Sunday, 19 October 2014

My first Japanese festival! - Oeshiki festival at Ikegami

Back in September last year, a friend and his wife, Mauricio and Satoko, offered to show me around an area south of Tokyo that they like called Kamakura.  I spent an excellent day at Kamakura and took lots of photos in order to write a post about it here. He also invited me to go to Ikegami and enjoy the Ikegami Oeshiki festival, which was the largest festival in the area As fate would have, before I had a chance to write the post and less than a week before the festival, I had a bicycle accident that put me out of action for a while.  I missed the festival and when I finally got around to writing the post about Kamakura, I found that I had forgotten a lot of information about the day, so I couldn't write the post either.  Fast forward one year and Mauricio recently contacted me and reminded me that it was festival time again.  I gave a definite yes that I would go this time (and so stayed away from my bicycle in the time leading up to the festival!).

The Oeshiki festival is held at many places over Japan, but the biggest and most important is held at Ikegami from the 11th to the 13th of October.  The festival is held to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Saint Nichiren who was the founder of the Buddhist Nichiren sect.  He passed away 731 years ago at Honmonji temple in Ikegami which is why the largest festival is held there.  Honmonji temple was founded shortly before Saint Nichiren's death in 1282 AD.

The highlight of the 3 day festival is held on the 12th of October.  On this night, 100 mando (which means 10,000 lanterns) mikoshi (portable shrines) along with many more matoi (traditional firefighters poles) and 3,000 followers make their way along a two kilometre route from Ikegami train station to Honmonji temple.  The mando, and the followers, come from all over Japan from all of the different temples in the Nichiren sect.  Mando are carried by people or wheeled along on small carts and and are built in the form of a 5 storey pagoda.  The are light up from inside and artificial cherry blossoms cascade from the top of the mando like an umbrella.  They use cherry blossoms as a symbol because it is said that when Saint Nichiren died (in Autumn) the cherry trees started blooming out of season (this happens each year in Spring!).  This is an extremely popular festival which is attended by over 300,000 people each year and this year I was going along to join them!

I arrived at Ikegami about one hour early as I had thought the trains affected by the number of people who would be going to the festival.  I was wrong, and even was able to get a seat on the train (those who have ever used the trains in Tokyo will know that it is rarely the case!).  Walking out of the station, the beginning point of the festival, What appeared before me is difficult to put into words.  The sounds of drums and flutes filled the air as the mando were carried and pulled along the streets.  The people playing instruments were walking along in front, beside and behind the mikoshi dancing and singing as they walked along the streets.  And the people, the incredible number of people!!





As I was early, I decided to have a wander around the area near the station by myself before meeting with Mauricio and Satoko.  I took a couple of backstreets and met up with the parade a couple of blocks away where the crowds were not as bad!

The parade continued past me and the speed that the people carrying the matoi were spinning them with was amazing!


Making my was back to the station I saw a nice sight.  Some of the musicians had stopped where a group of elderly people in wheelchairs were sitting on the side of the road watching the parade.  They handed over the drumsticks and asked the group to start playing the drums along with the rest of the musicians.  I think that would be a highlight for anyone in the crowd, and they were loving the chance to get involved!



Back at the station again, the parade was still passing by and the crowds were still there!


Luckily Mauricio and Satoko were soon able to find me and we set off in the direction of the temple, the finishing point of the parade.

The walk to the temple was the same path that the parade was taking so we had the enjoyment of watching the parade the whole time.  Sometimes we would be walking faster than the parade and sometimes (because of the sheer number of people!) we would slow right down to a crawl and the parade would start moving faster than us.  We seemed to have the same few mando near us the whole way.



The blue mando especially would appear alongside us from time to time the whole way.  A little further on another of the musicians had stopped to allow a couple of young kids the chance to join in!



This group also was to be a common sight for us as we walked to the temple.


As with every festival or large public occasion, yatai (food stalls) play a big part.  I mean, someone has to feed the hundreds of thousands of people who flock to the area for the festival each year.  The variety is great too!

