5 FAVORITE OBON FESTIVALS

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No one can agree on the origin of the Nebuta Matsuri. However, some believe the nebuta floats were invented by General Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro in the 800’s, when his army created these gruesome creatures from cloth and bamboo to scare away the enemy. As time passed, the size, shapes, and colors of the lanterns evolved into what’s seen at the present day Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. However, while historians cannot agree on the origins of the festival, no one can argue with the fact it is one of the most memorable and visually impressive festivals in Japan.

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri Festival Float

Colorful floats parade through the night.

 

Locals in Aomori will spend the entire year constructing the enormous nebuta floats. Unlike typical parade floats, the Nebuta Matsuri floats are 15 to 30 feet tall, made of fragile washi paper, hand-designed wire and a bamboo frame. Floats typically depict Japanese gods, historical figures, kabuki actors, and mythological beings. As a finishing touch, hundreds of light bulbs are weaved throughout the floats, illuminating the parade with amazing colors. The Nebuta Matsuri is lit up with every color imaginable. By day the nebuta floats are impressive, but by night they are absolutely breathtaking.

The best part of this festival is not necessarily the intricate floats, nor the taiko drums, dancers, or musicians. It is the audience participation. Onlookers, regardless of their age or ability, are allowed to participate in the festival, dancing around the hand-pulled floats and chanting “rassera,” a nonsensical phrase only seen during the Nebuta Matsuri. Anyone who is wearing a traditional haneto dancing costume is invited to join in the parade. Some costumes are passed from generation to generation, but they can also be purchased throughout the prefecture for 10,000 yen or rented along the processional route during the parades for 4,000 yen.

Aomori Nebuta Festival Colorful Floats

Truly a festival of brilliant colors!

 

There are three types of nebuta floats listed in order of grandeur; the children’s nebuta, the regional nebuta, and the local organization’s nebuta. For the first two days of the festival, from August 2nd to 3rd, only the smaller nebuta, often pulled by children, are paraded throughout the city. Because of their size, it is impractical to showcase the largest nebuta floats for the full seven days. These multistory creations require immense strength to move, and therefore are only displayed from August 4th to 7th.

While it is a festival drawing an average of 3 million people, the Nebuta Matsuri is also a competition. Each year the best floats are recognized, and on the evening of the sixth day, the top three floats are transported to ships in Aomori harbor to cruise along the bay.

However, as a tourist, you do not need to worry about the competition. You can just enjoy the festival food, haunting flute music, dancing, and brilliantly lit floats. Try getting some close-up pictures of the gorgeous, three dimensional nebuta floats. Also, if you are feeling adventuresome, trying renting out a costume and dancing alongside your favorite float. Very few other festivals in Japan allow this level of audience participation.

HIMI, TOYAMA PREFECTURE:A COUNTRY OF THE WATER

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Typhoon #18 is roaring up from the south Pacific toward Himi, the small fishing village on the Sea of Japan where I am staying at Umiakari, an onsen (hot springs) hotel. Waves pound the windswept coast. The fast-moving sky is low and gray. I am supposed to go out on a boat tomorrow to watch the famed fisherman of Himi ply their trade, but we may be grounded by weather.

Few Western tourists come to Himi, although it’s heavily touristed by the Japanese who come for the fish. Perhaps nowhere else in Japan can you get the variety and quality of fresh seafood year round. The Japanese come to eat fish and for the spectacular views over the big water of Toyama Bay to the rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps that rise over 10,000 feet from the narrow coastal plain.

I saw many photos of this magnificent panorama, of which the people of Himi are justifiably proud, but I never got see the scene itself. When I woke during the night, snug in my futon on tatami, I heard rain slashing the windowpanes. The next morning at 4:30 a.m., I padded in yukata and slippers through silent halls to the spring fed pool on a fourth floor terrace. There was an indoor and outdoor pool and both were lined with stone.

