Recently I had the opportunity to attend two very different festivals here in Japan. On Saturday, there was a small local lantern/ancestor festival in my neighborhood, and on Tuesday I went to the largest Hanabi (fireworks) festival in all of Kanagawa prefecture. Both events had plenty to offer in their own right, but being able to compare them so close together was especially cool. Also, I figured out how to embed videos today, so you get so see and hear some of the sights, too!
Aoba-ku Matsuri My neighborhood here is Aobadai (or Aoba-ku) and matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. The manager of the share house that I live in also does lots of event planning, so there’s usually some posters up in the common room about whatever is going on locally. I won’t claim to be fluent in Japanese, but I do have a chronic reading addiction, which basically means that I’ll try to read anything I see that has letters in a language I’m familiar with. I got enough out of the poster to see it was a festival (probably put on my some local schools) and it was in my area, so I asked for more details, since the location was given as “second park” and I couldn’t find that on Google Maps, even using the Japanese.
However, I have the coolest Japanese hosts, so they arranged for all of us here to go together Saturday evening. We walked up about a block and left another two or so (maybe 5 minutes?) and came across a tiny little park all decked out in fair tents and lanterns. There was a lovely entrance gate with paper flowers and many messages (prayers?) written in Japanese. The park itself was fairly small. I think we could have walked the whole thing in 3 minutes if it wasn’t so full of people, but everyone there was really enjoying themselves. There was also a tower set up in the center where a taiko drum was being played live to accompany the recorded traditional music.
There were stands for juice and beer, as well as traditional festival foods like yakitori, takoyaki, yakisoba, candy floss, and shaved ice. The lines were very long, but our hosts took turns standing in line to bring delicious goodies back to us so we could share a little bit of everything. I tried in my faltering Japanese to explain my childhood memories of the yakitori stands I had enjoyed when living at Yokosuka with my family.
Sometimes those of us who have chosen the life of travel and adventure just stop in wonder that what we are experiencing is real, and for me that moment on Saturday was standing in the sweltering heat of a Japanese summer, listening to the mingled sounds of cicadas, traditional music, and chattering attendees, holding a beer in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other, completely unable to stop grinning like an idiot.
We wandered around, taking pictures and (for me at least) making delighted squee sounds at the adorable little girls running around in traditional yukata (like a kimono, but lightweight for summer). I saw some kids gathered around kiddie pools of water with floating balloons. The game was a kind of fishing with a hook on a string and the object was to loop a balloon without popping it on the hook. I think the balloons were pretty tough though, because I also saw kids who had won them bouncing them on the elastic bands fairly hard and they didn’t break. There was also a local celebrity, an older lady who serenaded us with some traditional Japanese songs that we were told brought the ancestors down from heaven to celebrate with us.
At some point, some of the ladies doing traditional dancing around the taiko tower dragged us into the dance area and helped us learn the dance. They were so excited to have the gaijin (foreigners) dancing with them, that even though our steps were awkward and unsure, they showered us with praise when the song ended. One of them had a daughter who had studied in Canada and spoke English well, so she called her daughter up and had a couple of the group talk to her on the phone.
She was so excited that she wouldn’t slow down, so I couldn’t catch every thing that she said in Japanese, but when she started talking about the taiko drum, she asked one of the Brits if he knew how to play. I sort of had to translate for both of them, but the conversation basically went that no, he didn’t know how, but would love to learn. Later on, as we were getting ready to leave, she ran up to us, waving frantically and saying “taiko OK”. So it was that he got to ascend the tower and have a brief taiko lesson, playing along to the music as the dancing started up again. I have to say I was a little jealous, but mostly I felt happy that I was able to help facilitate this experience for someone who so clearly enjoyed it and would not have been able to navigate the language on his own.
Finally, as the festival was winding down, we headed toward the exit and I noticed a group of children staring intently at something on a tree so I went closer to investigate. There on the tree, hanging off a small twig was a cicada emerging from it’s larval shell and drying it’s wings in the warm night air. I was no less enchanted than the children, and took my turn to get up close for some photos before backing up to let the shorter people have the view. The cicada are as much a part of Japanese summers as yukata, lanterns and fireworks, so I felt very lucky to be able to see this one emerging under the spotlight of a nearby paper lantern.
This was the 30th annual Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival, held in the Minato Mirai harbor. It is said to be the largest fireworks festival in the region, and since Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan (next to Tokyo) that’s saying something. “15,000 bursts of fireworks, the largest of which will be 480 meters in diameter” according to the website. So, you can imagine I was excited to learn it was less than an hour by train from my home, and free to attend! (“premium seating extra”)
Now, going anywhere abroad without a native guide means I automatically double the amount of time I think it should take to get there. That day I learned that for festival days, it should really be more like triple. The fireworks were set to start at 7pm, so I left home around 5, thinking this would give me enough time to get to the nearest train stop and make my way to a nice viewing area. I expected it to be really crowded, but fireworks are up, so it’s hard for people to obscure your view. I also didn’t eat much before I left because I figured there would be lots of yummy festival food once I arrived.
