Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Ryuhyo – Japanese Drift Ice in Hokkaido

Japanese Drift Ice – Ryuhyo

Ryuhyo is drift ice that appears along the northern coast of Hokkaido (in northern Japan) in the Sea of Okhotsk from about late January to early April. Visitors can take hour-long cruises on ice-breaking ships from northern coastal towns like Abashiri. Drift ice is important to the region’s ecosystem because it helps plankton grow which are the base of the food chain for the region. Unfortunately in recent years Global Warming has reduced the amount of drift ice.

This footage is from about 2 years ago that I just now got around to editing. I was in Hokkaido for the Yuki Matsuri/Snow Festival and decided to go to Abashiri to see the drift ice. This was actually my second time having gone before a few years earlier. I was lucky on both occasions to see the drift ice because some days you can’t see it as it depends on the weather and wind conditions.

March 2, 2011 Posted by | abashiri, drift ice, global warming, japan, nature, Ryuhyo, Sea of Okhotsk, snow, video, winter | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Japanese Igloo Festival – Kamakura Matsuri in Yokote

Japanese Igloo Festival
Kamakura Matsuri

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Kamakura Matsuri – Japanese Igloo Festival in the northern Japanese city of Yokote

In the small city of Yokote in northern Japan, the citizens eschew the modern conveniences of warm homes in the middle of February and pile into small snow huts known as Kamakura. It’s the Kamakura Matsuri and they’ve been doing this for over 400 years.

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Sori – old fashion sled for transporting toddlers and supplies

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Kamakura occupants wearing old fashion hanten coats or donbuku in the Akita dialect

These Kamamura-style igloos are two meters in diameter made of piled-up snow which is then later hollowed out. Inside is a charcoal brazier in the middle to keep the place warm. The temporary inhabitants of these Kamakura sit on cushions while cooking sweet mochi which is a type of a chewy rice cake and heating up a type of non-alcoholic sweet-tasting type of sake known as amazake.

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On the far side wall is a makeshift altar to Suijin-sama, the Shinto god of water. One of the origins of the festival is that one time Yokote suffered from a lack of drinking water and the Kamakura were erected to get Suijin-sama’s attention. Suijin-sama’s attention is also requested in the form of rain in order to provide enough water for the coming planting season.

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Visitors are invited to enter the Kamakura and freely partake of the mochi and amazake. Many of the occupants of the Kamakura are rather short. This is due to the fact that many local children play house in the snow huts. They are the hosts and hostesses which explains why it’s hard to find hot sake or beer in many of the Kamakura. The ones with bigger inhabitants will sometimes have the necessary liquid refreshment.

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Cooking mochi

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In addition to the charcoal braziers, the locals stay warm by wearing a straw cape called mino and a traditional winter coat known as a hanten. Hanten is a short winter coat with thick cotton padding which became popular in the 18th Century. In the Akita dialect it is called a donbuku or donbugu by older generations.

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Yokote Castle 

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Most of the Kamakura snow huts can hold up to about 4-6 people but at the end of the evening I ended up in one that held 17 people! These were all full grown people so there was booze a-plenty leaving me very warm that cold night but with a raging headache the next morning.

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The Kamakura Festival is a simple but beautiful festival and it’s very friendly and inviting. The festival is held every year February 15th and 16th from 6pm to 9pm.

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Hundreds of miniature kamakura dot the city of Yokote

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February 27, 2010 Posted by | Akita, festival, japan, japanese culture, Kamakura Matsuri, matsuri, snow, snow festival, tohoku, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, Yokote | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Japanese Devils Scare the Laziness out of Kids

Japanese Devils Scare the Laziness out of Kids
Namahage – Japanese Devils with a Strong Work Ethic

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Namahage – the bane of lazy children

“Twas the night before my skinning…”
Imagine you were a young child living in the Northwestern part of Japan on the small peninsula of Oga. It’s the holiday season and instead of waiting eagerly for fat jolly old elf with a sack full of toys to bring you presents, you’re dreading the arrival of a bunch of hairy scary devils with a handful of butcher knives who threaten to peel off your skin if you’ve have been lazy all year. It makes the lump of coal Santa Claus leaves with naughty children pale in comparison. If you can get your head around that, perhaps you can understand this bizarre bit of psychological child abuse known as the Namahage.

