Let’s settle this right now; many people in the Western world think Japan is a strange place, and it is.
But that’s a great thing. There are very few cultures in the world that remain as unique and true to their origins as Japan’s. I saw this first hand at the first August festival here in Totsukawa-Mura.
My new home, Totsukawa, is a very rural mountain village famous for cherry blossom trees, hydro electric damns, and its kendo champions. However, it also just so happens to boast the largest suspension bridge in Japan, the Tanise Suspension Bridge. Towering over the river below, reaching a length of 297 meters and a height of 54 meters, Tanise Bridge has become a symbol of Totsukawa. This festival exists to celebrate that bridge.
The celebrations began with a series of Taiko performances by groups from all over Nara and Osaka. Historically used to motivate Japanese troops in battle, these specially made drums are hoisted onto the suspension bridge with each group. Each group took turns on the bridge playing different songs ranging from ones dedicated to the mountains around Totsukawa to crowd favorites that many people in Japan would know. The groups really got into their songs, jumping up and down to the point that the whole bridge began swaying up and down and side to side.
While the music was great and the musicians entertaining, it was the ambiance set by the jungle filled valley and the encroaching fog that set the mood. As each group began beating their Taiko drums the sky seemed to respond as clouds and fog slowly rose above the surrounding mountains. By the time the hometown group took to the stage, the fog had covered half of the bridge, creating a vibrantly lit backdrop reflecting the bridge lights as they strobed green to the beat of each song.
It was a sight to behold, and I truly felt like I was in Japan as I joined the crowd in cheering on the Totsukawa players as they walked off the bridge.
With the Taiko over, it’s time to walk back to the festival ground and party!
First off, let’s talk about food. This festival is a bit like a carnival or fair and like many carnivals back in the United States you’re going to see flashing lights, fried food, and music. However, unlike American carnivals, there are no corn dogs, no deep fried Twinkies and no funnel cakes.
…oh god funnel cakes…
Instead, my options ranged from fried rice balls, tomatoes and pickled vegetables, and even do it yourself pancake platters. However, the true prize of the night is the Takoyaki stand. If you have never heard of Takoyaki before, you’ve definitely seen it if you’ve ever watched an anime or read a manga. They are always mentioned, shown, or raved about in some way. To put it simply, Takoyaki are octopus balls.
No they are octopus wrapped in a pancake-like batter and cooked into a ball of dough and octopus. Imagine calamari: now take away the fried batter and add soft pancake batter. It just amplifies the squishiness to new heights! There’s no crunch, no resistance, just mush and rubbery octopus.
But don’t be dismayed sensitive eaters, fried chicken, french fries, and sausage on sticks do exist. I mean you can’t escape from all the global influences.
Drinks ranged from Sapporo beer stands, Kirin Ichiban stands, Sake stands, water and soda stands, even shaved iced stands. My favorite, however, was the juice bar. There you could find juice accented water ranging from flavors like blueberry to melon. I decided to ask a few of my Jr. High students which flavor I should go with. After some banter and LOTS of hand gestures/pointing, we settled on blueberry. It was great, but I should’ve asked the other English teacher with me for help. I could have ordered a blueberry cocktail for just 100 yen more (around 1 USD).
Oh well, I guess I should be happy my students aren’t already recommending alcoholic cocktails to their teacher.
With food and drink in hand, everybody could relax to the numerous bands, taiko displays, and Disney songs played out from the center stage area. If you missed my last post, there’s a video of “Let it Go” from Frozen in Japanese from this festival.
All of these acts were just appetizers for the grand finale firework show at the end of the festival. Fireworks, or Hanabi, are very popular in Japan. They’re used all the time, even in lush forest areas like where I live. I guess when the entire country is constantly in 80% or more humidity or being battered by tropical rains there is no way anything is ever going to catch on fire.
With the first explosion everybody began to gather in the center of the festival grounds to watch the show. Flashes of green, red, pink, white, and more lit up the sky. The explosions were so frequent that the smoke didn’t have time to dissipate, eventually creating a backdrop similar to the one those clouds created on the bridge earlier in the night. Oh, and those clouds…yeah, they’ve reached the fair grounds now, creating an opaque canvas
in the sky that lit up with each firework hidden behind it.
It was an amazing introduction to Japanese festivals, and I can’t wait for more. Check out all my pictures of the festival in the barefoot portfolio and let me know what you think of the night. What sounded best? What sounded weird or strange? Comment below, ya dig!