DSC_0314

 

I washed myself thoroughly, squatting on a plastic stool in front of a chest high spigot that filled shallow plastic tub with warm water that I splashed over my head and body again and again. Squeaky clean, I walked out a steamy glass door into stormy predawn. Rain pelted my face. Wave after wave broke below. Dim lights signaled the curve of the coast. I faced west toward the Continent. The water was very hot, up to my neck, and I was all alone. Wind and rain ruffled the steaming surface of the pool. Water tricked in from a stone shoot and sloshed out over an indentation in the pool’s lip. Water was constantly coming into the pool and going out. I leaned back. The country was a country of water. We had passed river after river, traveling south to Himi along the coast. This was the route the bullet train from Tokyo would run next spring when it opened up this coast and the mountainous interior: the folded land, the further north, the back of the beyond. Hokuriku was rich in hot springs. More of them were here than anywhere else in Japan. The Western Sea tumbled at my feet. The country was a country of water, fresh and salt, snowmelt and thermal. It was country of moving water and fish and restorative bathing. No matter what happened, how difficult things got, there was always the steaming water to slip into. It was so simple and available—the ultimate luxury. I breathed in the steam and squall. My body felt sleek, almost buoyant. The water had a texture to it, a silkiness and substance that with traces of earth and was both vegetal and mineral. It heated my core. The rain that whipped into my face and hair felt lifted from the Sea. It was cool but not cold, and it was delicious to wallow in the molten broth with my face and head cooled by the storm.

Travel back in time – Unique Samurai Performance

Japan’s rich history can be experienced most anywhere in the country. With hundreds of ancient castles still standing nationwide, it’s easy to take a trip back in time to a land of feudal lords and samurai. Although a history lesson may conjure up http://www.bzvalue.com/images of stuffy museum visits, Nagoya Castle has found a unique way to entertain and educate its guests with its very own band of Samurai warriors.

Nagoya_Castle

©JNTO Photo Library

Nagoya is conveniently located in the Aichi Prefecture just 1 hour 45 minutes from Tokyo or a short 30 minute trip from Kyoto by bullet train. Naogya Castle makes a great day trip or stop-off destination on your way and castle guests can expect an elaborate greeting from the Castle’s own Samurai welcoming committee aptly named the “Omotenashi Bushotai”.

http://www.nagoyajo.city.nagoya.jp/13_english/

©KAMUI

©KAMUI

The Omotenashi Bushotai is a troupe of performers that portray notable characters from Japanese history and specifically the history of Nagoya including the castle’s architect, Ieyasu Tokugawa. You can see these handsome actors as they parade through the castle grounds in historically accurate attire circa 500 years ago. During the weekdays, they mostly greet visitors and snap photographs with their avid fan base but during the weekends you can catch them performing thrilling swordfights and epic battle reenactments.

http://busho-tai.jp/profile_english/

©KAMUI

©KAMUI

The Omotenashi Bushotai has become quite the tourist attraction in recent years, drawing large crowds for each performance. Visitors who come specifically to see the samurai group, seek out their favorite performers much like tourists searching for their favorite Disney character. Although popular with children and tourists, their most dedicated fan base is middle aged Japanese women who make the good looking samurai actors seem more like members of a boy band.

©KAMUI

©KAMUI

Don’t worry if you aren’t able to understand the particularly archaic brand of Japanese spoken by the performers – who remain in character regardless of the situation – as the action will provide you with plenty of entertainment. It’s a great opportunity to really immerse yourself in the ancient culture and history of Japan. In addition to the fighting action, audiences can also enjoy impressive weapon displays and dances.

©KAMUI

©KAMUI

So if you enjoy thrilling swordfights, samurais, or even just looking at charming gentlemen in fantastic costumes, you should consider making a stop at Nagoya Castle and enjoying a trip back through Japanese history. If your trip takes you elsewhere, you can also enjoy similar performances at Sendai Castle in North Eastern Japan or just outside of Kochi station in Japan’s South Western island of Shikoku.

Sendai <Tohoku Region>

http://www.sentabi.jp/date-na-omotenashi/en/event/detail.html

Kochi <Shikoku Region>

http://tosawave.blogspot.com/2012/10/tosa-omotenashi-kinnoto.html

Takayama and the Northern Alps

It makes sense that Takayama is sister city to Cusco, the culturally rich and picturesque Peruvian city with an Incan heritage that is set in the Andes. It is also sister cities with Lijiang, a city in Southwestern China known for its traditional architecture and spectacular views of nearby mountains. Takayama has all these qualities: a lovely setting in the foothills of the northern Japanese Alps, an intensely atmospheric historic district that makes you feel as if you are transported back into the old Japan, and a rich cultural heritage.

