Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The largest festival in Northern Honshu

Sunday 27th May 2012

Weather: Hot and sunny with no breeze; a beautiful day.

MP3 Track of the day: Universally Speaking - Red Hot Chilli Peppers

I very rarely see 5:30am, on a Sunday morning; however, with Morioka expecting record numbers of people, I reluctantly got up when my alarm told me to. This weekend, Morioka was holding a festival to bring a little joy to all the areas affected by last years tsunami. There were people from Morioka, Sendai, Aomori and from all over the Iwate province and each place had its own group of entertainers, taking part within the festival. With so many people, heading to one place, it was paramount that I arrived early. This is why I found myself within the shower at 5:35am, trying to be ready to leave Miyako at 7am and arrive in Morioka at 9am. The parade didn't start until noon and so, arriving at 9am, I hoped to beat the crowds.

Things started well; I found myself, within my car, at 7:10am heading west along the '106'. The '106' is the main road between Morioka and Miyako. It's a single carriageway that follows a river as it meanders along its path; ether side of the river lies steep mountains covered with trees. Today the weather was beautiful and there wasn't a cloud in the sky; instead the sun hit the trees, creating every shade of green possible. The river was a crystal-clear blue colour and it was a pleasure to meander my way along the '106' that morning. The only slight snag was the trip itself; even though the road has many twists and turns, it doesn't deserve the 50km per hour speed limit the Japanese government has labeled it with. Along its many straights cars rarely do less that 80km; unless your name is Matthew Otter. I stuck religiously to the 50km speed limit, much to the annoyance of every car behind me (and considering that today was the festival, there were a lot of cars behind me).

Eventually the trees and mountains started to give way to buildings. The process was slow at first, but after two hours of driving I eventually found myself entering the city of Morioka on a blistering hot day. Even though I'd arrived three hours before the parade was due to start, the city was crammed full with people walking in every direction possible. Not wanting to push my luck I launched my car into the first multi-storey car park I could find and docked. Even though the car park was out of town, it still only had a handful of spaces left. I locked my car, picked up my camera and left my jacket on the backseat. I then walked towards the city park, a good ten minute walk away.

Morioka's main park ('Iwate park') looked a lot different from my last visit (see my 'birthday' blog below). Since then the snow has receded and the flowers were in full bloom; this being a festival, there were hundreds of white tents and thousands of people. I had entered the park from its eastern edge and I soon found myself bombarded with sights, smells and limited walking space. First of all I went into the 'Festival Centre'; a permanent building erected on the eastern edge of the park. Inside there were two floats (not used in the parade), on display, so tourists could take photos. The work to create these floats, must have been immense. Sat upon a wooden frame huge drums and statues of samurai – pouncing out of forests – were dominant. Waves lapped around the edges of the float, with ropes at the front for it to be pulled by a line of men. Both floats were very pretty and I took plenty of photos (please see my Flickr account).

I left the comfort of the air-conditioned 'Festival Centre' to be instantly reminded of just how hot today actually was. After putting on my shades I scanned the tents in front of me to find anything interesting. Hidden within the mountain of food outlets I found two slightly bizarre stalls; one had a car with ears on it (I think it had something to do with the deaf) and the other was selling 'irobots'. This small circular machine seemed to be a vacuum cleaner that cleaned your carpet by itself … lovely (and here is a link to one: ).

As I moved further into the festival I saw more wonderful and bizarre things; Japanese lanterns, interesting children's fairground games, statues and many other items. The most dominant type of outlet were food and drink stalls, each with their unique smell adding another element to the day. Finally I made my way to the centre of the park where I found a stage, seats, more food stalls and hundreds of people. All of the people seemed to be facing the stage and waiting; I took this as a sign for 'something was about to happen'. With my very useful height advantage I found a shady spot overlooking the stage.

The beginning of the show reminded me of Terry Wogan's commentary on Eurovsion. The two hosts (one male and one female) took to the stage and started to talk for, what seemed like, years. I could hear Sir Terry saying 'oh do get on with it!' Eventually they were forced off stage by the first act, which was from Sendai.

To the right of the stage two huge bamboo structures, with many lanterns on each, stood proud and defiant. I thought they were for decoration however, as the boys from Sendai carried them in front of the stage, I knew that they had a purpose. As the drums started to beat these blokes balanced these large structures using only small parts of their bodies. First of all it was their palms, then their shoulders, then their chins and finally their hips. As the display went on they added additional height (in the form of extra bamboo poles), therefore the structure became as high as a three-storey building. It was all very clever and required a lot of skill.