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Part of the Oga Welcoming Committee

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Namahage come in a variety of shapes and colors throughout Oga

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The Namahage are Japanese devils who visit villages on the Oga peninsula every New Year’s Eve. They wear straw coats, carry large kitchen knives, and wooden buckets. They come in the night down from their mountain homes howling and waving torches. The Namahage burst into homes stomping about looking for lazy children. If the children are hiding, the Namahage will flush them out threatening to take them into the mountains.

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Namahage are your childhood nightmares in the flesh

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Namahage stomps around the house looking for hiding children

The head of the household will try to appease the devils with a specially prepared meal accompanied with sake. He assures them that no one has been lazy in his household. Then the Namahage seeing all from their mountaintop look into their secret book which records the doings of every household and challenge that statement. The head of the household again promises that all have been obedient and hard-working and pleads with the devils not to take his wife and children into the mountains. It takes considerable effort to control these devils with their strong work-ethic.

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Hard Negotiations with Namahage

As the negotiations drag on, the head of the household offers more sake and along with mochi – rice cake – while begging that his wife and child not be taken away. Eventually the Namahage relent placated by the offerings and the sincerity of the head of the household. They bless the next year’s harvest and wish good health to all the members of the household. As the Namahage leave, they promise (or rather threaten) to return next year.

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Devils Coming Thru!

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Namahage – Oga’s unofficial ambassador

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For children the whole experience can be rather nerve-wracking. When the Namahage arrive they immediately seek out any hiding children and make as though they will take off with them right then and there. The parents or grandparents make a show of trying to save their child without much luck and only through careful negotiation amply accompanied with sake are they successful. Thus children learn gratitude for being saved from drudgery of working in the mountains for the harsh Namahage.

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In the old days, Namahage terrorized both lazy children and wives

In olden times, communities in areas such as Oga could not afford the luxury of laziness especially with the winters as long and harsh as they are. It’s not difficult to understand why community leaders would have gone to such efforts to instill a strong work ethic in their youth. Today the ritual is traditional. In the past it was a more serious matter – teaching the youth to work hard for their community’s survival and their own.

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Namahage have a strong work ethic

The original legend runs that the Namahage Devils arrived from China and caused the people of Oga much trouble. A deal was struck between the people and the Namahage that if the Namahage could build a thousand-step staircase for the main shrine in a single night, the people would supply them with a young woman every year; but if they failed, they would leave the people alone. The Namahage readily agreed and set to work.

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Namahage working hard to win their wager

The lusty devils were so efficient that by the end of the night they had only one stone left to lay before dawn even hinted in the sky. One fast-thinking person however came to the rescue and mimicked the cry of a rooster thus signaling that dawn had arrived. The Namahage, believing they had lost, left and went into the mountains but they return every year for their pound of flesh.

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A Namahage hears a mimicked rooster and thinks they have lost

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The Namahage go into the mountains but promise to return once a year

There are several theories as to the origins of the Namahage. One theory is that Namahage are derived from an ancient mountain deity. There are many native traditions of gods coming for a visit – though not quite with the fanfare of the Namahage. Another theory is that they are based on Yamabushi – shinto priest who leaved hermit-like existence in the mountain.

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Yamabushi – Shinto Hermit Priest – one suspect for the Namahage origin

Yet another theory hints that the Namahage might be based on shipwrecked sailors from Europe most likely Russia. Given the age of festival, it could be that they were those hardy explorers, the Vikings. It would explain the trouble they caused probably in foraging raids and the bet with the supply of woman.

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Shipwreck Foriegners might be another possible origin of the Namahage

The name “namahage” comes from the local dialect. “Nama” refers to the patch of skin that forms on the skin if someone sits too long at the fire ie being lazy. “Hage” means to scrap away the mark. This is why the Namahage carry their large knives to scrape away the laziness of their victims.

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Namahage carry large knives to scrape the laziness from victims

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For travelers, New Years is not a good time to see Namahage as it’s primarily a private affair. Participating households don’t want a bunch of camera-flashing tourists to ruin the effect of scaring their kids straight. Some of the local hotels arrange Namahage visitations but given it’s the New Years the whole thing can be rather pricey. Fortunately for the Namahage-seeker, there is the Namahage Museum in Oga where year-round, they can see a performance of the New Years’ event sans the crying children.