The train ride out started smoothly enough. I noticed more and more people in yukata boarding the train heading the same way. And then just as I was thinking if I got lost I could always follow them, a whole bunch of them got off at a totally different stop than I was expecting. It’s possible they knew something that I and Google Maps did not, because when I got to my last transfer station, the train to the stop I wanted was closed! After about 10 minutes of standing in the underground, dripping with sweat, I gave up on the idea that it would be open and went back to find another route to my destination.
I made it eventually, only about 15 extra minutes, and emerged from the train station to HUGE crowds of people being herded politely by squads of police officers with glowing red batons. They herded us up an escalator and into a huge shopping mall (which was insanely obsessed with Pikachu), then through a public square and onto a skybridge and through a carnival, and over a regular bridge, and… it was a really long walk, and although I enjoyed the sights, including the famous ferris wheel, I began to be concerned that I would not make it to the waterfront before the fireworks started. Additionally, there were no food stands, just the regular restaurants in the area (all of which had huge lines).
The fireworks started while we were on one of the bridges, and I personally would have been happy to stop there and watch, but the police kept shuffling the crowd along. I told myself that it was a great part of Japanese life that I was experiencing this event as part of a huge crowd. I’m still not sure if I buy that completely, but there was a nice breeze coming off the water, and everyone was very excited to applaud the fireworks, so it was hard to be unhappy.
The show would go on for about 5-10 minutes, then stop again for as long, so we had some time to keep marching toward our destination without missing too much. There was a short time where the harbor was blocked by tall buildings and I couldn’t see the fireworks at all, but I could hear them and feel them. It was a very curious sensation, being out on the streets with huge crowds of people and police cars everywhere managing the crowds while having the sensation of being in a bomb zone.
Finally we rounded a corner and had a clearer view of the sky over the water. And there we stopped. I was pretty confused because it was just a street full of people, many of whom were sitting on mats on the pavement, enjoying the picnics they’d brought. But everyone seemed happy enough, and the crowd had really strong reactions to each fresh burst of color. There were lots of phones held aloft to try to capture the spectacle, mine among them, although my camera work may have been a little shaky, since I held the phone up really high and watched the fireworks under it rather than on the screen.
I noticed that some people were gradually edging forward in the crowd, so on the next break in the show I slid along behind one such group, using their crowd busting to my advantage. I gradually made it closer and closer, pausing whenever the fireworks started again to watch and enjoy. I finally emerged on another street that was far less occupied. It was the street that lined the waterfront park. And yet, not only was there a chain link fence set up to keep “non-priority” folks from sitting on the grass, they had put tarp up to keep us from even looking through the fence.
Even so, at periodic breaks in the trees, small clusters of people gathered to peek through the cracks in the tarp or watch the fireworks that could be seen over the fence. I kept wandering down the mostly empty street until it looped back around toward the carnival, and finally settled down at the gates to the park. I asked one of the staff about entrance tickets, because it would have been nice to see the show on the water as well as the one from the air, but it turned out you had to get the tickets in advance. Ah well. I still managed to see a bit (and catch some of the music) of what was happening on the lake through the gates, but I couldn’t get any decent pictures.
So, the crowds were huge, there were no food stands (although a couple enterprising folks had set up buckets of ice to sell cold drinks out of) and there were really no events aside from the fireworks. As far as festivals go, I think I preferred the smaller local one. BUT,
The fireworks were probably some of the most impressive I have ever seen (and I’ve been to the 4th of July on USAF bases, so that’s saying something). I admit fully that my poor little phone just does not do them justice, so after you check out my Facebook page for my own pics, do yourself the favor of an image search and see what the pros have captured. It wasn’t just the sheer quantity (part of the finale actually filled the whole sky with light), but the epic size of the fiery blooms in the air. It’s so hard to portray perspective in photos, especially at night, and I know I sound like a broken record of “you have to see this for yourself” but as beautiful as the pictures are, there is no substitute for the real thing.
This video is only about 5 minutes long, and the whole show lasted over an hour. The finale is really something, so don’t skip the end!
Despite the fact that I sweated about 2 liters out, didn’t get to eat anything, and spent hours and hours crammed in trains, lines or subways to get there and back, I do not regret it for one second. The two festivals could not have been more different, and going to one was certainly not a substitute for the other. It just goes to show that big or small, every corner of the world has something to offer.