Life & Style Weekend - - CONTENT - * The writer trav­elled at his own ex­pense. WORDS: DAVID POTTS

We were caught up in the colour, noise and en­ergy of a cen­turies-old an­nual fes­ti­val in the north­ern Ja­pan har­bour city of Ao­mori on the main is­land of Hon­shu.

We joined in, lustily chant­ing “rassera, rassera” to the rhythm of the mas­sive drums. Who cared what it meant — maybe some­thing like “let’s go”. It was just great to be part of the ex­u­ber­ant spec­ta­cle.

Ja­pan has more fes­ti­vals than al­most any other coun­try in the world. Their high-en­ergy mat­suri — in all their colour, tra­di­tion, and ex­u­ber­ance — are of­ten spec­tac­u­lar. It is Ja­pan at its liveli­est.

Fes­ti­vals vary widely de­pend­ing on the oc­ca­sion but are very tra­di­tional and con­sid­ered “na­tion­ally im­por­tant in­tan­gi­ble folk cul­tural prop­erty”.

Al­most al­ways they in­volve spir­ited pro­ces­sions of par­tic­i­pants vig­or­ously chant­ing, danc­ing, and bear­ing mas­sive, in­tri­cately-dec­o­rated omikoshi (por­ta­ble shrines), lanterns or floats.

Ao­mori’s Nebuta Mat­suri fes­ti­val is one of Ja­pan’s most vis­ually strik­ing and thought to have orig­i­nated as a fire fes­ti­val. It lasts sev­eral days in early Au­gust when the streets of Ao­mori — at other times a sleepy sea­side city — come alive with breath­tak­ingly vi­brant floats.

Up to 80 floats de­pict­ing im­pos­ing gods, war­riors, kabuki ac­tors, an­i­mals, and even TV celebri­ties pa­rade in the streets of the city. Made with washi (Ja­pa­nese pa­per), hideous char­ac­ters in bold colours stare back at us. Stuff of night­mares. Each is car­ried by a team of at least 20 men.

Fes­ti­val-go­ers are in­vited to join in the lively street pro­ces­sion of dancers, who do a jig in time to the mu­sic and chant, pro­vided they also wear the tra­di­tional haneto dancers’ cos­tume (read­ily avail­able to buy or rent through­out the city).

The floats take up to a year to build. In fact, one nearby vil­lage is a full-time cen­tre for mak­ing them. There’s fierce com­pe­ti­tion among neigh­bour­hood groups to win the prize as the best float. Points are given for the qual­ity of the float, how well it is pa­raded and the qual­ity of its band.

Later, the best floats take to the har­bour for a fi­nal night show when tens-of-thou­sands of lo­cals and vis­i­tors sit around the har­bour watch­ing them pa­rade on the water. Mounted on barges, back­lit by gen­er­a­tors, the win­ning floats glide past us as the sun sets.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing are groups of dozens of dancers, taiko drum­mers, who set the pound­ing rhythm, flautists, and hand cym­bals which give a clang­ing sound so strongly as­so­ci­ated with the fes­ti­val. The noise is deaf­en­ing and pow­ers the dancers long into the night.

We’d pre­pared our­selves by ear­lier vis­it­ing Ao­mori’s Nebuta Wa-rasse Mat­suri mu­seum (en­try AUD$10 adult) to get a closer look at some of the enor­mous floats and to dis­cover how crafts­men turn pa­per, wood and wire into these mon­sters. They be­gin work on next year’s floats im­me­di­ately af­ter each fes­ti­val ends.

The fi­nal night of the fes­ti­val also fea­tures a fire­works dis­play — cer­tainly noth­ing to match Syd­ney Har­bour on New Year’s Eve — over Ao­mori’s har­bour.

A Ja­pa­nese mat­suri is also one of the best places to sam­ple an in­cred­i­ble ar­ray of unique, ca­sual, and sea­sonal Ja­pa­nese foods. Sur­pris­ingly, street food stalls are not com­mon in Ja­pan. How­ever, they come out in big num­bers for fes­ti­vals.

