Sunday, 4 August 2013

Akita Kanto

Saturday 3rd August 2013

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

Weather: Perfect. No rain, a gentle breeze, not too hot and only a little cloud cover. It couldn't have been better.













Today was much more of a 'usual start' to a summers holiday. Unlike Thursday my alarm woke me up early, ready for an 8am departure. Like most tourists, I too had a long journey ahead of me before I would reach my destination: Akita. I had been to Akita last year (last year I missed the cities summer festival – Kanto – by one day; hence why I am returning) and so I knew the route, I knew that it would take around five hours to get there and I also knew all of the sights. Akita's Kanto festival started at 7pm so, for the more observant readers out there, why on earth did I have to leave so early? For the mathematically handicapped 8am plus 5 hours equals 1pm, which was six hours before the festival started. Like I said; I'd seen all that Akita had to offer a year ago so, again, why the early start?

Well the reason was because I had two stops to make. After my usual drive along 'route 106' to Morioka (which, I may add, was only made different from the journey Francis and I made two days ago by the lack of rain and I being alone) I parked up within Morioka's city centre and attended a two hour Japanese class. This class is ace; it's two hours long, usually you work 'one-to-one' with an actual Japanese teacher, it occurs twice a month and it's free. Due to working 'one-to-one' with a tutor you get to choose the area of study. For me I want to improve my speaking and listening because, while studying within my home town, it is easy for me to open my Japanese textbook and practice grammar points, spelling, writing and reading; but it is quite difficult for me to improve my speaking and listening skills. This lesson is great as my tutor doesn't rush me and allows me to look up words and phases within my textbook. She also listens to see if there are any areas in my 'sentence forming' where I am making reoccurring mistakes and, finally, she talks to me slowly and allows me time to think about what she has said before I answer. All-in-all, I do feel as though my speaking and listening has improved dramatically (and I've only been attending these classes since April).

Once finished I thanked my tutor and headed back to the car. Being midday the vehicle was pretty hot therefore I turned the air-conditioner up to full. I left the centre of Morioka before stopping at a 'out-of-town' shopping centre for 'fast food goodness'. Soon I was back in my 'hot box' and heading west towards Akita. The time: 1pm.

I was now travelling along 'route 46' in a westerly direction towards Akita. Compared to the '106', the scenery was a lot flatter and less dramatic. The road did eventually head into the mountains and, while it was very beautiful, it was also short and a lot of my time was spent in tunnels. Once across the mountains I descended, once more, into an agricultural heartland with far away mountains forming a surrounding outer-wall, preventing the food from escaping. Being August the fields looked as though they were ready to be harvested. Even though each field was a different colour (indicating what crop was being grown where) it was certainly a patchwork of the brightest greens, browns, purples and reds I had ever seen. All of the food looked to be in excellent condition and it did make me think back to my lunch stop. Maybe I should have skipped McDonald's and queued up at the food outlet where vegetable strews were being sold. As this thought came into my mind I remembered that I had purchased two doughnuts earlier; and so I ate one.

So far I have explained the reason for one of the stops I had to make today; but I haven't told you about the second. As I finished off my 'custard doughnut' the small town of Kakunodate came into view. Like the city of Akita, I visited this town last year and saw all the sights it had to offer. I was back here because this was where I was going to spend the night. Back in April, when I'd decided that I wanted to go and see Akita's Kanto festival, I searched high and low for a hotel within the city with no success. Kakunodate is about a ninety minute drive east of Akita and, as the festival should finish around 9pm, I was adamant that it was close enough to by used as an 'overnight base'. Me being me, I had pre-booked a hotel and had even printed out detailed road maps. It therefore took little time to reach Kakunodate's Plaza Hotel (though I did have to swerve a few time to miss the hordes of Japanese tourists who had come here to visit the attractions I saw last year).