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Making a Namahage Mask at the Namahage Museum

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Visitors can become a Namahage at the Namahage Museum

In February, there is the Sedo Matsuri or simply the Namahage Festival which takes place next to the Namahage Museum in Oga. In the evening several men come down a hillside wearing straw coats. Near the shrine, two Shinto priests bless Namahage masks then precede to mask the men. Once they are all masked, they begin stomping and howling. Thus the Namahage are born.

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Dancing Devil

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A little while later they come down again with blazing torches. While young children cry and hide, others chase after the Namahage seeking to grasp a straw from their coats for good luck. Some of the Namahage dance, some of them play Taiko drums, and some of those of softer disposition play Rock, Paper, Scissors with children brave enough to match wit and hand with the Namahage.

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Namahage playing Rock, Paper, Scissors

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Drumming Devils

At the end of the festival, a priest presents an offering of mochi – rice cake – burnt black on a fire. The Namahage grudgingly accept the offering then return to their mountain lair. But everyone knows the Namahage keep watch on them and will be back without fail next year.

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Priest offering mochi to Namahage

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The Namahage promise/threaten to return next year

March 4, 2009 Posted by | Akita, culture, devils, drums, event, festival, folklore, japan, japanese culture, music, Namahage, New Years, Oga, Only in Japan, Roving Ronin Report, taiko, tohoku, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Japanese Snow Lantern Festival in Hirosaki

Japanese Snow Lantern Festival
Brightening up the Winter Sky

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Snow Lantern Festival of Hirosaki

Winters are long in Tohoku, the northern region of mainland Japan. Snow and ice are common fare there. A skier’s boon but a common man’s burden. In ages past before sports skiing and winter fashion, winter was something to be dreaded and suffered through. It is no wonder that a multitude of snow festivals dot the Tohoku region. These festivals are the locals’ way of making Winter seem little less unfriendly and little less bleak.

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Hirosaki Castle

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One such festival takes place in the city of Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture which is the northernmost area of the Japanese mainland. Capitalizing on the beauty of winter, residents of Hirosaki create lanterns made completely made of snow in early February.

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The lanterns for the most part resemble the type of lantern found in Japanese gardens and shrines. There are hundreds of these spread through the grounds of Hirosaki Castle. Some of the snow lanterns however are rather avant-garde shaped with just a hint of the essence of a traditional stone lantern.

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Avant-Garde Snow Lantern

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Mickey Mouse Snow Lantern Shows Off Japanese Obsessive Love for all Things Disney

Where in the stone lanterns there would be empty spaces for the placing of candles, painted portraits are set. The portraits resemble closely that of Hirosaki’s Neputa Festival in Early August. The Neputa Festival consists of large oval shaped floats with painted scenes from Japanese and Chinese stories.

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Snow Lantern with Mt. Iwaki

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The Snow Lantern Festival’s portraits depict the faces of Japanese women, samurai, and legendary Chinese heroes from the works of the Three Kingdoms and the Outlaws of the Marsh. In the evening, they are illuminated from within much in the same way the Neputa floats are.

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While the Neputa Festival goes back centuries, the Snow Lantern Festival goes back only decades – three to be exact. The Festival started in 1977 as a way to bring the community together during the long cold winter. It has since become one of the five biggest snow festivals in the Tohoku area.

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One of the few non-lantern structures to be seen at the festival

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Throughout the Festival, local volunteers patrol the grounds looking to repair the lanterns and clearing the pathways. They place the portraits on the lanterns and fasten them in place with short bamboo sticks. Across the old moat, dozens of small kamakura – or snow huts – are set up each with an individual candle.

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A Volunteer Repairs a Snow Lantern

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Three hundred miniature Kamakura snow huts dot the the bank of the castle moat

Hirosaki’s Snow Lantern Festival may not be a major extravaganza like the Snow Festival a little further north in Sapporo but it has a pleasant charm of its own. The Snow Lantern Festival in this respect represents the Japanese character best – simple but elegant; the quintessential concept of Japanese wabi-sabi.

