One of my earliest memories of total culture shock in Japan was just a few days after first arriving in the country: I was walking through Shinjuku on a Saturday morning and suddenly saw a small group of gaudily dressed up people, from young to old, men and women come skipping out of a pachinko shop, playing a tune that did not make sense at all and in a total cacaphony of drums, cymbals, clarinets and banjos. To call their makeup pancake would not offer the thick layers of white paste and bright red lipstick they were wearing justice . Lopsided huge wigs, massive flower decorations, wearing hats, kimonos and costumes, plastic toys and banners on their backs it looked like they had been styled by a dozen clowns high on acid. The spectacle was amazing and mesmerizing. Now this was something we did not have in the the rest of the world. Welcome to the world of Chindon!
It all started in 1845 when a ambulating candy salesman in Osaka discovered that he had somehow turned into a local tourist attraction due to his unusually strong voice, calling out his list of goodies to make a racket that even other Osaka street vendors were unable to match. He figured out that he could make more money advertising the businesses of other people than he could from selling candy. This being Japan, people are not slow to see an opportunity and soon he had competition. In 1885 a businessman from Osaka started hiring performers to advertise in Tokyo. The Tokyoites were not easily impressed by a shouting street vendor, but they were impressed with the military marching bands that were introducing western music and marches to the Japanese, so the businessman hired large groups of performers that mimicked the popular marching bands and wore loud garish costumes playing a strange mix of military marches and traditional Japanese folk tunes. These bands were so popular they started performing in cinemas (movies at that time were still silent) and their big break came when Kirin hired them to go back to Osaka and advertise their beer. During the 1920s, the roaming advertising bands went into decline as other forms of marketing, neon signs and street lights reduced the need for noisy musical advertising. The final death blow came in 1929 when sound films became popular and over night thousands of performers were made unemployed. Striking did not help, and by the time of the war they were banned. After the war many shops had no way of advertising as newspapers, radio (and later TV) was far too expensive for the little shops that grew out of the black markets. Out of these noisy street performers came the Chindonya (chindon being a made up word that basically means “bing-bang”, or “a noisy racket”) we see today.
The chidonya today are hired by small businesses, festival, companies, parties and weddings to perform and if you are lucky you can catch them here and there as they perform in the street, most commonly to advertise pachinko parlors (at least here in Tokyo), but there are even politicians using them in their campaigning. The bands all have at least one person on a drum set up with cymbals, and at least one wind instrument (most commonly a clarinet). Apart from those you will find almost any instrument imaginable. This chindonya, the Donchiya group from Shimizu City in Shizuoka prefecture performed at a city festival in Fuji City’s Yoshiwara district that I attended. This group is probably one of the most serious I have ever seen, very professional! My favorite chindonya though is the Neochindon Kabocha Shoukai (ネオちんどん かぼちゃ商会) from Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa, formed in 1991. I even have their CD!
Here is a video clip from a 1963 movie with a Japanese chindon band performing in Hong Kong, and naturally, getting arrested by the police. Here’s a wonderful old newsreel from 1960 showing one of the few remaining old-style chinodonya, in Kawasaki City.
Touristing in Tokyo in the summer means that you have a fairly decent chance of seeing at least a handful of festivals, especially on the weekends. Tokyo has it’s own share of huge famous festivals but even if you don’t have the time to visit the larger festivals of other parts of the country, if you are lucky, they might come to you! The famous Nebuta festival has a pretty large appearance in the western Tokyo city of Tachikawa every year, where I took these photos of locals and guests from up north handling the huge drums and paper figure floats.
To get to Tachikawa it is just a simple train ride on the central Chuo Line going straight through Tokyo, and the festival spot is a 10-15 minutes walk or a single stop on the Nambu line, to Nishikunitachi Station, and then 5 minutes walking.
Even though days are pretty long in the Tokyo summer, as the sun sets it gets harder and harder to balance the light of the floats and the people around them in your photographs. As it gets pitch black you just have to make a choice of which one to light for. Here’s a few of my favorites from the very start of the festival! Enjoy!
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!
Just at the start of this year I blogged about a chance walk in on a performance by the fantastic taiko group Yushima Tenjin Shiraume Taiko group (湯島天神白梅太鼓), and a few months ago I had the chance to see them again at the Yushima Tenjin festival in Tokyo’s Taito Ward. They performed three complete sets at the back of the shrine, all the times with the same energy and smiles! Japanese taiko drumming is a quite physical experience to see. You can feel the drums in your stomach and if you stand too close you can feel the air pounding in your ears. It is a fantastic form of music! The performances I saw this time was almost totally done by women, except for one young man. I really hope I can catch them again a few times this year!
Usually when I take photos I never bother cropping them when I edit them. I try to do all my cropping before I take the photo. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I prefer my photos un-cropped not only because they look more “true” in my eyes (as if the physical act of acquiring a subject, composing in your viewfinder and then pressing the trigger to have your computer analyze a sensor image and interpret it for you wasn’t quite far removed from truth anyway) but also because it saves me a lot of time not to worry too much about cropping in post processing. Sometimes you’ll see a photo with a very strange composition, usually it is not me trying to be arty, rather it is just that I tried to avoid taking photos of something just outside the photo frame!