Now, Kakunodate Plaza Hotel sounds posh and grand doesn't it. I am quite sure it was posh and grand; when it opened. Quite strangely, when gazing upon the white-stained building from the car park, I didn't think 'what on earth is my room going to look like'. In actual fact an image of the owner came into my head. I could see this average height, average build Japanese bloke gazing upon his creation thinking “...I've built this hotel to the best of my ability therefore, I will never, ever, have to do any maintenance on it whatsoever … or modernise it in anyway...”. As I made my way to reception all of the structural elements of the building were intact, but it all reeked of the 1970's. Due to this I think they have had problems renting out the attached 'shopping unit' and therefore, attached to the 'Plaza Hotel' is the British equivalent of a pound shop.

Once at reception I met a delightful lady who checked me in and asked if I had any telegrams I wanted to send. I said no. I also informed her of my intention of heading to Akita for the cities summer festival therefore I wouldn't be back until late. She smiled and said it was fine as the reception was open twenty-four hours a day. As I walked away I turned around sharply to ask if Wi-fi was available. With a look of horror, mixed with an expression one usually performs when asked a ridiculous question, I took that as a 'no' and went up to my room, carefully by-passing the fax machine.

Once on the 3rd floor I was greeted by a ruby red carpet. This carpet extended along the hallway and into my room. Even though the d├ęcor was very 70's I was glad to find a modern bathroom and even a TV. I didn't spend long in the room; I placed my overnight items neatly upon my sofa and left the room making sure the door was locked. I returned my key back to reception and got in my car. The time; 3:20pm.

I continued forever east looking out for key landmarks to help with my return journey. Once 'route 46' ended I switched onto 'route 13' and headed north-east for no longer than thirty minutes. Once in Akita memories of last year flooded back and I made my way towards the centre of town using the same roads as I did a year ago. By now I was close to where the festival would take place. It being 5pm, I thought parking would be an issue but no; I indicated right and went into a car park no further than a fifteen minute walk from the festival site. Not only was this car park pretty cheap (80p per hour) but there was only one other car parked (the car park had a room for around fifteen cars). Before walking towards my intended location I double checked the sign to make sure that I hadn't 'miss-read' anything. I hadn't. I then left happy though a little apprehensive.

The time was just after 5pm and the street where the festival would take place was still allowing traffic; therefore nothing was going to happen for a while. I estimated that I had about ninety minutes to kill and so I headed towards Akita's park for a quick stroll.

The park was as beautiful as I remembered, but a lot smaller. This meant that while I had a great time looking at all the trees, water gardens, lawns and the one remaining Japanese tower, it didn't take me that long to see everything. Feeling a little 'peckish' I made my way to Akita's train station and popped into 'Vida France' for a late 2nd lunch / early tea. Unfortunately there wasn't a great deal on offer however I did manage to find a sandwich, a cake and a nice beverage. When paying for said items an American dad, and his son, were at the other counter. The lady behind said counter asked the gentleman a question in Japanese. He, in response, turned to the people queuing up behind him to ask if anyone spoke English. I can speak English however, sadly, I couldn't tell what the cashier was asking (still need a little more work on my 'listening skills' it seems). I therefore kept my head down and became very thankful when, in a flash, a Japanese lady within the queue said the cashier wanted to know if the farther and son were 'splitting the bill'. The dad looked perplexed and said he was paying for it all on his visa card; he then asked the 'English speaking Japanese lady' if it was common in Japan to split a bill between father and son. “...Father and son no...”, she replied; “...however it is very common for friends, work colleges etc to split the bill by paying for what they actually ordered instead of dividing it between the group...” Once the show had finished I looked at the gentleman apologetically as I knew he had herd me order in Japanese, but I didn't rush to help him. Once sat down I felt a little better about my 'listening skills' as that question has never come up for me. Either I eat alone (so I can't split the bill) or I'm with a group of friends and we always ask for the bill to be split.

Once I'd consumed my snack the feeling of fullness did not enter my stomach however, I did feel as though I had enough inside of me to last throughout the festival. I therefore got up and asked the cashier when the festival was due to start (keeping my voice low so that the American tourists wouldn't hear my Japanese). Once I had been given a reply I left in the general direction of the festival.