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The only drawback to all this charm and elegance, however, is the music they choose to play in the background. Instead of playing traditional Japanese music particularly the guitar-like shamisen which Hirosaki is known for, they play less than quality modern music that is a cross between old style enka and modern pop music from mediocre artist without financial clout to sue the city for playing their music.

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Music aside, the illuminated snow lanterns and the miniature kamakura snow huts with Hirosaki Castle as a backdrop make for a winter fairy-tale land.

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February 22, 2009 Posted by | culture, event, festival, hirosaki, history, japan, japanese culture, matsuri, snow, snow festival, snow lantern festival, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Samurai Dave vs. the Juhyo Japanese Monster Trees of Mt. Zao!!!!

Here I face off against the deadly Juhyo – Japanese Monster trees of Mt. Zao – and live to tell the tale!
 

Juhyo trees are created by snow and ice mixed together by freezing strong Siberian winds that turns them into distorted monsters.


March 19, 2008 Posted by | japan, juhyo, life, monster trees, Mt. Zao, nature, tohoku, travel, video, vlog, winter, Yamagata, youtube, Zao Onsen | 3 Comments

Juhyo – Japanese Monster Trees!!!

Juhyo: Japanese Monster Trees
In winter mild-mannered conifers become hulking monstrosities of snow and ice


Strangely-shaped trees called Juhyo (monster trees) lurk on Mount Zao.

They’re out there lurking in the dark, in the desolate wilderness of winter — the beautiful and eerie offspring of Yuki Onna, the Japanese snow woman spirit. They are the Juhyo, or monster trees. Every winter the trees of Mount Zao in the Yamagata Prefecture undergo a shocking transformation. From mild-mannered conifers, these trees become hulking monstrosities of snow and ice.


Heading up to the summit and the land of the Juhyo.

What makes the trees into monsters is a wintery cocktail of snow and ice shaken and stirred by a blustery freezing Siberian wind. The snow and ice cakes the conifer trees so completely that often the original shape of the tree is so distorted that’s it unrecognizable as such.

To the Japanese, trees in Japan often have a spiritual nature. At many Shinto shrines, trees are venerated as having a kami or type of spirit. One type of spirit is a kodama and it is believed that to cut down a tree containing such a spirit will bring about bad luck, so they are marked off with sacred rope. As with many spirits in Japan, these tree spirits can be beneficial, dangerous or neutral.


Juhyo Kogen – Monster Tree Plateau.

In rural areas, it was thought that if trees reached a thousand years of age, they could come alive, particularly at night, and some were quite dangerous. Woodcutters out after dark had to be extra cautious of running afoul of these creatures.


Me and the Juhyo.

Fortunately for visitors, the Juhyo monster trees are apparently dormant, content to stand still showing off their weird and beautiful shapes. In this respect the Juhyo resemble the snow spirit Yuki Onna. Yuki Onna is the female personification of winter in Japan. On one hand she represents the haunting beauty of snow and ice in her form as a beautiful pale woman with red lips and black hair.

On the other hand she represents winter’s deadlier side as she would freeze her hapless victims to death with her breath or she would lead them astray so they would perish in the wilderness. Like Yuki Onna, the Juhyo are beautiful in their odd way but they serve to remind viewers of the fate that awaits anyone who stays too long out in winter’s domain.

While the monster trees may be docile, the weather is not. Visitors may either encounter perfect weather with sunny clear blue skies in which to view the Juhyo or face freezing cold winds and such thick fog that they can barely see past their nose.


A Christmas tree gone over to the Dark Side.

I had the misfortune of it being a day with weather of the latter sort. The monster trees were practically swallowed by the swirling white mist. The main path was closed off to keep visitors from getting lost and becoming monster trees on their own. Luckily for us monster-hunters, there was a sizable herd of Juhyo next to the visitor center.

During the day — if you could even call it day — the wind was fierce. My face, feet and hands kept freezing while my glasses kept fogging up. It took quite a bit of hot sake back at the center to get the warmth back into my cold bones.


A dinosaur tree?

In the evening, the monster trees really come to life when the visitor center illuminates them with an array of multi-colored lights. At this time the trees really take on the shape of things unearthly. To me, the Juhyo don’t resemble monsters as much as they do the terrain of some alien landscape on another planet.


