Sunday, 26 July 2015

One heat wave, hundreds of Samurai and BILLIONS of people!

Date: Sunday 26th July 2015

Weather: Hot with little cloud! At 8:30am in the morning I noticed that a 'road-side thermometer' was reading 32 degrees.

MP3 track of the day: The red warrior – The last Samurai

Waking up at 5:00am isn't exactly how I would describe the perfect start to a Sunday however, for today only, I will make an exception because I was off to see some Samurai. Yes indeedy; a work colleague of mine had shown me photos, YouTube videos (check it out; Soma Samurai Matsuri) and enough personal experiences to convince my friend and I that we must go and check out the Soma Summer festival for ourselves. Due to Japan's wicked summer temperatures, most Japanese festivals are held in the evening however, as this consisted of fully dressed samurai racing around on horse-back, it would be pointless to hold it in the dark therefore, I'd planned to meet my friend at 7:30am at Sendai train station. Using her car, we'd planned to drive ninety minutes south towards the city of Soma, which is in the north of the Fukushima prefecture.

All was going well. I'd got up on time, got ready and caught the train I had planned to catch. In return it arrived at Sendai station on time (with only one 'weirdo' pacing up and down the carriage I was in). I walked to where my friend and I had agreed to meet and, after waiting a minute or so, she turned up. It was all running like clockwork and soon we found ourselves out of Sendai and going quite nicely south along one of Japan's many highways - with only the monumental heat to complain about.

About 30 minutes into our journey things got even better when I realised that my friends 'satnav' had no knowledge of the fact that the highway we were on had been extended all of the way to Soma. The 'satnav' seemed a little confused as to how we were able to slash thirty minutes off our 'time to destination' by, what it thought, was us driving through fields however, we cared not; we made excellent time until we left the highway and tried to enter the 'host town' (which, as it turned out, wasn't a town called Soma but a smaller town a little further south of Soma).

Just to be clear that, in Japan, you don't see samurai charging on horse-back everyday of the week … and that fact seemed to have not gone-a-miss on Japan's ENTIRE northern population. It seemed as though everyone was trying to enter this small town to see the same show and, what made matters worse, was that it felt as though everyone had come here by car resulting in a four kilometre line of cars starting at – I presumed – the centre of town and ending where we currently were. My friend and I played games like 'guess how long it'll take us to get to that point in the distance' and I felt that my guesses were very conservative though, I was always falling short.

I won't bore you with all of the details, I will only tell you that finding a parking space took as long as driving from our starting point – in Sendai - to the town (one hour). Most of it was due to the sheer amount of cars all looking for the same parking space.

We did travel needlessly along one road for 15 minutes. At the end of the road we were hoping to be greeted by a car park; instead we found two men guarding a blockade. They told us that the car park we were seeking was already full and that we would have to go back the way we had come. Why they couldn't have placed that blockade at the beginning of the road I do not know.

In the end we opted for an 'out of town' 'park and ride' which was conveniently located at a shopping centre. Though it was only 10am, we both found ourselves quite hungry. We were going to make use of the shopping centre's food court until we found out that it opened at 11am. Instead we went into the supermarket were we purchased our second breakfast and supplies for the festival (which included factor 50 sun cream). Once content we joined the queue and boarded a lovely air-conditioned bus which took us almost to the site of the festival itself.

Once off the bus we followed the endless lines of people towards, what could only be, the festival. As we approached the perimeter of the festival the crowd split into three distinct groups. One group headed to the usual food stalls you get at all events all over the world. The second group headed into the main arena where the horse racing would take place. The main arena's perimeter hedge was cut quite low therefore I could see an huge flat oval area where I guessed the horses would run. On the far side I could see a huge embankment filling up with small specks of colour which, from this distance, could only be spectators (most of these people were bundled around the few trees there, trying to get an inch of shade). We however stuck with the third group which by-passed the spectators entrance and headed to where the samurai were currently entering the arena. Here the different groups of samurai paraded their horses as they rode into the arena in a flurry of colour and style. Each samurai was properly 'kitted out' including a banner, which was stuck to a bamboo pole which was fixed to the back of the samurai's armour (which looked quite a handful if your horse changed direction quickly). Before each group of samurai entered the arena their leader would shout warnings to their foes and ask for god's divine help in the oncoming struggle (actually, I had no idea what they were shouting as it was all in Japanese … but it was terribly exciting). If one group of samurai got too close to another then a stand off would happen with theatrics which pleased the crowd no end. My only concern was safety: the only thing between the spectators and a possible stampeding battle-horse was a small rope and what ever 'festival food' people in the crowd were eating at the time. On a couple of occasions horses did seem to be a little out of control resulting in a rather embarrassed samurai rider and a rather large amount of 'sick looking' spectators.