Even though there was still another hour before the festival was due to begin, key viewing places were filling up fast. I therefore raced down the street and stopped at a location where all of the people in front of me were sitting down. This is one thing I do like about the Japanese; at a festival the people at the front have to sit down on the curb (or a mat / fold up chair which they had brought with them) so that others behind can see. It results in at least three to four rows of people being able to see all of the action instead of only the front row.

Within my chosen area was a tree to my immediate left (which was useful as I could use it to steady the camera) and an electric box a few feet further away. This electric box came up to my shoulders and with the Japanese being so short, I presumed the area would remain vacant allowing me to photograph the procession coming towards me (using the tree), and going past me (using the electrical box). I was wrong. The ingenious Japanese have all sorts of inventions and gizmo’s which make a tall electrical box a merer inconvenience. I had just finished taking some test shots from the tree when I turned to do the same over the electrical box; once turned around I found it covered in people. I therefore had no choice; I surrendered the electrical box and held onto the tree for all that I was worth. With 'territory' keeping me occupied the time flew and before I knew it 7pm arrived.

With the sound of fireworks (which was actually a waste of money because it was still light at 7pm) the festival began. Next to fill the air were hundreds of Japanese drums; I looked in the direction of the sound to see a column of Japanese people marching towards me. Within teams of four, they carried a structure of some sort which was glowing. It took a good ten minutes for the front of the column to get close enough to me so that I could make out individual details. First of all, just like at Morioka's Sansa festival, the parade was split into many groups. Each group had a small, open-ended truck, as it's vanguard. Each truck had a single Japanese drum mounted on the back; the drum was large enough to allow to people to hit it at once. Behind the tuck came four groups of four men. Each group held a bamboo structure, roughly twenty feet long, with about thirty-four lanterns attached to it (two at the top, four underneath them followed by four rows of six and then four at the bottom). Each lantern was made from paper and they all had a lit candle within them (making them glow orange as Akita's skyline changed from dusk to night).

It took an age for all groups to line the entire length of the parade street. Little did I know but the street had actually been sliced down the middle so that, when all groups were lined up along the street, it actually became an oval. Performances would last for around twenty minutes and, once finished, the groups would walk around this oval until someone said stop. This meant that the crowds saw three to four different groups throughout the night.

As the groups were getting into position the drumming never ceased. To accompany the drums flutes were played and chants were shouted into the night sky, creating an intense atmosphere of sound. Then the sound died away.

I knew something was about to happen but I wasn't sure what. Then, as one, each group lifted their bamboo structure into the air so it was now twenty feet high, not twenty feet long. The groups added numerous extension poles so that the structure was now high in the sky. Finally one member of the group would take the structure and balance it on a part of his body. Head, hand, waist; all body parts were used to the amazement of the crowd. As I looked up and down the street hundreds of these bamboo structures, each with thirty-four lanterns lit with candles, were lighting up the sky making it look like a large field of corn. I stood there, mouth open, totally amazed.

Every so often the guy holding the structure would pass it to another member of the group. Sometimes control was lost and some structures even landed on the crowd. I must point out that no one, I think, was injured as the structure is very light. Also, quite cleverly, it would appear that when the structure is about to fall it gathers momentum; this momentum increases the wind speed which in turn blows out the candles. I saw this happen numerous times, though I did see one lantern catch fire.

It's hard to describe the scene that was laid out in front of me. The drums were picking up the pace and becoming louder. Performers, who were not playing the drums or balancing a bamboo lantern structure, were screaming out chants. Finally hundreds of lantern lit bamboo structures were moving slowly within the nights sky. It was epic.

After twenty minutes or so the structures were brought down and set to their 'carried' position. Any candles that had gone out were re-lit and the procession moved around the oval until a new group were positioned in front of me. The same act occurred however this didn't mean that it got boring; I was still inspired by the whole event and often I struggled to choose where I should point my camera next.