After a good ten minutes they finished off with balancing this huge structure on their hips before bowing and walking behind the stage. For the rest of the show the acts followed a similar pattern to the below;

First of all the presenters would babble on about something before being removed. Then the act would consist of ladies dancing on a stage and drummers, whilst drumming, dancing in front of the stage. Each acts clothes were different (plus the beat and the dance moves were different) but after the first 'drum and dance routine' it was starting to wear thin. One interesting cultural reference is that, because a kimono allows for limited leg movement, most Japanese dances focus on delicate hand movements and small jumps, rather than a lot of steps.

The show lasted for about an hour. I was quite glad it had ended due to the time; it was 11am and the parade started at 12:30pm. This, I felt, gave me enough time to have something to eat before finding a place to view the parade. I therefore left my show viewing point and headed to one of the more 'out-of-the-way' food areas, in the vain hope of finding shorter queues. As I walked around, deciding what to eat, the queues were just as long as everywhere else; the longest by far was for the beef stall. A few weeks ago, in another town, I had tried this barbeque beef kebab. This dish consists of tender beef coated in pepper and barbequed; the result of which leaves you with 'melt in the month' beef and a spicy aftertaste … yum! I really wanted the beef, but the queues didn't justify the taste; I therefore opted for some fried chicken, drizzled in a lemon sauce, and a chicken kebab … both of which were lovely, but they were both a little dry. I then bought a large can of coke, from a vending machine, and went to find a spot to see the parade.

For such a large turnout, I was surprised to find that the parade was only happening down one street. This was the largest festival northern Honshu had ever seen, and so I was expecting the parade to include many streets, which 'zig-zagged' through the city centre … there were certainly enough visitors to justify an extension. Instead the parade only took part on one long, and straight, road. The people in charge had created an excellent 'crowd control' system where people walked along streets running parallel to the 'parade street' before finding an area which they liked, and turning up towards the 'parade street'. I chose a few viewing points, eventually deciding upon an area near the end of the parade. The whole 'parade street' was full of people having, what looked like, camped overnight to get their 'spot'; by the time I turned up I was relegated to a point quite far away; I had some shade, and a clear view, but I was still a bit far away.

Being near the end of the parade route, I could hear it before I could see it. It was led by the boys from Sendai and their magnificent balancing act. This wasn't the only act which was taken from the show earlier; in fact most of the acts were the same. It didn't matter as I loved seeing the colourful outfits one last time. There were three floats – too large to be in the park – which I hadn't seen before. These where spread along the parade in between the dancers and drummers; each one had a painstaking amount of work gone into it and each one was different. One looked as though Walt Disney had designed it (but only using their evil characters) and another was pulled by 50 people; it had samurai and drums on it with a viewing platform at the top. The final float was a simple design made of bamboo which, periodically, the guys pushing the float would stop and spin it around as fast as they could.

The whole procession was great; a real cultural feast from the beginning to end. There was never a dull moment and a photo opportunity came around every second; at the end of the parade I was still hungry for more.

After around two hours the parade ended with the people taking part walking back up the street, waving, as they went back to the start. After the last parade member had gone past I went away from the crowds and towards the railway station; there I met four friends and we all walked towards Iwate Park.

Things were starting to die down, even though the event didn't officially end for another two hours. We had another quick walk around, listened to some local bands and saw another balancing act, before finding a shady spot and sitting down. We sat their, chatting, until 6pm and during that time stalls, which were closing, gave us food which they had left over.

Eventually it was time to depart and I walked the ten minute walk back to my car. By now the temperature had dropped, but it was still fine to walk around in a t-shirt. I made it back onto the '106' and departed for home. I can't be too sure but I think, that night, I may have created another man-made object that could have been seen from space. Once again I stuck religiously to the 50km speed limit … and so did the car behind me … and so did the car behind that one … and so did the car behind that one. The result being that any car wishing to over take (and some tried) had to go round not one, but four cars. I can't be too sure how long the queue was, but I remember coming to the end of a long straight with a right turn; I looked in my right rear-view mirror and I couldn't see the end of the queue. It was a clear night and with that many head lights, I reckon the '106' was lit up pretty well.

After my slow dive home I eventually got back around eight. I had a quick tea before taking a bath and falling to sleep. As I dozed off I was already looking forward to the next Japanese festival.

Toodle Pip!


  1. Captain Slow has arrived in Japan!

    I hope you appreachate the 'MP3 track of the day'