October 15, 2006

Kawagoe Matsuri

Take the Seibu Shinjuku line for from Tokyo for about an hour and you get to Kawagoe City in Saitama, also dubbed Koedo (or little 'Edo'), since it has a lot of Edo period buildings. Every year in October is the Kawagoe Matsuri (festival), which apparently been happening since the seventeenth century, and is one of the three biggest festivals in the Kanto region. I decided to go along on Sunday to see what it's like.

As with any festival in Japan, the streets are lined with hundreds of stalls selling all kinds of food and drink. During the course of the day I had some takoyaki, raw Thai spring rolls, some yakitori and a bowl of noodles ... oh and a rather nice plastic cup of Australian Shiraz. For some reason there seemed to be an inordinate number of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki stalls, despite being some way away from Hiroshima. Mind you, there were quite a few Thai noodle stalls and Turkish kebab stalls too, so maybe it wasn't so odd after all.

The main attractions of the festival are the lavishly decorated tall floats complete with a band of musicians playing taiko drums, wooden whistles and other tinny percussion (I'm sure these instruments have proper names ~ but I don't have a clue) and dancers dressed in various different masks representing people or animals such as foxes, boars and the like. The floats are pulled up and down the streets by rope in a kind of procession. I loved the masks, which are fairly amusing, though a couple are quite eerie too.

During the afternoon it's a fairly sedate affair, but once the sun sets the temperature heats up, and the festival enters its next phase. By now everyone's pretty sozzled (try going to a Japanese festival where this doesn't happen!), and the evening is the time for the floats to face off against each other. They rumble through the crowd and when they encounter another float they turn and face each other and then a kind if battle ensues, where the musicians try to outplay each other, the dancers outdo each other and the float supporters (carrying paper lanterns) out shout each other. The battle continues for some minutes and then the two floats go off in different directions in search of another face off, clattering through the streets at fairly high speeds given the mass of people.

The crowds surge in to watch the face offs and add to the cacophony and everything is done in very high spirits, though I was amazed that the crush didn't turn into a stampede and people weren't trampled under foot.

Feeling fairly hot despite the cool autumn evening, toes throbbing where they'd been trodden on, the sounds of the festival music going round in my head, and on a full stomach, I made my way back through the masses to the station.

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