KANTO – Akita City
My first night in Akita, we trekked up to Akita City for Kanto festival. It featured lots of taiko drumming (a festival staple) and people balancing long bamboo poles strung with paper lanterns in the air. This requires some mad skills - they put these poles on their hands, their arms, their hips, their chins, and *usually* manage to prevent them from toppling. We did see a few go down, which can end badly, as one pole often seems to take others down with it. The poles look kind of like tall stalks (heads? shoots? what’s the word here?) of rice.
NEBUTA – Aomori City
This festival is quite famous, and worth the 5-hour drive to get there. On the way we drove through some pretty stunning scenery in the mountains of Akita and Iwate, along with abandoned ramen and soba shops on the edge of a cliff. I’m pretty sure they were haunted.The festival was like a huge parade of elaborate paper and bamboo floats that were of course lit up inside. Teams of people pushed the floats along, turning and tilting them towards the crowd.
TANABATA – Yuzawa
A pretty small, chilled-out festival. Lots of painted lanterns, mostly with images of ladies in kimonos, lined the streets. There were some performances going on too, and we caught the last song of one band’s set; I remember this being one of the first times I understood something I heard in Japanese – “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much) as the last few guitar strums rang out. Pretty standard phrase, but it felt like a bit of an accomplishment at the time.
OKURIBON – Yokote
The first day featured lots of dancing and music. After meeting two friendly Japanese ladies in the grocery store who were participating in this aspect of the festival, I was invited to join their dance group and get dressed up. Which obviously seemed like a good idea. So there I was, wearing a yukata and wondering if I was going to make a complete fool of myself in trying to properly perform the traditional dances we were learning, waving my arms (attempting grace) and shuffling along, eyes fixed on the lady in front of me. Surprisingly, it went ok, even though I couldn’t move more than a few inches at a time in the tightly-fastened robe. This is probably the most Japanese I will ever feel.
The second day: BOAT CRASHING. Sounds pretty exciting. What could be more epic than smashing meticulously-crafted straw boats into each other until one of them collapses? Well, it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that; rather there was a lot of build-up, and slowly carrying the boats around, and drumming, and fireworks, and emotional music…then the teams would face off against one another, raise the front of their boats into the air, hit them, and see which one fell first.
…the origin of this festival completely baffles me, but I’m sure it’s a good story.