Skewered meat,


okonomiyaki (savoury pancake......tastes amazing!),



yakisoba (stir fried noodles),


takoyaki (battered balls of octopus).


grilled corn (I'm sure it has a Japanese name, but I don't know what it is.....)


more okonomiyaki,


and smoked turkey legs!


Turning our attention back to the parade, one of the groups, who were always not far away as we walked, caught up with us


and he stopped and handed over the drumstick and told me to start playing!


I am sure my rhythm was terrible but he kindly said that I was doing a great job!

The beautiful blue mando caught up to us again as we approached the temple.


And finally we had arrived.


This was not the end of our trek, however, as we still had to climb 96 steps to reach the temple.  It was at this point I suddenly wondered how the lovely blue mando moving along next to us was going to get up.  Maybe it would be left at the bottom I thought.  No!  Suddenly a whole group of men came up to the mando and struggled to get it off the ground,


lifted it onto their shoulders and proceeded to carry it up the 96 steps to the top!



Yes, that's how crowded our side of the steps was, they were moving faster than us!

Arriving at the top, we walked around admiring the temple buildings and gardens.







Making our way back down to the city again, we walked past the tomb of Saint Nichiren and Mauricio was surprised that the tomb doors were opened.  He said that it was the first time he had seen them open like that!

We then went and finished off the night at Mauricio and Satoko's favourite Chinese restaurant.

Many thanks to Mauricio and Satoko.  I really appreciate them taking me around and telling me all about the festival.

This blog post was a year in the making, but it was a very enjoyable one to experience and write about.

I hope you enjoy the read and the pictures.  Thanks, as always, for reading, and see you next time.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Hold on! - Typhoon in Tokyo

Summer in Japan means hot, humid days and rain, lots of rain.  Tokyo swelters through two to three months of steamy, draining days.  In 2005 the Japanese government introduced Cool Biz.  Cool Biz is a slightly more casual dress code that was adopted by government departments as a energy saving program.  Air conditioners in government buildings were set at 28 degrees during the summer of 2005 and government workers were allowed to wear trousers with a much lighter material, they were also allowed to work without wearing a tie or a jacket.  In subsequent years, Cool Biz caught on in the private sector also and today, most, if not all companies use the Cool Biz dress code during summer.  This makes summers a little more bearable, but only a little.

Summer time in Japan is also typhoon time.  Typhoons often start forming in July and continue through until October.  Early in the typhoon season, they rarely venture north of the southern islands of Okinawa.  Later in summer as the prevailing winds pick up and start blowing from west to east, typhoons then follow these winds and blast their way over the main islands of Japan.

The big cities are able to withstand strong typhoons but in the country areas and especially areas that are mountainous, typhoons can do a lot of damage.  There was a large typhoon that slammed into Oshima island (located south of Tokyo) in October last year.  In a 24 hour period, Oshima island received a massive 824mm of rain (I come from a very dry part of Australia where the average yearly rainfall is 546mm, so I was stunned when I saw those numbers!).  During that typhoon, there were huge landslides on the island resulting in over thirty deaths.

I am sitting at home at the moment and the first typhoon of the season to pass directly over Tokyo is approaching.  The Japanese F1 race was luckily able to be run this afternoon just before the typhoon arrived.

The main part of the typhoon is due to be over Tokyo early tomorrow morning and as I have a day off tomorrow, I will stay up and wait for it to arrive and then pass over.  I thought it might be interesting to write updates during the night as it arrives.

I know some of my Japanese readers are probably thinking "What???  Why???".  Well, I come from a part of Australia that is not affected by cyclones and the first year I was in Japan, the first typhoon that came along had me intrigued.  During the middle of the typhoon I walked outside just to see what it was like!  I am doing this as there are probably some people who read this blog who maybe wonder what being in a typhoon is like, just like I did (if my Mum is going to read this, Mum, don't worry, I will be careful!).  One of my coworkers actually suggested that I spend the weekend doing a blog post on how to survive a typhoon, so here we go! 

