeks ago, the last of the major summer festivals in the Kanto area. From now on there is a handful of winter and festivals and then preparations start up for next year’s festival season once again! Kawagoe Matsuri is famous for its historic Dashi, large mobile wagon that look and feel more like mobile platforms complete with lights, lanterns, performers and dancers. If made new, these dashi costs between twenty and fifty million yen and it is very rare for new ones to be delivered, I have only seen one I think, so far, and that was in Shizuoka prefecture.
The point of the dashi is not mere entertainment though. It is paid for, maintained and housed by the local residents in the neighborhood it represents, making it far too expensive to be a thing for simple fun. Instead, it is purposefully made to be as big and cumbersome as possible, in an effort to involve as many local people as possible in its maintenance and handling. It isn’t merely expensive and dangerous by accident, it is supposed to be! The real objective of course, is to create, maintain and train a cohesive social community where everyone from the smallest children to the oldest residents are both welcome and needed. This constant training, this constant communication and decision making, fund raising and operation glues the community together in a way that would be impossible in any other form. Having a socially cohesive and functioning community in peace time is vital in times of war or natural disaster, and the dashi becomes the focal point for this community building and training. In the countryside this happens naturally at the farmers associations and cooperatives that all farmers, hunters and livestock keepers in Japan must be a member of. You won’t get far in Japan trying to do things alone, and the lone wolf is just a short step from social outcast. In the city where there is a more competitive commercial atmosphere, the people are even more dependent on this sort of training to build a community that can guarantee their survival in difficult situations. Obviously, city people are many hundred times vulnerable to natural disasters than people in the countryside. I saw this social structure in full working order when I visited the tsunami hit regions of the north west in March and April 2011. I am quite sure that things would have been worse for everyone if people had not had this constant training and community spirit.
I am sorry for the blurry poorly exposed photos in this series, but I was entering the street just as the huge dashi and the dozens of people attending to it sprung into action, and people running to take up their positions. It is a fantastic thing to be near one of these as they come rumbling at full speed (slightly slower than a leisurely stroll for the average pensioner…) down the street. It is a little bit like watching a well oiled crew operating an old sailing ship!
This year’s Kawagoe Matsuri (matsuri being the Japanese word for festival) was not quite as crowded as usual. The cold rain kept so many people away that the streets were walkable. Usually at this festival it is so crowded that it is quicker to walk around the entire city block than to just keep on slowly inching your way through the crowds on the main street. I took a few detours around the streets around main street to see what was going on and it was the first time I noticed all the buildings with their lanterns and decorations. I also took a couple of pictures of the famous Tokinokane, the old bell tower which is now a famous landmark of this part of town, the old Honkawagoe. The many original 18th and early 19th century buildings remaining in the area has given the city the nickname of Koedo, or Little Edo. Not too long ago all of Tokyo looked like this! Koedo is also the name of the delicious local beer.
The famous dashi, the mobile towers being pulled along the streets by the local townspeople were also out, not quite as many as last year, but still enough to put on a great show. More photos to come of this fantastic festival!