The Juhyo look like the bizarre terrain of an alien landscape.

The Juhyo are atop Mount Zao in the northern prefecture of Yamagata. Zao, like many mountains, is actually a volcano and an active one at that. The Juhyo can be seen at Zao Onsen, which is reachable, by bus from Yamagata City station. Take the cable car of the Zao Ropeway to the midway point and get on the Sanroku Line, which goes to the top to the Juhyo-kogen: Monster Tree Plateau. The Juhyo exist from mid-January to mid-March depending on current weather conditions.


Juhyo Godzilla

March 18, 2008 Posted by | japan, juhyo, monster trees, Mt. Zao, nature, snow, tohoku, travel, winter, Yamagata, Yuki Onna, Zao Onsen | 3 Comments

Setsubun – Japanese Spring Cleaning Exorcism (Vlog Video)

https://samuraidave.wordpress.com/2007/02/06/setsubun-devils-driven-out-in-japanese-spring-ritual/
Setsubun is February 3rd and it’s kind of like Groundhog Day, New Years, and Halloween all rolled up into one. It’s a day where Japanese seek to drive Oni or Devils from their homes by throwing beans at them. Oni don’t like beans – makes them go blind apparently.

Also many temples and shrines have mami-maki which is where people throw beans and other items at gathered crowds. To catch these items is to bring you good luck all year.

This Setsubun a sudden snowstorm struck in Tokyo. A rather ominious sign as the Setsubun is a Spring Ritual and exorcising the devils is like driving Winter out. I think it was a sneak attack by the Setsubun Devils myself. However the ritual must have worked because the next morning the sun was out.
Background music by Super Girl Juice:
http://www.sgchannel.com

February 7, 2008 Posted by | culture, demons, devils, event, festival, folklore, japan, japanese culture, life, oni, Setsubun, snow, spring, tokyo, tradition, travel, video, vlog, winter, youtube, zojo-ji | Leave a comment

Devils Make Sneak Attack on Japanese Spring Ritual – Setsubun

Sudden Snowstorm Interrupts Japanese Spring Ritual
Sneak attack by Setsubun Devils?

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Setsubun Devils enjoying the sudden snowstorm in Tokyo

A sudden snowstorm swept in silently and swiftly during the early morning hours in Tokyo this Feb. 3. Three centimeters of snow covered the capital in a fairly heavy snowfall. Train services were disrupted, traffic backed up, flights were cancelled, and at least 100 people were injured. Although snow is not unusual in Tokyo, these days, however, snow has become less common over the years. Last year it only snowed once and very briefly at that.

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Sudden snowfall in Tokyo at Senso-ji Temple

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Shrine attendants work to clear a path

What makes this snowfall particularly significant if not ominously suspicious was the date. Feb. 3 is the Japanese holiday of Setsubun, a day when Japanese seek to drive bad luck out of their homes and bring in happiness. Setsubun is a more active version of Groundhog Day where Japanese take matters into their own hands to try and bring an earlier end to winter. On the old Japanese calendar, Setsubun was considered the day before Spring – despite the real Spring being a few more weeks away.

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Praying to a snowy Buddha for perhaps warmer weather

The bad luck is represented by Oni – Japanese devils. There are many devils in Japanese folklore which can be good, bad, or neutral. The Setsubun Devils are known for being one of the bad ones. They are typically believed to be invisible intangible spirits that will inhabit places to bring misfortunate to all if they are not driven out. Their visible appearance is that of a shirtless devil with horns, shaggy hair, sharp claws and teeth, and wearing tiger pants. They come in red, green, and blue colors. If their sharp teeth and claws aren’t enough, they have heavy iron-studded clubs as well. This fierce creature is partially based on the Chinese Zodiac signs of the ox (ushi in Japanese) and tiger (tora in Japanese). Ushitora is related to “North Gate.” North was considered a very unlucky direction in Ancient China (probably because so many invaders came from that way) and this belief was adopted by the Japanese in the 8th and 9th Centuries.

