More photos of the Kawagoe warriors from yesterday’s post. There’s quite a few reenactment groups around Japan focusing on the late 16th century wars, and this group is one of the biggest in the Tokyo area. In 1543 a gang of Portuguese adventurers ran a chinese ship aground on the southern Japanese island of Tanegashima. Not counting the fact that Europeans had almost never been seen before, these men carried with them a new kind of weapon, the matchlock musket, and two of these were sold to the Japanese. Within a few years they had figured out how to make them in vast numbers, apparently over 300 000 were produced within the first decade. These became known as tanegashima, after the island where they had been introduced. They are still quite common as antiques and I sometimes see them in the better antique shops around Tokyo, as they were produced right up until the mid-19th century. These muskets take quite a few seconds to load and prime even for experienced soldiers, so for these safety conscious reenactors it took even longer. As they followed the orders of the commander in the red mask, we were warned that it would be very loud. I had never heard two dozen tanegashima being fired at the same time but it was so loud it felt like someone had stepped up to me and punched me in the head. I flinched every time! All combined, the smoke, the sound, the smell, it was quite an impressive show! I can imagine how the largest battles must have looked, with low laying fields clouded in the thick smoke as thousands and thousands of these were fired through hour long battles. In the fourth photo you can see sparks flying from the weapon of the musketman off the right end of the photo, and in photo seven you can see just how bad visibility is after only two shots per musket!
I still have a few more of these photos to show, probably the best one is to come!
At a festival in Kawagoe, Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo, I saw this parade of warrior showing of the arms and armor of feudal Japan. Here are three of the commanders, but the guys who came after them, with real fire muskets, where very impressive as well – tomorrow’s post! The man in the maned helmet was quite terrifying as he shouted out orders and instilled a bit of martial fear in the crowd of civilians gathered to watch. Anyone who crossed his line of safety would get a proper shout down!
Saturday was the opening day of the annual Kawagoe Spring festival, the start of over a month of weekly events, performances and exhibitions in Kawagoe’s historic “Little Edo” district. One of my favorite Japanese performance traditions is the traditional fire fighter’s ladder acrobatics, the hashigonori (梯子乗り), which was first performed as a show in 1659. Today it might look strange but in those days fire fighters really needed to be able to raise a tall ladder anywhere in the city in a matter of seconds and have the courage to climb it and find the spot where the fire was. The ladders were made of bamboo and in the narrow streets of old Japanese towns they had to be very mobile, so the teams would use their hooks to steady it while their bravest member would climb up to locate the fire. These teams would consist of volunteers and be financed by the local communities so in an effort to give something back to the community and keep their skills honed the tradition of ladder acrobatics were born. Another tool you’ll see used it the matoi (纏), a pole with the fire fighters mark on it that was quickly put up on roof near the fires. By looking at the way the tassels blew in the wind the fire chief could tell where the wind was blowing and direct teams of men armed with hooks to quickly pull down any buildings that risked catching fires. In those days once a house had caught fire there wasn’t any chance of putting it out, all you could do was to make sure the fire didn’t spread, and Japanese town houses were built with this in mind: all houses were made of wood without any nails so all you had to do was to pull out the plugs that held the timbers together and then pull it all down. You can see this in old houses still, even what little furniture they used was designed to be able to survive having the roof fall down, and after the fire, if the piles of houses survived they could be quickly raised again with comparatively minimal damage. By comparison, during the Great Fire Of London in 1666, the King had to personally order certain houses blown up by placing kegs of gunpowder inside, just in order to create fire lanes to stop the spreading of fire.
I think I better stop here before I geek out on the history of firefighting completely! If you haven’t already seen it, Japanese historic fire fighters have already been turned into a great anime, Combustible, by Katsuhiro Otomo. In the trailer you can see some of the real use of hooks and ladders, in a beautifully drawn classic style. Enjoy!
Whenever I visit shrines around Japan I always make a point of taking a look at their Ema, or votive plates, little wooden plates that you buy, write your wishes or prayers upon and then hang at the shrine, to enlist the help of the Gods in making your prayers come true. You can sometimes learn what a particular shrine is famous for, as well as get a good insight in what kind of people visit it by reading what they are wishing for. Sometimes however, you find these hand drawn anime or manga ema motives, usually by some die hard fans of a particular anime featuring the city or town or even shrine in their stories. Chichibu is one of those towns that have had the good fortune to be the setting for a famous anime and these ema are there to prove it! You can find other posts about more traditional ema by clicking the ema tag at the the end of the post.