Monday, July 11, 2005

A Tale of Two Festivals

This past weekend saw two very different festivals take place. First, in Hiratsuka, there was the annual Tanabata. I said I'd post some pictures, but there wasn't really that much worth putting up. I should've taken a photo of the garbage piled chest high on the street, but by that time my camera was out of batteries and I was exhausted and riding home.

On Saturday, Ana, Damien and I escaped from the festering piles of rotten food to go to Narita for the Gion Festival there. It's really funny to tell Japanese people you went to Narita for the Gion festival, because in the first place, the only conceivable reason to go to Narita is to use the airport. One of my friends, after I emailed her that I was going there for a festival asked me if I was also going to take a plane. The other part is that the name Gion is most famous as a historical area of Kyoto where the geisha were/are. So everyone, upon hearing I was going to Narita for Gion, would then ask if I was going to Kyoto. It got old, so I've given up saying where and why, and just say I went to a festival.

It's amazing the difference between the two. Tanabata in Hiratsuka is mainly a commercial affair, the streets jam-packed with food stalls and a few decorations hung along the streets. But Gion in Narita is magical. First of all, despite being known in Japan as only having an airport, and actually being infested with arrogant flight crews from said airport, Narita has a very historical part of town, including one of the top 3 Buddhist temples in the country, and the 2nd most visited at New Year's (all the more strange nobody seems to recognize the name of the temple unless it's used in the same sentence as New Year).

We theorized that Narita must've escaped much of the bombing during WWII (more on that subject in Hiratsuka some other time), and to this day retains an amazing Main Street, filled with old wooden restaurants and ryokan. One shop is filled with folk remedies, including ginger roots in glass jars, stuffed snake, elephant tusks and a polar bear skin (most of which is probably illegal to buy nowadays), while another building houses an eel restaurant. We stood and watched as the man would grab a live eel, slit it behind the gills on one side, and proceed to drive a nail through its head and fillet it, still squirming on the cutting board. Talk about fresh!

The festival lasted from Friday through Sunday. During the weekend, various neighborhoods compete (I think) by pulling out ancient and elaborate dashi and parading them around the city. Dashi are enormous portable shrines that are pulled on 4 wheels by dozens of people pulling on two ropes. The pullers are dressed up in traditional clothes and chant, while some guy runs between the two columns yelling hoarsely into a megaphone. This cacophony is accompanied by a group of drummers and flutists who ride in the dashi as well as a few guys who dance on top holding lanterns, fans, or parasols. The guys on top also have the uneviable job of making sure the statue on top doesn't hit power lines as they roll through the city. And at night, the dashi are lit up and roll through the streets like glowing beacons of revelry.

On Sunday, we were invited to a dinner given by some of Ana's old students from Narita, the Kiuchi's. Dr. Kiuchi and his wife Takako are a real unique couple. They completely defy the Japanese stereotypes. Kiuchi has a great sense of humor, and Takako is a lovely and generous hostess. Ana said they saved her when she was first in Japan, and I can see how those two could lift anybody up out of a bad experience. Anyway, this dinner was a full-course Japanese meal with 5 or 6 courses varying from amazingly tender roast beef to sea snails (which I ate successfully) and whole raw shrimp and prawns. All this was washed down, of course, with an endless supply of Japanese sake and beer. I was sad to leave early, but I had to make work Monday (which I did, though barely). The three of us were decked out in yukata and jim bei. We also met up with her former coworker, Elaine, and another former student, Yumi.

In other news, we hit a good conveyor sushi restaurant and I was the only one to actually enjoy eating raw goose meat. And nothing's more pathetic than a dog in a yukata. And you can buy anything from a vending machine. I'll write more later about my summer plans, I'm going to Vietnam for 4 weeks. Also, check out the photos I've posted from the weekend. Once I finish work this week, I'll try and get through the backlog of photos I have to post.

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