The day after Japan suspended operations at the last nuclear plant, there was a celebration in Koenji that involved speeches, protest signs, marching, music, and fun costumes. Unfortunately, as soon as the march began, there was incredible hail and wind. Nonetheless, it was a happy parade throughout Koenji.
One of my favorite times in Tokyo are the September festivals, with portable shrine carrying and yukata-clad dancing happening in small groups up and down the main roads that pre-date the west-bound Marunouchi subway and Chuo train line. These photos are from Ome Kaido and Itsukaiichi Kaido.
The fall festivals connect city life with agrarian traditions, and by bringing the shrines into the road they literally bring the local spirits into view. I like the music, the costumes, chanting and dancing. But also the festival food stalls, lanterns, and crowds of seniors and high schoolers.
The lanterns announce that the omatsuri festival will be happening Using simple plumbers’ fixtures and scaffolding, flexible and removable frames for lighted paper lanterns are erected all over the city.
I find omatsuri incredibly charming: a public street festival evoking rice farming and harvests, organized in Tokyo around tiny local shrines, work organizations, and local associations. A friend told me that in his town, the whole town celebrates together. But in the large megalopolis of Tokyo, the intensely local nature of each celebration is very personal and social.
Members of my apartment building are some of the main leaders of our local shrine’s festivities, which includes children’s and adults’ parading through the streets with portable shrines, flute, drum and bell music, (Japanese) lion dancing, traditional clothes including hapi (cotton jackets), and lots of public drinking.
At the shrine, one of my neighbors offered me a free shaved ice. I hesitated to accept other offers of food or drink because I did not want to be carrying the portable shrine; I know from experience that this is best left to younger and drunker participants.
Just in the other direction, on the same weekend, a small park gets transformed into a space for dozens to do “bon” dancing around a raised platform. Mostly seniors, they dance to various traditional and regional songs, while wearing yukatas. Children and even dogs come wearing this summer kimono. Unlike the local shrine, this small park has an area for more commercial “omatsuri” games and foods, including delicious mini-cakes, the ever present chocolate banana on a stick, yakisoba, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and more shaved ice.
I experimented this time with black-and-white photos that seem to make the event more timeless and nostalgic. It’s funny to see something very contemporary, like a child taking a cellphone photo of her chocolate banana, using this backward-seeming technology and juxtaposed with dances and music that may be centuries old. There’s something timeless about cast iron pans used over a gas grill to make the small cakes sold 12 or 40 to a bag.
I feel a certain surge of excitement when the portable shrines enter the large boulevard or fill the small streets radiating out from it. The shrine is very heavy, and there’s a definite camaraderie formed by sharing this load.
I’ll end the post with a short video of the dancing. The drumming and bells are live, and the other music and voice from an old CD player and simple amplifier sound system.
Onbashira’s most famous event is the swift and dangerous ride down the steep hill on the giant logs. Yet there are also many other images from the festival that struck me. Above are “chindonya” (チンドン屋), a Showa custom that mixes Edo and clown costumes, music, and drag to create a human walking advertisement.
I was also struck at how much Japan’s postal and rail services celebrate the festival. In an era where electronic mail makes the postal service seem like a relic, Japan Post regularly sets up booths at events and festivals to sell commemorative stamps. I also like how JR rail station agents have their own “happi,” or festival coats that combine their modern logo with designs that evoke sacred rituals and community.
Finally, I was struck by this enormously thick “enclosing rope,” in front of one of the Suwa shrines. These braided, rice straw ropes signal purification and ward off evil spirits. I have never seen one this thick. We were told that it was made for this year’s festival, and will stay until the next festival in six years time.
At this shrine, we met a group of seniors in their 70s. They had walked from Nihonbashi in Tokyo all the way to Suwa. The 200 kilometer walk took them ten days. Japanese are incredibly strong!
My friend Eri, a pianist and music teacher, invited me to go for a walk near her college in Zoushigaya. I wasn’t sure what to expect since I had never been there and it’s close to Ikebukuro, an area that always seemed to me like a lesser Shinjuku. Eri’s tour from Gokokuji to the Kishibojin shrine was delightful: narrow streets, lots of sidewalk gardens, and a Shitamachi feeling. We ended the walk with a warm soba lunch.
My favorite image is this public train set in a rather barren raised garden on a small street across from a cemetery and the music school. The owner left a sign inviting passer-bys to enjoy his battery-operated train. And to please remember to turn it off when they leave. What a remarkably generous idea. I also thought only in Japan would people remember to save the battery; in my city, it would be quickly stolen and resold for spare coins.
I will post photos from this winter walk over the next few days. Below is an image of a small unpaved lane. I like how it has a rustic feel, and you can sense the vibrant life of residents, a carpentry shop, plants and bicycles.
Many Tokyo train stations, and particularly Shinjuku station, are magnets for street musicians. Although not a “green space” in terms of biodiversity, street music contributes to livable streets and creative cities.
Music in public spaces makes streets and sidewalks more than places to pass through on the way to somewhere else. And with a continuous flow of people, these station performances offer incredible exposure for bands.
