Monday, 6 August 2012

If it wasn't for the festival...

Monday 6th August 2012

MP3 track of the day: Perfume - Dream Fighter

Weather: Perfect; the skies were blue in Aomori and it wasn't too hot.


Once again the sun awoke me from my sleep. The time was 8:30am and I was in no rush to leave. Learning from my trip to Hirosaki, I didn't want to get to Aomori too early as I would be paying for car parking and not actually doing anything (and according to my guidebook there is less to do in Aomori than there was to do in Hirosaki). I slowly got ready and left Towada-ko around 10:00am.

The drive was just as impressive as any other; first of all though I had to slice my way through all the 'day trip tour coaches', which seemed to park anywhere they liked. This took quite a bit of time, patience and skill until I finally found a clear road. Well, when I say a clear road, I mean that there were no more tourist buses parked in stupid places; there was still traffic entering Towada-ko at a steady rate.

All was going well and the drive was as beautiful as ever … until a policeman stopped me. It would appear that the road I wanted was closed; he rushed off to his car and came back with a map in his hand. He pointed to the route I had to take and gave me the map as a 'present' (better than a speeding ticket I suppose) and let me get on my way. The diversion brought me out of the lakes basin and onto the ring of mountains that surrounded it. Up here I found myself on a small plateau with grazing land on either side. Finally I dropped back into the forest and re-joined my original road. The kilometers were ticking down and still there seemed no end to the woodland; I passed a sign which stated 'central Aomori 20km' and there were still trees around me. I wondered if this city was actually built within the forest.

Finally the trees gave way, almost immediately, to tall skyscrapers, traffic lights and people. The outskirts of Aomori didn't last for long and soon I was within the city center. First impressions were not good; everything looked run down, old and disused. This look seemed to go on forever until I realised that the whole city must look like this. I decided to divert my eyes from this urban wasteland and look for a car park.

Unlike Hirosaki, Aomori's was spread out and not that busy; the road system seemed simple enough and so I circled the city center a few times looking for the cheapest car park. Sadly, unlike Hirosaki, there were no '100Yen for 60 minute' car parks and so I had to settle for one that cost double that. I left the car park and headed towards the train station.

The streets didn't improve as I walked down them; it seemed as though, after the 1970's, the Japanese government simply forgot that there was a city called Aomori. Apart from a giant pyramid shaped building – and a bridge – I could not see any new development whatsoever (maybe the towns council had spent the last forty years of funding on their pyramid). I finally made it to the train station where I had lunch. Whilst sat in Veda-France, enjoying another mango smoothie, I read the short paragraph my guidebooks authors had struggled to write about this place. I put my guidebook away and headed to the first of the few tourist attractions here.

Within the basement of a department store (just shows you how good this place is if I had to go to a department store for an attraction) was a fish market. Being midday most of the stalls were empty, though I did see some weird and wonderful things that looked more at home in outer-space, than in the sea. Not wanting to reek of fish I didn't stay long and as I left I went past the window of a fish restaurant; inside were six Japanese businessmen, all looking rather full, and the carcass of a huge fish. I'm not sure how it was served, but only it's tale – and one side of it's skeleton – remained.

Once outside I headed to a small square of grass (probably called Aomori's park … but was only the size of an overly-large lawn) for a quick drink before walking miles to Munakata Shiko Memorial Museum. This is where I made a mistake; it was only 2pm and I was borded rigid; when I read my guidebook I thought this museum had an exhibition of photographs from the Vietnam War (it didn't; that was another art gallery out of town). I therefore paid 500 yen (£4) to see some woodblock paintings which, though very nice, were not what I wanted to see. I left quickly and headed for another museum, this time making sure it was the right one.

Back within the center of town the Kyodokan Museum housed a decent sized exhibition of the history of Aomori. Most of the information was in Japanese but the small amount of English present, and the amount of items and reconstructions, did make the 250 Yen entrance fee worth it. I spent about an hour learning a little before leaving. The time was 5pm; I decided to walk around the city – stopping for a couple of donuts at 'Mr donuts' – until around 6:30pm. Once again I walked to a viewing area close to where my car was parked.

The road in which my car was parked on was going to be closed; eight policeman had a big blue ground-sheet ready to put across a pedestrian crossing (so people could sit on the crossing). The police waited until the last car had passed and moved as one, closing the road, diverting other traffic and putting the blue ground-sheet down. Even before the sheet had touched the tarmac, the Japanese were fighting to get a front row seat; I waited and positioned myself in the second row. Then all the Japanese got out a similar looking box which, though small in size, opened up to include a ground mat, seats and their evening meal. I just sat down, removed my shoes (as everyone else had) and tucked into some chicken I had purchased from a stall moments ago. The floats were getting into position and all was ready; the time, 6:45pm.

Unlike Hirosaki, the Aomori Nebuta procession did not go down one road; instead it paraded around a square of streets allowing for a lot of spectators to watch the proceedings, which was good as there did seem to be more people here than at the other festival. At 7pm fireworks were set off, closely followed by the unforgettable sound of Japanese drums, which erupted across the city. The floats started to move – with people pushing them from below – and the festival began. Unlike Hirosaki the floats were less 'petal-shaped paintings' and more 3D. The floats were amazing, with dragons, animals and huge Japanese characters holding an array of weapons (some mystical; others mundane). The procession didn't have as many floats, though it did follow the same format. First came the float and then followed the drums; after that either 'hangars on' (which didn't seem to do anything) or dancers finished the section with a small gap until the next float arrived. The only thing that was annoying, compared to the other festival, was that there were a lot of sponsors; everything from delivery companies, to drink manufactures to mobile providers seemed to have their logo plastered on anything that moved.

Sitting on the road my vantage point was amazing; the floats loomed above me – sometimes only two feet away – and the dancers danced right in front of me. All participants wore bells and, as they fell off, they were thrown into the crowd for souvenirs (I nearly got one but some old lady beat me to it). I had no idea where the time went but, all too soon fireworks went of to signal the end of the festival. As I was sat on a cross-road junction I had to move quickly, as some of the floats were heading my way to be stored. I headed to the car park and waited fifteen minutes to exit.

Once again the organisation of the Japanese amazed me. A road, which had a procession going down only fifteen minutes earlier, was now vacant and I could drive freely down it towards Towada-ko. As soon as I hit the tree line all traffic disappeared and I found myself winding along the road towards my hostel (again taking a few corners too quickly).

The trip passed without event and I was soon back; the hostel was buzzing with two coaches and five cars. I've found out that, while the coach tourists probably stay at a nice hotel, the driver and tour guide stop here.

I got into my room at 11pm and went straight to sleep. Tomorrow is my final day and I shall be looking around Towada-ko. So my trip is nearly at an end; but what a trip!

Toodle Pip!

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