That heritage is highlighted each spring and fall in festivals the city hosts. The festivals honor the Shinto god who resides at the base of the mountain that rises behind the city. The god is carried from its shrine around the city, approving and blessing the activities of the people. The mood of the festivals is joyous–a happy communion between the people of Takayama and the place they live.

Takayama Festival

Takayama Festival

 

Takayama Festival

Takayama Festival

 

The festival highlights elaborate “floats” that are not floats at all but towering carriages that showcase Takayama’s ancient traditions of superb craftsmanship in metal and wood. Men in traditional costume haul the twelve floats, each representing one of Takayama’s traditional neighborhoods, through the narrow streets of the old city.

Takayama Festival

Takayama Festival

 

Takayama Festival

Takayama Festival

 

Takayama’s wonderful cuisine is on display in stands and small shops: grilled rice dumpling glazed in soy; miso cooked on magnolia leaf; and, of course, sumptuous Hida beef, which is grilled on skewers or served in luscious lightly cooked slabs as sushi. The city has seven sake breweries that host tastings and sell their wares. It’s delightful to stroll through the remarkable architecture of the old town, absorbing the celebratory atmosphere of the festival, eating small snacks when the urge arises, and sampling sake. The old city has lovely coffee shops where you can to sit and watch people and recharge for more festival action.

Miso cooked on magnolia leaf.

Miso cooked on magnolia leaf.

 

Grilled Hida beef on skewers.

Grilled Hida beef on skewers.

 

Beyond the city, the jagged ridgelines of the Northern Japanese Alps rise into the sky, topping ten thousand feet. The Northern Alps are rich in onsen (hot springs), and there are numerous reasonably priced ryokan in the Okuhida-Onsengo onsen area that has their own private bathing pools and offer breakfast and dinner as part of their rate. I stayed in Matsunoi-ryokan, with a lovely outdoor onsen. I dined on a delicious sukiyaki served on my room, followed by a traditional shiatsu massage.

The seven-minute Shinhotaka Rope Way sky tram took me up to a panoramic viewing platform. Far below, a sparkling river tumbled through the valley’s cleft. The steep–sided mountains were resplendent with fall foliage. The mountains stretched on and on—a huge area, stretching into the distance. I could see why this region is known as the “enfolded land,” and why for so long it has retained a remote secluded character, its feeling of authenticity and integrity–a place that time forgot.

 

By Kenneth Wapner

Kanazawa: Visiting a Cultural Treasure

Standing on the ramparts of the partially rebuilt and impressive Kanazawa castle, one can look out over this lovely, prosperous city to the gleaming sea of Japan and the rugged Noto Peninsula. I was there in October and foliage on the mountains to the east was just beginning to turn.

Kanazawa struck me as a delightful place to visit. It’s a small city of roughly 500,000, known for its traditional arts and crafts and preserved historical districts. It is sometimes referred to as a “little Kyoto”, but it more intimate and, perhaps, welcoming and convivial, and not at all as heavily touristed.

That may change soon with advent of the Shinkansen bullet train expansion scheduled for this spring to the new redesigned Kanazawa station, which will make the city an easy 2.5-hour ride from Tokyo.

The city’s highlights for visitors include a central market, spreading out in covered arcades. Kanazawa is famous for the beautiful (and expensive) crabs that were on sale.

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Dizzying arrays of mushrooms were displayed and showed up in almost every meal. Fresh wasabi was selling for about $6 per root. Travelers can lunch in one of the market’s restaurants on the quality sushi for which the city is known.

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It’s a short cab ride form the market through winding streets filled with enticing shops, bistros, and cafes to Higashi Chaya, one of the city’s three atmospheric entertainment districts where geisha work in specially designated teahouses. There are still traditional geisha in Kanazawa but as is the case in other parts of Japan they are cloistered and mostly inaccessible, although they do perform in Kanazawa at New Year’s for the public in the preserved Shima Teahouse that has been turned into a museum.

The Teahouse has an intimate, antique feel. The rooms are small, the ceilings low, the hallways dark, narrow, and sloping. The stairs are very steep. Hair ornaments and various geisha accessories are on display, as are the instruments on which the geisha perform. The tatamis have a spring to them, a soft under-layer, which I was told was specially constructed for the elaborate dances that the geisha do.