My friend and I stood and watched all of the remaining samurai enter the arena before proceeding with the rest of the third group towards the ticket booths. The Samurai's entrance had been so fantastic that I really didn't care how much the entrance fee to the arena was; my only concern was that tickets would be sold out.

As I handed over my 1,000Yen (£5) note, and walked into the arena, a sigh of relief was displayed across my face. Due to the heat, many lines of sweat were also displayed across my face and so my friend suggested that we get something cool to eat (an ice flavoured 'thing') before finding some where cool to sit down. Due to us watching all of the samurai entering the arena, 'group 2' (who had entered the arena sometime before) had taken all of the best spots. We were still able to find some shade however, it meant that we were sat on the edge of an isle. Next to use was a lovely couple from Ibaraki who gave both my friend and I a plastic bag to put on the floor so we could sit on it. Not so lovely were the people who continually walked up and down the said isle throughout the entire performance. Some even stopped right in front of us blocking our line of sight. The couple from Ibaraki tried to stop a few 'idiots' from standing within 'line of sight' of many other people however, they were fighting a loosing battle. I also tried it once which seemed to have greater effect as I just exploded with English which, at first, confused the people blocking our line of sight before sending them fleeing in all directions.

As this 'continual struggle' was going on the samurai had formed 'racing groups' and were flying around the oval with the winner of each group trotting his horse through the crowd - and up the embankment - to collect his prise from a giant wooden shrine. Now you would have thought that, seeing Japanese people in full samurai battle gear throwing themselves around a horse-race track, would have been an unbelievable sight … and it was …. for the first three races. After that, and with the constant flow of people marching up and down the isle (plus the heat), my patiences was wearing thin. Luckily, at this point, the races had come to an end. We therefore moved onto the 'final show' which involved all Samurai – still on horse-back – moving to the centre of the oval. After a minute or so two rockets would be launched into the air, each one carrying a handkerchief attached to a mini-parachute. The two samurai who caught these handkerchiefs were crowned the winners. This was very exciting because, as soon as the rockets went off, the samurai split into two groups each trying to guess where the handkerchiefs would land. As the handkerchiefs got closer to the ground a frenzy started where two samurai would be proudly making there way up the embankment – each with a handkerchief in hand - whilst many others would be running after their horses.

This happened four or five times however, the couple from Ibaraki only stayed for two sessions. We followed suit as the constant stream of people – GETTING IN MY WAY -was driving me nuts. My friend and I headed down the isle (ironically becoming members of the constant stream ourselves) stopping occasionally to see which samurai had managed to catch a handkerchief.

Many other people seemed to have the same idea as us and, when we arrived back at the 'shuttle park and ride' bus stop, the queue was already large enough to fill four buses. Luckily though the shopping centre wasn't that far away and plenty of buses were in operation meaning that my friend and I were out of the heat and onto a lovely air-conditioned bus in no time.

Once back at the shopping centre both my friend and I were starving. We went back to the shopping centre's food court only to find it closed (it was open between 11:00am – 2:00pm … the exact time the festival started and ended … what genius thought of that). We therefore headed back into the supermarket and ate a few snacks – to keep us going – before leaving the super market and heading into the actual city of Soma to find a restaurant.

The traffic was heavy but, in no way comparable to the traffic we encountered this morning. Once the traffic had eased we made good progress until we found a restaurant in Soma. Though I wasn't hungry I forced myself to eat. I knew that I hadn't really eaten since 6am this morning and I also knew that my lack of appetite was due to being in the sweltering sun all day. Before eating I wasn't feeling myself; I had a huge headache and I just felt odd. Once I'd ate I felt a little better.

Back in the car my friend drove back to Sendai without any issues. We discussed the festival and both of us enjoyed the spectacle however, if we were to go again I'm not sure that we would pay to go into the arena without reserving decent seats first. Seeing the samurai parading down the street before entering the arena was our favourite bit however, even though it was pretty amazing to see, I don't think I will be going back. I feel as though Soma's summer festival has become a victim of it's own success. There were just too many people for me to fully enjoy it.

Once back at Sendai train station I said goodbye to my friend and went and caught my train back to the city of Tagajo (which is where I live now … first blog from my new gaff). Once home I drank copious amounts of water and looked back through the photos I'd taken. I've got some fantastic shots of a Japanese person, mounted, in full samurai armour however …. there is always a person with an annoying hat in the foreground.

Toodle Pip!

P.S. Next Saturday I start my summer trip to Hokkaido … get ready people, get ready!

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