This jazz group played well, and a large crowd stopped to watch them despite the cold night.
This month there are many neighborhood omatsuri, festivals organized by local shrines to celebrate the harvest. Like the summer omatsuri I wrote about earlier, the festivals include carrying portable shrines through the streets, taiko drums, music, costumes include happi and fundoshi, public eating and drinking, and much neighborhood socializing.
Above is a large night festival in Suginami, popular with young people. The long path to the shrine is lined with hundreds of food stalls, selling regional foods and even imported ones like shawarma (which Japanese call kebab). Chocolate-covered bananas, light-up horns, and beer all seem popular.
Several features of omatsuri are particularly relevant to Tokyo Green Space: the celebration in the city of a harvest festival, the use of streets for community gathering, the multi-generational bonds of community that are formed and maintained.
Last weekend, my local shrine celebrated with a kid’s omatsuri one day, and an adult one the next day. Each day the parade made a stop in front of my apartment building, turning the parking lot into a public festival. The supermarket offered free drinks and food, and I met several young fathers and kids who live in my building. The woman next door who tends an overflowing flower garden in the alley was at the shrine, watering the ground. She welcomed me and gave me a tour of the shrine area, which had portable structures and the doors open in the small permanent building. You can see it is surrounded by blue sheets for an impromptu seating area.
I was also struck by the mesmerizing music. A band played in front of the shrine: three drummers, a flute player, and a simple metal instrument that resembles a tin bowl. The Youtube video gives you an idea of how it sounds.
After the jump, you can see a few extra pictures showing how the procession takes over the main street.
I am continuing to read Edward Seidensticker’s Kafū the Scribbler: The Life and Writing of Nagai Kafū, 1879-1959 (Stanford University Press, 1965). Kafū’s writing elegantly chronicles the Tokyo seasons, festivals, street scenes, and the clash of old Edo Tokyo with modernizing forces. The passage below seems particularly relevant to my previous post about the Tsukishima omasturi, and demonstrates Kafū’s love for the Sumida River, remnants of Edo, and nostalgic sounds.
“We first waited for everyone to assemble at the Garden of the Hundred Flowers, then proceeded to the Yoaomatsu restaurant. The upstairs room to which we were shown was really too cheap and vulgar, and we asked if there might not be something better, perhaps in one of the outbuildings. It seemed, though, that all the rooms were fairly much the same, and we had to make the best of what we had. It being the night of “the late moon,” the third night after the full moon, we all set out in a boat for the Azuma Bridge. At night you cannot see the factories and bronze statues, and there is only the moon gently lighting the surface of the water, and, white in the mist beyond, the houses of Imado and Hashiba on the left. Ah, here it is, I thought, almost ready to weep– the Sumida! We put the geisha ashore at the Mimeguri Landing, and as the boat tied up at Hanakawado, the drums and flutes of a festival came across the water to us, as if opening a domestic tragedy on the Kabuki stage. And so we disbanded.” (p 66, from Tidings from Okubo)
As I posted yesterday, I observed the Awa Odori (阿波踊り) dance festival in Kagurazaka (神楽坂), a quiet hillside neighborhood in Shinjuku with many old buildings and known 100 years ago as an entertainment district with geishas.
The Awa Odori is a popular mid-summer festival that began in the 16th century in Tokushima in Shikoku prefecture. Fifteen or more dance troops, including all ages and children, climb up the Kagurazaka hill on the main street to the music of shamisen lute, taiko drums, shinobue flutes, and kane bells. The dancing is broadly comedic, with exaggerated swagger suggesting drunken freedom. Lanterns line the road, and are carried by dancers.
Troops are formed by government pension workers, the local post office, neighborhood associations, schools and businesses. Despite rainfall, the dancers and large crowds of onlookers were enthusiastic. The lyrics according to Wikipedia are:
踊る阿呆に (Odoru ahou ni) The dancers are fools
見る阿呆 (Miru ahou) The watchers are fools
同じ阿呆なら (Onaji ahou nara) Both are fools alike so
踊らな損、損 (Odorana son, son) Why not dance?
There is also a call and response that reminded me of other street festivals, particularly the omatsuri (お祭) when portable shrines (omikoshi, お神輿) are carried through the streets. The words are without meaning but coordinate the movement: “Yattosa, yattosa”, “Hayaccha yaccha” and “Erai yaccha, erai yaccha”, “Yoi, yoi, yoi, yoi”.
Street festivals, by occupying public streets and bringing the community together to celebrate, seem a central part of Tokyo Green Space. By bringing together workers, students, kids, elderly, business owners, neighbors and tourists, street festivals connect people to history and each other.
I was reminded of a similar mix of public celebration and history the following night when I attended the Sumida River fireworks (hanabi, or はなび). It was startling how many young people wore traditional yukata and geta (well, some of them accessorized the old with flip flops or high heels).
The last weekend of August, there is an even bigger Awa Odori in Koenji. Please click the link below to see more videos and still photos of the Kagurazaka event.