Of the many things to see at the Narita Gionsai held in Chiba Prefecture’s Narita City is the mad dash of the dashi (山車). Dashi are generally huge wooden wheeled platforms large enough to house a band of traditional musicians and often even a little stage for dancers or performers. These are pulled around town by teams of people from the neighborhoods they represent and are common in many Japanese festivals. The thing that makes Narita different is the many hills these wagons have to go up and down! Each these wagons weigh several tons and to pull one up a steep hill or slope is just unthinkable, instead the locals have developed a technique where they will dash up the hill with the ropes and sort of yanking the wagon up after them. With hundreds of dedicated townspeople, scores of captains overseeing the effort and a concentrated effort even these heavy wagons can be successfully pulled up. It is great fun to see the preparations and the teams of leaders running up and down to make sure everyone is prepared and ready for the signal. When the signal comes the townspeople start running and naturally the audience cheers them on. As the wagon crests the hill and it is clear that the pull was successful there is always a huge cheer and lot of smiles – what would happen if the pull failed halfway is just unthinkable!
Naturally going downhill is also a difficult task but much less dramatic.
If you visit the Narita Gionsai make sure to position yourself at the top of a hill to see this dash for yourself. It is quite exciting and a great show of the importance of cooperation!
A few weeks ago I visited the fantastic Narita Gionsai in neighboring Chiba Prefecture’s Narita City, famous for hosting Japan’s biggest international airport as well as the grand Naritasan temple. The street from Narita station to the temple itself is wonderfully quaint and old fashioned, and I managed to catch the omikoshi procession as it made its way to and from the temple. The main attraction of this festival however, is the massive festival wagons, hence the rather low key omikoshi ceremonies!
I will post more about the grand Narita Gionsai later in the week!
Awaodori festival season has started and one of the bigger festivals of the summer is the Shimokitzawa Awaodori festival. It’s a two day event, on the 9th and 10th of August, from 18:30 to 20:30. The narrow streets of Shimokitazawa makes for a very intimate and friendly festival where the audience is very close to the dancers. The drummers especially can be dangerous so it is usually best to stand back a little.
I saw the Yattokoren at last year’s festival, one of the local Shimokitazawa teams. The shotengai, or shopping street, where the festival takes place is called Ichibangai which has been place of commerce since the 1920s and really grew big after the second world war as most if survived the bombings and many merchants from other areas flocked to Shimokitazawa. The Awaodori festival was started in 1966 and this year’s festival will be the 49th.
Shimokitazawa is a great place to hang out and there’s plenty of shops and unique little restaurants and alleys to explore, so if you have time in August this year, make sure to visit!
The festival has an English homepage here.
Last month’s Yoshiwara Gionsai was just as exciting and fun as usual. I could only make it there for the second day, missing the huge tree procession of the day before. One of the peculiar things about this local festival is the omikoshi which is covered in bamboo grass and moved in a way that is different from most other omikoshi. It is take around the parish districts by teams divided by neighborhood and at each handover an ceremony where a bottle of sea water is emptied over the head of the headsman of the omikoshi team. Although many omikoshi teams are now unisex this one is still only open to males, for at least one obvious reason I would only discover when actually trying to lift the omikoshi: it is incredibly physically demanding and space is very limited, so you need as many of the strongest people you can fit, and preferably all of the same height! There is even several points in the procession where the omikoshi stops and is jumped up and down. I don’t know if the sense of fear is stronger than the sense of pain and exhaustion, but failure is not an option!
It is great fun to follow the omikoshi careening through the streets. In the old days it used to be even wilder and different neighborhoods would wrestle for control of it – in mid procession! But a few years ago a straying omikoshi took out a whole stand of festival food and it was decided to calm things down a bit. The women of the neighborhood are kept busy – preparing and handling the hand over ceremonies, following the omikoshi around cooling it off with water and making sure not too many innocent bystanders are caught in the procession!
All in all great fun and if you are in Shizuoka (or in Tokyo and don’t mind the train travel) I can really recommend this festival for next year!