Culture

Summer Festivals in Toyama-Ken

When I think of summer in Japan I think of two things: heat and festivals. I’m a much bigger fan of the latter but at least I’ve now adjusted a little to the humidity. And frankly, now that it’s started getting cold again I feel myself missing the heat. And I already feel nostalgic for festivals even though I have another season in store for me next year. Festivals vary in their purpose and meaning but there are a few essentials found at almost all of them: beer, food stands, and games. If it’s special it’ll have some sort of fireworks, dancing, or floats being pushed and pulled around. Families come and hang out, fanning themselves with the plastic advertisement fans handed out by companies and kids run around with shaved ice. There’s a sense of occasion but everyone is pretty casual at the same time. I went to a lot of festivals this year but that only comprises a small fraction of the dozens that take place in Toyama.

TOYAMA FIREWORKS

On August 1st every year, people come to a river in Toyama to watch a big fireworks show. We had to wait in line for shuttle from the station to the river, and the whole area was super crowded, especially in the surrounding streets. After the fireworks we did Purikura and I ran into tons of students.

TAKAOKA TANABATA

Tanabata festivals are held all over, but this was my first time being to the one in Takaoka. There wasn’t anything too unique about it, but it was pretty big and I ate some good food.

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UOZU TANABATA

Honestly I’m still confused about what exactly this festival is, and there seemed to be only about one hundred people there. Some people carry a float around the streets of Uozu and are followed by these costumed demons and a crowd. These demons chase kids around to scare them but it’s considered lucky if you shake their hand. I shook one of their hands and he reached over and stroked my head after. I hope that’s good luck.

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UOZU TATEMON

My last blog post was about this. This is my favourite festival that I’ve ever been to and so much fun. We got to wear happi and help pull the floats. This year was extra special because we organized for more ALTs from different cities to come and join. In total we had about 20 foreigners pulling together and at the end of the night got interviewed by the local news station. It was really nice to have everyone come to our city and I felt such municipal pride being able to host everyone in such good spirits.

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UOZU CHUOROKU

This took place the Sunday after Tatemon and it was a nice way to relax. There was a big parade of dancers down the centre street in Uozu. There were different groups of dancers – some actual organized dance teams but most were local businesses or organizations that joined together. It went on for at least two hours and I saw a few people I knew dancing! I also got to see my school’s brass band play.

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KAMIICHI OBON

This was the first festival I ever went to in Japan! We watched the dance performance and then went to watch the fireworks and fires down by the river.

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KAZE NO BON

Kaze no bon is Toyama’s biggest festival and a huge tourist attraction. The images of its dancers are everywhere and have become a symbol of Toyama.

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Uozu Tatemon Festival 2015

Last weekend was my second time joining the Uozu Tatemon Festival, the biggest event in Uozu of the year and something I had been looking forward since the first time. There were two nights on the Friday and Saturday. I went on Friday just to watch and while there was a smaller crowd than Saturday, there was still a lot of excitement and energy.

There are 8 floats, all weighing around 5 tonnes that get pushed and pulled along the water. Big groups of people are organized in teams and wear matching happis. Usually the strongest people get put in the centre of the float to push it (there aren’t any wheels!) and everyone else pulls from ropes at the front. After going down the street the Tatemon get pulled into an open area one by one where they are spun in a circle. A few lucky guys get to run with the ropes extended from the top; leaping in the area as they spin the float around. Once this is done the team members visit the shrine.
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The best part of the festival is seeing everyone from the city come together. The floats are all owned and stored by families and the team members are usually relatives of friends. Lots of families and groups of people to come out and watch together, eating food and taking pictures.

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Cherry Blossoms in Toyama City

Matsukawa is a big river that runs through Toyama city. It’s pretty all year round, but especially beautiful in spring when the cherry blossoms come. On the weekend, and most weekdays, the riverbed and surrounding park are filled with people eating and drinking together. It’s pretty popular for companies to have an outing and to see large groups of businessmen eating dinner together on big blue tarps. I went during the week this year and it pretty quiet, probably because it was so cold!