Ochaya, Shima Teahouse

Ochaya, Shima Teahouse

Another short cab ride will bring you up a hill to the high point in the city to the castle and the magnificent Kenroku-en Garden (ranked as one of the three best gardens in Japan). You can wander on winding paths through mossy woods of beautifully sculpted trees. A lush waterfall, heard before seen, empties into one of the garden’s two enchanting carp-filled ponds.

Kanazawa’s beautifully designed 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is a short stroll down the hill from the garden, as is the Prefectural History Museum, the Prefectural Museum of Art, and the Honda Zohinkan, which exhibits samurai weapons and armor, and paintings and calligraphy.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

All in all, Kanazawa is a great city to explore. It has a deep illustrious history bewitchingly entwined with its contemporary, sophisticated feel.

By Kenneth Wapner

Japanese Time Travel in Sado

Japan is a great place for time travel. In the remote villages, temples and shrines of the countryside there are places that lure the imagination into another age. This is one of the great pleasures of travel anywhere in the world, that experience of stepping out of daily life into another era. As a photographer who has travelled extensively in Japan, I have encountered many such places along the Japan Sea coast, a region also known for its delicious food and sakes.

The western coast is also known as ‘other side of Japan,’ a relatively unknown and less visited region of Japan. It wasn’t always that way. Since pre-history the Japan Sea coast was the gateway for travelers from the Asian continent. With the advent of modern Japan in the 19th century, however, the country’s largest cities flourished and spread along the Pacific coast and the Japan Sea region slipped into the shadows of history. The area has now become a wonderful destination to discover the old Japan.

Japan Sado Island

One of my favorite places for photographic adventure along the Japan Sea is Sado Island. The island is located just off the coast of Niigata, the home of some of Japan’s most prized sake breweries. Though only 3 1/2 hours from downtown Tokyo by Shinkansen and hydrofoil, the island has a remarkably strong feeling of being ‘cut off from the modern world.’  This atmosphere is there in the daily lives of the farmers and fishermen, who continue to live a life deeply rooted in the island’s fascinating history.

On a recent trip to Sado I drove through the countryside photographing the elderly farmers harvesting their autumn crops. I stopped my rental car to photograph a group of grandmother’s picking persimmons. We chatted for a few minutes, and to my surprise one of the women put down her picking basket and asked me to wait a few minutes while she drove off in her mini truck. Momentarily she came back with a plate of chilled cut persimmons brought from her home. Seeing that I enjoyed the flavor, she placed a small bag of the orange fruit in my hands for the continuing journey.

The Sado island people have a deep and long connection with the past. Perhaps this is due to the unusual history of the island.  Know for its great gold mines, the island also has a 1,300 year old legacy of hosting an astonishing assortment of historical individuals who were banished by the lords on the mainland. These characters include Japan’s most renowned Noh dramatist, a Buddhist saint, a disgraced emperor, and an assortment of poets and aristocrats who brought their cultured lifestyles to the island.

Distanced from the intrigues of the mainland many of these individuals devoted their energies to cultural activities like tea ceremony, writing poetry, meditating and gathering up local farmers and fishermen to start local Noh drama groups. Throughout much of the year, these outdoor performances can still be enjoyed under firelight as it has for hundreds of years.

Japan Kodo performer

This tradition of island entertainment has morphed into the great Japanese drum group, KODO, which tours the world much of the year. If you have the opportunity to attend one of these performances in your area, I highly recommend it to experience the timeless quality of the island’s continuing creative spirit.

 

By Everett Kennedy Brown

Himi, Toyama Prefecture: A Country of Water

Typhoon #18 is roaring up from the south Pacific toward Himi, the small fishing village on the Sea of Japan where I am staying at Umiakari, an onsen (hot springs) hotel. Waves pound the windswept coast. The fast-moving sky is low and gray. I am supposed to go out on a boat tomorrow to watch the famed fisherman of Himi ply their trade, but we may be grounded by weather.

Few Western tourists come to Himi, although it’s heavily touristed by the Japanese who come for the fish. Perhaps nowhere else in Japan can you get the variety and quality of fresh seafood year round. The Japanese come to eat fish and for the spectacular views over the big water of Toyama Bay to the rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps that rise over 10,000 feet from the narrow coastal plain.