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A Snow-covered Kabuki Star

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Snow at Senso-ji Temple is Asakusa, Tokyo

Along with bad luck, Setsubun Devils represent Winter and the old year too. The ceremony of driving the devils out symbolizes the ending of Winter and the coming of Spring while making everything new for the New Years. Setsubun is close to the Chinese New Years and before Japan switched to the Western calendar system, Setsubun was the day before the Chinese New Year. Japanese want their homes to be free of all the old bad feelings of the previous year. Setsubun is a bit of “out with the old; in with the new” of New Years, spring cleaning, and exorcism at the same time.

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Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo

This Setsubun if one were inclined to see the supernatural in everything and believe in omens as people did in olden times this, they might believe the sudden snowfall to be devil-wrought. Perhaps the snow was a diabolical sneak attack by the devils in the early morning hours to thrawt the Setsubun exorcism activities at shrines and temples. In these places, beans and other such items are thrown “to” not “at” gathered crowds. This is known as mame-maki. It is believed that to catch such items, a person will have good luck all year.

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Some Ninja and a walking bag of chips prepare to do Mame-Maki at Zojo-ji

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Ninja Chips – crunchy and deadly snackfood for the assassin in all of us

Although the devils threw quite a bit of snow which caused a number of train delays, there were still crowds of people at temples and shrines, their hands outstretched looking for a bit of luck. I went to my favorite temple for mame-maki: Zojo-ji in Hamamatsucho. Zojo-ji always has a few celebrities and a sumo wrestler doing mame-maki. Their mame-maki has more than just a handful of tossed beans. I got several bags of snack food, two wash clothes, nine packets of bean, and six health bars. the health bars were dangerous! I got hit in the head twice and once right smack in my face.

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Snowfall at Kanda Myojin Shrine

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Decorations at Kanda Myojin Shrine

After that I went to Kanda Myojin Shrine where I saw two Setsubun devils prance about on a catwalk seeming to enjoy the mayhem the weather had caused. At Kanda Myojin Shrine they do a traditional mame-maki where they throw handfuls of individual beans rather than packets. The beans were rather difficult to pick out from the heavy snow flakes that were coming down. No one bothered to pick any of the beans up that had fallen on the ground. At Zojo-ji because everying is in a package, you have people going up and down for mame-maki. This makes for a writhing crowd as some people are jumping up to catch packages while others are diving down to get the fallen ones and getting bumped heads in the process.

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A Devil revels in the mayhem of an unexpectant snowstorm

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A Kimono-clad girl indulging in mame-maki at Kanda Myojin shrine

After Kanda Myojin’s mame-maki, we were lead into a room where we could choose small packages of beans, candy, and oranges. All in all I had a decent Setsubun mame-maki haul by the end of the day.

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A decent Setsubun Mame-Maki haul

In the end despite the weather, the Setsubun exorcism ritual must have worked. The next morning the sun came out and melted the snow away. Better luck next year, devils!

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February 7, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, culture, demons, devils, event, folklore, japan, japanese culture, life, ninja, oni, Setsubun, snow, spring, tokyo, tradition, travel, winter, zojo-ji | 1 Comment

Japanese Night Festival Lights Up Cold Sky

Chichibu Night Festival Lights Up the Sky
Gigantic floats, chanting pullers and spectacular fireworks draw thousands of revelers


A decorative float burdened with singers makes it way down the streets of Chichibu, two hours northwest of Tokyo.

The Chichibu Yo-Matsuri (Night Festival), dating back to the 18th century, is one of the three most famous night festivals in Japan. The small city of Chichibu lies two hours northwest of Tokyo in the mountainous regions of Chichibu National Park. Despite the cold, large crowds descend upon the city every year in early December to see the colorful, illuminated floats parade through the streets.


Festival participants

Six massive decorative floats festooned with a myriad of lanterns are pulled through the streets by large teams of men and women in festival attire. The floats weigh nearly ten tons and some of them are over 30-feet high. These floats require teams of nearly a hundred people pulling and pushing to get them moving. In front of the floats two long lines of people pull on large ropes while chanting “Wa-shoi! Wa-shoi!” (which is like saying “Heave, ho!”). Between them, walked colorfully-attired men rhythmically clacking wooden blocks together.