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This spring has been really strange. A month ago the weather was flip-flopping, going from warm enough to wear just a shirt to cold enough I was back in my winter coat. My teacher told me it was called “三寒四温” Sankanshion – three days cold, four days warm. Although I took it as more of an expression it seemed to be a pretty accurate description. The cherry blossoms in Toyama Prefecture bloomed about a week and a half ago, and sadly I think all the petals are just about to start falling. Matsukawa river was just as pretty as last year, although definitely colder.

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Halloween in Japan

In Japan Halloween isn’t really a holiday or celebrated the way it is in North America. But, there’s a general awareness of the event with all the merchandise and marketing that happens in the season. Walking into a grocery or convenience store you’ll find Halloween Candy and Halloween flavoured versions of typical snacks and sweets. Trick-or-treating happens on occasion, but only when it’s specifically organized by an individual or group providing the experience for kids. I went to two trick-or-treating events, one organized by an English teacher for her young students and the other organized by city hall in my town.

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Halloween is really fun to teach in school. For some of my classes I told a scary Japanese story in English, “Kuchisake-Onna”. It’s about a split-mouth woman who wears a surgical mask and goes around asking people if they think she is beautiful and then cutting them with scissors. Because face masks are pretty commonplace here, I wore one to class and told the story, ripping it off partway through the story to reveal I had drawn a split mouth on my face in red. It went over pretty well but the comments I got were “very cute!”… when really I wanted them to gasp in terror.

Throughout the year, many students have said “Trick-or-Treat” to me at various times, trying their luck to see if I would give them candy. It always took me by surprise but I can’t be surprised that if you’ve learned saying a certain sentence results in free candy… you’re going to use it. I showed some of my students a clip from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”. (On a related note, the comic series is called “Snoopy” in Japan). I was surprised how funny they found it. It must be a classic for a reason.

On the actual day of Halloween I wore a No Face (Kaonashi) from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. I was excited to be a recognizable character but I greatly underestimated the reaction I would receive. At the Trick or Treating event I heard people calling out “KAONASHI!!” as I walked by and caused some little kids cry when they’re parents tried to force them to shake my hand. Later in the night I wore the costume on the train. The train conductor who patrols the cars came over to us and I thought maybe he would ask me to take off the costume, but instead he said “Please say Trick-or-Treat” and when we did he gave us train stickers and candy.

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Me on a Toyama train 

Feats of Strength: Maibara’s Kabuki Festival

It just so happens that the Japan’s “Sports day” holiday falls on the same weekend as Thanksgiving (in Canada, that is). So, at the time when I would normally be eating my way into a food coma, I was headed to Maibara to spend the long weekend. The reason for my visit was Maibara’s annual Kabuki festival.

I arrived and immediately headed over to see the stage being pulled across a bridge. The float has people positioned at the front pulling by rope, and people pushing at at the back. And although there are wheels, they’re pretty old and made of wood, so some lucky guys were given the task of levering them into movement. They were pulled for over an hour over the bridge and through the streets to the performance location. It was pretty funny to see people driving by slowing down to stare and take pictures.

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After the first performance we followed the float to the next location. We were in more of the city streets, so we could see the men on the top pushing telephone lines out of the way of the float. By then, I was impressed that anyone could still stand, let alone pull the float again. But after the last performance at around nine, the float was pulled all the way back to the Yutani Shrine, which is basically all uphill. This was the most fun, because everyone who was watching the performance along with the families of the performers helped pull. It was exhausting, but I couldn’t help but think (just like I did at Uozu’s Tatemon Festival), that we were only doing about 5% of the actual work.

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The next morning, we went back to the shrine to see the morning performances and to see the floats be pulled again to their new locations. This is a good action shot of the guys on the float- they yelled out instructions and kept rhythm with their arms and by stomping. The second, larger float below had a bit of more trouble turning onto the sloping path, there were a lot of eyes covered for fear it would tip over. In the end it all ran smoothly and everyone seemed pretty chill about it, which makes sense since most of them do this every year.  _DSC0340

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