We strolled a street of food stalls (yatai) of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing in the way of Ja­pa­nese food — from sushi to fried oc­to­pus and chicken ke­babs.

Akita is also in the moun­tain­ous north­ern pre­fec­ture and home to hot springs and the fa­mous Kanto Mat­suri: a fes­ti­val no less noisy or en­er­getic. Par­tic­i­pants, how­ever, ma­nip­u­late 12m high bam­boo poles car­ry­ing up to 46 pa­per lanterns and weigh­ing up to 50kg.

The sway­ing lanterns look like ears of rice. It has been held an­nu­ally for 260 years to ward off bad luck, per­form ablu­tions and pray for boun­ti­ful har­vests. It is thought to have orig­i­nated in a Bud­dhist event for ward­ing off mid­sum­mer dis­eases and evil spir­its.

Their chant­ing of “dokkoisyo, dokkoisyo”, to­gether with drums and flutes played by women and girls, res­onates down the city streets lined with thou­sands of on­look­ers. At night, the 10,000 or so lanterns are lit from in­side with can­dles.

Per­form­ers — men and boys only — deftly balance the bam­boo poles on the palm of one hand, fore­head, shoul­ders and even hips in a dis­play which, they say, in­volves 40 per cent strength and 60 per cent tech­nique. Each is per­formed for 30 sec­onds, us­ing only one hand. They are said to train daily.

Young­sters join in with cut­down ver­sions of the poles and lanterns. Kanto-bayashi, or fes­ti­val mu­sic, is played at top vol­ume ac­com­pa­ny­ing each group.

Again, we’ve pre­pared by vis­it­ing the Kanto mu­seum to get a close look at the poles and lanterns — and even tried lift­ing and bal­anc­ing one.

Kochi’s Yosakoi Fes­ti­val is a much more re­cent ad­di­tion to the fes­ti­val cir­cuit. It was started in 1954 to help boost an ail­ing lo­cal econ­omy. About 190 teams from across Ja­pan to­talling al­most 20,000 dancers take part in the four-day event. We’ve bought our fron­trow seats at the venue for about AUD$20 for the fi­nal night.

Cre­ative and en­er­getic dances, unique cos­tumes, mu­sic and chore­og­ra­phy en­velop the nu­mer­ous venues where dancers — many us­ing wooden clap­pers to add to the deaf­en­ing noise pro­duced by “ghet­to­blasters” — of all ages work up a sweat.

An­other old fes­ti­val is the Awa Odori

(Awa Dance) fes­ti­val which orig­i­nated in ru­ral Tokushima on the is­land of Shikoku.

It is be­lieved to date back to the late 16th cen­tury when the feu­dal lord of Awa held a gi­ant cel­e­bra­tion at the open­ing of

Tokushima cas­tle. Af­ter drink­ing through­out the night, the at­ten­dees are said to have be­gun drunken sing­ing and danc­ing, while mu­si­cians played a sim­ple, syn­co­pated beat. This be­came a lively an­nual event, and one of Ja­pan’s most fun-lov­ing mat­suri.

The fes­ti­val fea­tures fan­tas­tic tra­di­tional cos­tumes, a dy­namic (if stylised) dance, and highly en­er­getic sing­ing, chant­ing, and in­stru­men­ta­tion. More than any­thing, it’s at its core a very friendly and colour­ful dance com­pe­ti­tion.

The pro­ces­sion com­prises teams of dancers. Each team has its own unique cos­tumes and spin on the tra­di­tional dance. The at­mos­phere is party-like, and the dance is known as the “fool’s dance.” The lyrics say it all: “The dancers are fools, and the peo­ple watch­ing are fools. Since ev­ery­one is a fool, why not dance!”

Pic­ture: David Potts

GRACE­FUL BEAUTY: Dancers per­form in the Kochi fes­ti­val.

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