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!
The beginning of this year’s Kawagoe Matsuri was wet indeed, lot of rain that showed no signs of stopping, until it did, very suddenly. The rest of the evening was relatively dry. I felt sorry for the kids though, whose job it was to lead the decorated dashi wearing the wonderful costumes of this festival, all made up and with fantastically complicated hairstyles. You can make it out even beneath their rain coats. The kids were a tough bunch as usual though, and soldiered on nevertheless. The pace of the festival picked up as the rains abated and it became very crowded very quickly. I think a lot of people were taking cover inside the street stall tents and the cafes of Kawagoe. All in all, a great evening in one of Japan’s best festivals!
I had totally forgotten about it but at the Kawagoe Matsuri it is customary for the local firefighters to perform a traditional display of ladder acrobatics. This was a skill they developed during the eco period of Japan, when the civic government of Japan rapidly advanced and firefighting became vitally important to create the prospering cities. The cities were dense and built entirely in wood so in case of fire, the local firefighters literally had not a second to spare. One way for them to quickly locate the fire was the ability to raise a ladder anywhere within seconds and send a scout straight up to locate the source of the flames. The pole with the leather strips were used to gauge the direction of the winds and to figure out where the flames were likely to be headed. The firefighters would then use their hooks to pull down any building in the path of the fire. Since Japanese buildings were all light timber frame without any nails this was actually a plausible way of stopping the fire from spreading. The task of actually putting out the flames went to the local towns people who by law had to be prepared with buckets that were always filled with water. You can still see these buckets in the older towns of Japan. The importance of being able to perform all these tasks led to the firefighters developing great technique and this skill is still preserved today in these traditional performances. Readers of this blog will know that these performances are some of my absolute favorites here in Japan, and especially the local team of Kawagoe here in Saitama prefecture. The rain had just stopped so the team could briefly perform a slimmed down version of their normal set. Rain makes the bamboo ladders very slippery and very dangerous. Use the tags to find more photos that I have taken of this fantastic tradition!
Oh, and as a bonus you can see that I managed to snap a photo at the exact moment another photographer snapped a photo right in front of me. The intensly brief flash was captured perfectly! How’s that for good timing?