After the second group had finished the people sitting in front of me left. This allowed me to grab a front row seat and get a totally new perspective for the third and final group. Within this last group was a group of children aged, probably, between eight and ten. They had a miniature version of the bamboo structure the adults were balancing and they were performing the same balancing tricks with the same success. This is another thing I love about Japan; no matter your age, everyone gets to join in with their cities summer festival (however, I must say that I didn't see a single woman / girl balance a bamboo structure. They seemed to have been giving the task of playing the drums).

All too soon the festival was over however, the groups did not parade out the way they had come in. Instead the groups stayed put for thirty minutes or so and the spectators were allowed to walk onto the road and have their photos taken next to the participants, the bamboo lantern structures or the drums. Some spectators even had the chance of playing the drums or picking up the bamboo structure to see how much it weighed. I, being someone who likes to watch and not take part, enjoyed viewing the scene as I walked slowly to my car.

When I got to my car a Japanese couple were at the exit gate having a bit of trouble. They were standing there using the phone provided and had reversed their car to wait for the operator. As I started my engine I felt a little nervous. As I put my ticket into the machine I hoped that a ridiculous amount would not be displayed on it's screen.

A ridiculous amount did not display. Letting out a long sigh I paid the 500 Yen (£4; I had been in Akita for over four hours) the machine asked for and left heading out of town.

Just like every other Japanese festival I've been to, the traffic was light and getting back to Kakunodate was a breeze. It was so easy in fact that I left the highway and approached the town at around 10pm. Someone, however, was upset with this 'good fortune' and played a nasty trick on me. When I left the highway I entered Kakunodate in a direction I hadn't entered the town from before. This didn't concern me because, like I said before, it's a tiny place.

Or so I thought.

Lack of street lamps, plus limited signs, resulted in a twenty minute drive though residential streets, farmland, forests and places the Samurai didn't find. All-in-all I was starting to think that I would never again see mankind, let alone my hotel, when I shot past the entrance to the hotel's car park by mistake. Kissing the steering wheel I performed my twelfth U-turn of the night and parked up. When I arrived in reception to collect my key, a huge Japanese tour group were there to greet me. Outside I could see their 'battle bus' and I recognised it instantly. It had been parked near Akita park (they must have been to see the festival too).

As I was only collecting my key I was allowed to jump the queue and soon I was in my room. After brushing my teeth, setting my alarm and laying out my clothes for tomorrow I wasted no time at all in getting to sleep. It had been a long but remarkable day.

********

I awoke at 7:50am due to the sunlight pouring through my 1970's curtain. I had to check-out at 10am and, due to the fact that two hours is the normal time it takes me to get ready at home, my alarm was going to expire at 8am anyway. The reason it takes me so long to get ready at home is because I like to read my emails in the morning, maybe a bit of news and eat breakfast. Today I had none of those chores to do; instead I found myself showered and dressed at around 8:30am. I therefore took my bags to the car, checked-out and headed to a local convenience store for breakfast. I took said breakfast to my car and ate it there while I reflected on the previous day (plus I cooled the car using my air-con). It was during this 'reflection time' that I realised my feet still hurt from the previous day. I took my shoes off wondering if I could drive bare foot (I know lots of women who do it). It only took the act of reversing out of my parking space to realised that it wasn't going to work. As I crawled forward I put my shoes back on.

I had almost completed the act when I mistakenly rested my 'driving hand' on the horn. This resulted in an old lady, who had just driven into the car park, jumping to attention and me apologising a lot. I decided to leave Kakunodate quickly before I annoyed any other locals.

The drive back home was uneventful. Once in Morioka I did a little shopping (four bottles of Appletise) before taking the '106' back to Miyako. I got home around 1pm.

So tomorrow I start my proper holiday. I am off to Sendai before visiting the prefectures of Fukashima and Yamagata. Eight days in total and I can't wait!

Toodle Pip!

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