I saw many photos of this magnificent panorama, of which the people of Himi are justifiably proud, but I never got see the scene itself. When I woke during the night, snug in my futon on tatami, I heard rain slashing the windowpanes. The next morning at 4:30 a.m., I padded in yukata and slippers through silent halls to the spring fed pool on a fourth floor terrace. There was an indoor and outdoor pool and both were lined with stone.

DSC_0314

 

I washed myself thoroughly, squatting on a plastic stool in front of a chest high spigot that filled shallow plastic tub with warm water that I splashed over my head and body again and again. Squeaky clean, I walked out a steamy glass door into stormy predawn. Rain pelted my face. Wave after wave broke below. Dim lights signaled the curve of the coast. I faced west toward the Continent. The water was very hot, up to my neck, and I was all alone. Wind and rain ruffled the steaming surface of the pool. Water tricked in from a stone shoot and sloshed out over an indentation in the pool’s lip. Water was constantly coming into the pool and going out. I leaned back. The country was a country of water. We had passed river after river, traveling south to Himi along the coast. This was the route the bullet train from Tokyo would run next spring when it opened up this coast and the mountainous interior: the folded land, the further north, the back of the beyond. Hokuriku was rich in hot springs. More of them were here than anywhere else in Japan. The Western Sea tumbled at my feet. The country was a country of water, fresh and salt, snowmelt and thermal. It was country of moving water and fish and restorative bathing. No matter what happened, how difficult things got, there was always the steaming water to slip into. It was so simple and available—the ultimate luxury. I breathed in the steam and squall. My body felt sleek, almost buoyant. The water had a texture to it, a silkiness and substance that with traces of earth and was both vegetal and mineral. It heated my core. The rain that whipped into my face and hair felt lifted from the Sea. It was cool but not cold, and it was delicious to wallow in the molten broth with my face and head cooled by the storm.

When I left the bath, gray light was coming up in the heavy sky where the mountains would have been.

To continue onto part two of this story, click here.

 

By Kenneth Wapner

TOP PHOTO:  © 2014 Toyama Prefectural Tourism Association

Himi, Toyama Prefecture: Fixed Net

© Himi City, Toyama Prefecture

The fleet was grounded and I missed my chance to watch the fishing. The daily auction would proceed, I presumed, to dispose of the previous day’s dregs. 6:00 a.m. found us pummeled by the gale, searching for a way into Himi’s control central–the Fisheries Association building, a large concrete industrial-looking structure perched at the edge of a large harbor fronted by jetties.

We eventually found the way in and slipped into the black, felt-lined, knee-high rubber boots that everyone wore. The concrete floor of the auction room was slick with puddles and open to the sea. We were given yellow plastic visitor’s tags, which we draped around our necks. We were told to behave ourselves and stay out the way. The cavernous concrete space was dim in dark early morning.  There was a group of exchange students from Colgate University, there to intern at the docks. We were shown around the facility by Mr. Tatsuyuki Hirose, General Manager of the Himi branch of Japan Fisheries Cooperative who one of the women in our group said looked like Richard Gere.

I sat down with Mr. Hirose in one of the large office spaces off the main hall. Mr. Hirose told me that Himi is renowned not only for its variety of seafood but the way it’s caught. Himi’s fishermen are masters of a technology that goes back centuries called fixed net fishing. Mr. Hirose said Himi is the only place where this ancient art is practiced all year (two other ports along the Japan Sea Coast use the technique but only in summer).

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Two parallel nets over a quarter mile long are set in relatively shallow water on the edge of the steeply dropping floor of Toyama Bay. The nets taper and rise together at their tip. Using their boats, the fishermen drive fish into a gate that opens into the tapered corral of the nets. It’s almost like a cattle drive! The fish are then herded into the net’s shallow tip, where they’re scooped up with long-handled nets. The catch suffers a minimum of trauma. Mr. Hirose said 70% of the catch escape, which is one of the reasons Himi has such good fishing season after season.

The Bay is rich in sardines and other baitfish. When I was there, fish like marlin, bonito, immature yellowtail, and mahi-mahi were feasting on the bait (and being served up in sushi, sashimi and chirashi). A small black and white striped snapper (tai) was around as well as a number of different types of squid. The sea also provides an array of shellfish—absolutely delicious sweet shrimp, and, in October, when I was there, something called “Babylon Shell”, a large snaillike crustacean that is eaten both raw and cooked.

To continue onto part three of this story, click here.

 

By Kenneth Wapner