Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Kawagoe festival

Although Ok-Aizu (deep Aizu) is seen as one of the remoter areas of Japan, it is still only four or five hours by car or train from Tokyo - or 13 by bike! The great thing about living here and visiting there rather than the other way round is that you always travel against the greater flow of traffic and avoid the worst of the jams, which are huge on holiday weekends. We took the beautiful route south through Showa and Tajima for the first time, and the beginning of autumn brought uncharacteristic gasps of delight and pleasure from passenger number one.

We were heading for Kawagoe in Saitama-ken to see the boy's grandma and to hit the festival along with an enormous number of other people due to pack the streets to bursting. All the more so this year, as a popular soap is set there. All available land suitable for parking was fast filling up as we headed out and joined the streams of people on even the side streets.

Grandma's Cho (neighbourhood) is too new to have a Dashi (festival cart), as they are hugely expensive to make and run, being lavishly decorated with wood carvings, rich fabrics and elaborate traditional figures. It makes do with a small children's one so that they can feel a part of it.

Handing out goodies at a small neighbourhood side display

Although a festival with dancing in Kawagoe is much older, it began in this form with carts in 1648. This year there were 10 less than the the full compliment of 29 of these impressive Dashi, another result of the recession. Fewer people in each of these older cho had been able to make the donations they depend on. It was still crammed on the famous street of fireproof clay shops.

Two Dashi face off at a junction

The high-rise carts are full of musicians and with a traditional character as gesturing figurehead, helpers hanging precariously and casually over the drop to the road below. When they meet they face off and try to out drum and dance eachother, swivelling on their bases to face eachother in the narrow streets. They are towed on thick ropes by people from each neighbourhood, controlled by shouting men and officious policemen. As they lumber heavily along, people scurrying in barging scrums on either side, men with iron bars lever the iron-shod wheeels to crudely steer them. This looks, and is, dangerous. I saw one young man fail to remove the iron bar in time. The cartwheel slamming it to the ground with several tons' force on top of it. If he hadn't moved his fingers in time they would have been left on the road, unattached to his hand.

Tenko, the fox spirit

My son was nearly satisfied when he has seen Tenko, his favourite, the snapping albino fox that has scared and fascinated him since he was little. To be bitten by Tenko is considered good luck by parents, and probably terrifying by children. All that remained was to find the candy floss he craved, and to escape the crowds at last.

We drove back on Sunday, and sure enough, the traffic travelling south back to Tokyo was backed up for miles, the cost of all going to see the first autumn colours in the north at the same time. For us, it's home.


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