It is now about 5:45pm and it has been raining steadily pretty much all day.  Outside it looks pretty unremarkable, wet roads, but that's about it.

About an hour later I decided to head to a nearby bar to watch my favourite football (or soccer depending on where you are from) team play.  By that stage, the rain had intensified a a bit and there were occasional gusts of wind.

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Good news, thanks to an amazing display by the goalkeeper, my team won 2-1.  If you know which team I follow, you will know how much of a relief that is!!  During the game, the rain got quite a bit stronger and on the way home, I shot this update.


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Not a whole lot of change.  The rain had actually eased a little compared to during the game but from what I have experienced with typhoons here in Japan, that is quite common.  The literal calm before the storm I guess!  Don't get me wrong, I am far from a typhoon expert.  I have lived in Japan for about 5 and a half years, and have experienced probably a couple per year during that time.

I am sitting here in my room and it is about 2am.  I have just read some news that 3 US Airmen were washed out to sea in Okinawa by the storm surge created by the typhoon.  There are always (unfortunately) some people who put themselves too close to danger and as a result, the typhoon has claimed it's first victims.  The rain has just intensified a bit here in Tokyo.  The wind is not yet too strong and the typhoon is still a few hours away.  Apparently some parts of Japan are expecting to receive over 300mm of rain over the course of the night.  That's a lot of rain!  I will probably poke my head outside sometime soon and see what it looks like.

Well, hunger eventually got the better of me and I decided to head to the convenience store for a snack.  I stated on this next video that it was about 5am, it was actually about 4am.  I took a couple of videos while I was out.  Initially it appeared as though conditions had eased.


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About five minutes later, it had started to get worse again.


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At 6:35am, it's finally about to hit.



And as I uploaded this photo, the rain picked up again.  Thunder and lightning had started about an hour ago.

It is now about 8am and the rain has picked up in a big way again.  The wind has also picked up a little too, and I am sure that will continue to rise.


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Typhoon watch has now been going for 14 hours.  I hope I can hold on for the main act.....

Unfortunately I fell asleep at about 9:30 am and missed the typhoon.......
The good news (?) however is that there is another typhoon approaching, so I hope I can film that one and finish this blog post.  Fingers crossed!

So, the next typhoon arrived and it started with a lot of rain, just like the other one.  Weather experts had said that it was going to be the strongest typhoon / hurricane / cyclone of the year! Typhoons have a habit of losing power once they hit land, so the southern regions of Japan were in the most danger.  In Tokyo, however, even the frogs were running for cover......




At about midnight I stepped outside to see what was happening

A couple of fences down,




but, all things considered, it was pretty tame.  Apart from the occasional gust of wind, it seemed as though the typhoon had passed and that I had missed another one!  I took a couple of quick videos.  The wind sounds worse than it really was!


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So I went back home and was sitting inside disappointed for a couple of hours and then I started to hear the wind start howling through the trees just outside my window.  At first only from time to time.  As time went on, it became more frequent until I felt I had to step outside to check again.  At ground level, however, it wasn't so strong, but looking up at the tree tops, was where the action was, the trees were swaying and shaking constantly.  I decided that where I was was probably a little too sheltered and walked off in the direction of a large freeway near my house.  Here the trees up above were feeling the full effects of the wind.


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Walking along the street there were so many signs of people who had  tried (with inevitable consequences) to keep themselves dry in the typhoon!





And a little further along I got hit by this....


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Now, every time I walked past a gap between buildings or a side street I got blasted from the side by the wind.  It was difficult walking in a straight line!

I cam across a flag that was fighting a losing battle to stay on it's pole.


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In this next one, the wind is so strong you can't even hear what I am saying on the video!


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It was at about this time that I decided I should probably make my way home so I walked back hoping that the power lines above my head would stay there!



Thankfully they did and I made it back safely!