On the floats themselves, groups of singers waving handheld lanterns chant and shout as they pass by. On each float a taiko drum is beaten furiously, accompanied by wildly shrilling flutes. On top of the float, sometimes a man stands waving a folding fan to the rhythm of the taiko drum and flutes.


A fishy decorated float

Occasionally, the parade hits a bit of a snag much to the relief of the rope pullers and float pushers, no doubt. Some of the rope pullers tried to bamboozle yours truly into pulling their seven-ton float, but I sheepishly declined, claiming an allergic reaction to physical labor.

The floats eventually come to a small, but steep hill where pullers and pushers have to gather up a surge of energy to yank their heavy float to the top of the hill, which also marks the end of the parade.


A singer aboard a float sings out into the cold night

South of the parade, fireworks light up the cold night sky. Below, dozens of temporary food stalls serve up piping hot food and drink to the thousands of visitors.


The backsides of two colorful floats

The Chichibu Yo-Matsuri is definitely a festival to experience. However, festival-goers should be wary of the earliness of the last trains back to Tokyo. The last trains back end around 10:30. This I did not know. When I took a train at 10:40, I reached a station that was still a good ways out of Tokyo and remained there until the next morning. I ended having to take refuge from the cold in an all-night “Manga-kissa” — Internet/comic book cafe.


Shanghaied!


Fireworks explode over a busy street


“Wa-shoi! Wa-shoi!”


Three red-headed maidens decorate the back of one float

December 13, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, chichibu, culture, entertainment, festival, fireworks, floats, japan, life, matsuri, parade, traditional art, travel, winter, Yomatsuri | Leave a comment

Hokkaido Drift Ice: Nature’s Masterpiece

Hokkaido’s Drift Ice: Nature’s Masterpiece
In northern Japan, one can commune with nature and hungry sea gulls

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An ice-breaking ship of the Aurora Fleet

Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido offers winter-loving visitors not only incredible man-made structures of ice and snow — the most notably being at Sapporo’s internationally renowned Yuki Matsuri— but along the northern coast one can see nature’s own winter masterpiece in the form of drift ice. From mid-January to mid-April, the Sea of Okhotsk is choked with ice fragments drifting their way south to oblivion in warmer climates. The Hokkaido coast is the southernmost area in the Northern Hemisphere to experience drift ice.

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In ages past, drift ice would be a thing to be avoided at all cost by sea-farers. Though not as dangerous as icebergs, drift ice could catch unlucky vessels in its clutches and hold them for long stretches of time, sometimes till death took the crew. Nowadays, with the aid of modern ice-breaking ships, drift ice has become a tourist attraction.

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In the northern coast city of Abashiri, tourists can take an hour cruise for JPY 3000 (US $25) on the ice-breaker Aurora ships. Abashiri is famous in Japan for a spartan prison that was set up there at the end of the 19th century. Getting sent to Abashiri was equivalent to getting sent to Siberia in Russia. The weather can be harsh and unrelenting in winter and Japanese prisons have never been known for their comfort.

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Seagulls on Ice

Drift-ice cruises offer visitors the chance to catch a rare glimpse of seals and seal pups in the wild. Most of the time, however, the drift ice wildlife around Abashiri is confined to opportunistic sea gulls. Sea gulls follow the ships closely looking for free hand-outs from the tourists. One popular way of feeding the sea gulls is to hold out a piece of bread or a potato chip and let the sea gulls snatch it while in flight.

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The tranquilty of this frozen world of the northern sea is broken only by the sound of the crunching ice under the steel hull of Aurora’s ships and the old Enka music blaring from the ship’s speakers.

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Drift ice has a significant impact on global climate conditions. It redistributes fresh water and latent heat energy, which has an effect on regional climates. The freezing process of drift ice removes the salt from seawater creating freshwater. If too much freshwater is released it can have damaging effects on the climate. It is believed that such a release caused a disruption with the Gulf Stream, resulting in a small ice age 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.

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Hokkaido’s drift ice has unfortunately become a casualty of global warming. In the last twenty years the amount and thickness of the drift ice has lessened. The season for viewing drift ice has shortened, as well.

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An extended potato chip grabs a sea gull’s attention

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January 30, 2007 Posted by | abashiri, Blogroll, drift ice, global warming, hokkaido, ice, japan, life, snow, travel, winter | 2 Comments