There it is, we made it through a typhoon (2 really!).  As I said at the start, they are not as dangerous in the city areas compared to the country and mountainous areas and I was probably lucky that this one had lost a bit of strength as it reached Tokyo (and the eye also passed north of Tokyo too).

Thanks again for reading.  I hope all of the video works, this is the first time I have uploaded video to the blog!

See you next time.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

An evening of surprises - Nakano (part 2)

This is part 2 of a post about Nakano.  I recommend reading part 1 first if you have not already done so.

Halfway between Koenji and Nakano stations I paused as a train flew past overhead to have a drink and rehydrate.


There were some seriously nice old houses along here which was a nice preview of what I was going to see soon.  It reminded me a lot of Yanaka.




I soon arrived at Nakano station and found myself looking at Nakano Broadway.



Nakano Broadway is a long (very long...) undercover shopping mall on what I guess used to be a regular street.  It has a lot of regular shops, but also a lot of anime, manga, idol and fantasy figurines.  Akihabara is the hotspot for this subculture, but Nakano Broadway has a fairly impressive offering of these shops as well.  Forgive me for not taking photos of a lot of these shops, but that was not the purpose of my visit to Nakano, but I did take a few photos on the walk along the Broadway.  This particular day was a Sunday so there were quite a few people out.



Lots of clothes shops, restaurants, cafes and even a maid cafe where the staff dress up in outfits resembling black cats........





Well, I guess Japan has a large enough population to cater for these niche markets!  The guy looking in the door was obviously part of that niche!

As I had walked along Broadway, I had noticed some places outside, off to the right-hand side that looked like what I had come to Nakano looking for, so, out to the right I went.

Now, this is what I had come for!





Much better!  Little alleyways snaking their way around Nakano lined with uncountable small restaurants, izakayas, yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick), bars and who knows what else!  I thought, okay, here is my next couple of hours booked!  So I started roaming the streets of Nakano, spending almost the entire next 2 hours with my jaw dragging on the ground in amazement.  I have a friend, Mikey, who lives in Nakano and I messaged him telling him that he lives in an awesome neighbourhood! (Mikey has a youtube channel where he does videos about the game Minecraft with a Japanese theme, so if you are into Minecraft, you can find his channel here).

Let me allow some of the pictures to tell the story much better than my words could ever do.

Some kind of izakaya (I think),



ramen,



okonomiyaki (hiroshima style, the best.....),



monjayaki (Tokyo's version of okonomiyaki),



yakitori, oh, delicious, smokey yakitori,



500 yen ($5) pizza (and 500 yen pizza is pretty good in Japan!),




and another small little open-air izakaya.





The alleys kept on going and going.  If I didn't have my smartphone with me and Google maps, I would have surely wandered around the alleys of Nakano for weeks, not being able to find my way out, but was I ever loving it!







This guy looked like he had been roaming the streets lost for weeks....




Suddenly I saw something that stopped me dead.......



An Australian bar?  I stood there stunned for about thirty seconds not able to move.  In the middle of Nakano I had stumbled across an Australian bar.  Unfortunately it was not yet open, so I had to find somewhere else to kill some time so I wandered off and found another little bar to kill some time in.



Inside, I messaged Mikey and told him of my find and he suggested waiting there until he arrived and he would join me for a beer at the Australian place.  When he arrived, we walked back to the bar and went inside.  The name of the bar is Meatoco and it's facebook page is here.  The owner, Yasuhito told us that he had set up the bar one year ago and had lived in Melbourne, Australia for a while when he was a university student.

So we ordered ourselves a Coopers pale ale and a meat pie and enjoyed this little patch of Oz right here in Japan.




Satisfied, I left Mikey to head home while I walked back to the station to do the same.

I thoroughly recommend heading to Nakano when you visit Tokyo as it's alleys are an opportunity to immerse yourself in an older, much less visited side of Japanese life.

Thanks again for reading.  If anyone has any places they would like to read about, feel free to leave a message and I will see if I can do so.

Until next time, bye.