Tuesday 28 October 2014

Oshima Island - arrival

One of my brother's friends and a guy who regularly reads this blog asked me last year if I could visit a small Japanese fishing village and write about it.  I started searching online for one, but most of them seemed to have populations of 50 - 60,000 people.  Now, for an Australian, that's not small.  The second largest city in the state that I come from has the same number of people and the town that I was born in has a population that just tops 700!  My search continued, and finally, over a year later I found what I was looking for on Oshima Island which is located about 100 km south of Tokyo.  I decided to make a long weekend of it as there was another part of the island that I wanted to check out too.  This series is for you Scott, especially part three.

Oshima Island began life many millions of years ago as part of an underwater peninsula that was made up of a series of volcanoes.  Over time, due to countless eruptions (that historically happen every 1 - 3 years), the volcano finally pushed above the surface of the ocean and Oshima Island was created.  The volcano, whose crater lies at the top of Mount Mihara that towers above the island, is one of the most most active volcanoes but has remained dormant since an eruption in 1990.  In 1986 the eruption was so massive that the island had to be evacuated.  The island lies on the Philippine sea plate which is constantly moving and is actually moving the island closer to Mount Fuji each year at a rate of 5 cm per year.  The epicentre of the massive Great Kanto Earthquake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama and the surrounding areas in 1923.

Oshima Island also gets slammed by typhoons most years and there was a particularly nasty typhoon that hit the island last year and dumped 824 mm of rain on the island and it's inhabitants in what must have been 24 long hours.  Now I come from the driest state in the driest continent in the world, and the city I lived in receives an average of only 546 mm of rain per year!!  Anywhere where there are mountains and that much rain falls, landslides are a big danger and the landslide that resulted from all of that rain killed 35 people.

Oshima Island has a brutal history but I was hoping that it would lie peacefully for the few days that I was there.  Keeping my fingers crossed I made my way to Takeshiba Port in Tokyo to catch a ferry that would take me down to the island.

There are two kinds of ferries that travel from Tokyo to Oshima Island.  The larger of the two takes about 8 hours and is an overnight ferry.  The second (and much quicker) is a jet foil style ferry that has a lower capacity but takes much less time, making the trip in about 1 hour 45 minutes.  It is also a little more expensive, but I had chosen this as my means of getting to Oshima Island.

I arrived at Takeshiba Port and made my way, along with the other passengers to the ferry.  This was to be my ride!

The boat starts it's journey as a regular boat, but when clear of the port, a number of foils lower into the water, and as the boat gains speed, these foils act like the wings of an aeroplane and create lift which raises the main part of the boat clear of the water.  Obviously, being that I was on the boat, I was unable to get a picture of the ferry in full flight.  I did, however, take a picture of a picture of the ferry, raised out of the water.  It looks just like this.

As the engine starts, it sounds just like a jet aeroplane starting up, the jet engine whining into life.  As the boat moves away from the port slowly, waves rock the boat slightly which is followed by a rumbling noise (similar to that of when an aeroplane lowers it's landing gear) and the foils lower into the water.  The transition from regular boat to foiling above the water is so smooth that if, it wasn't for the ride becoming noticeably quieter, you would not have realise what had just taken place!

The trip past quite quickly, and before I knew it, we had arrived.  Glancing around, I could barely imagine that millions of years ago, these sheer cliffs lay under the Pacific Ocean.

The massive concrete breakwater that lined the coast was a reminder of the constant threat that Japan faces from tsunamis.

I suddenly realised that the ferry had arrived at a different port to the one I was expecting to arrive at which meant I was at the other end of the island to where my hotel was located.  Oshima island is not a large island , so that meant about 10 km.  I noticed there were a few taxis waiting for passengers but I thought a better (and cheaper) way might be a bus to the port that I thought I would be arriving at and then a taxi to the hotel from there.  That was to be my big mistake for the day........

Getting off the bus at Motomachi Port I looked around for a taxi but there were none around.

I swear, just before I took this next photo, a tumbleweed blew across the street!

"No problem", I thought, "I'll just wander around and I should see one pretty soon.......

Not a taxi to be found anywhere!  

There was a ramen shop though!

I had no time for ramen though for the sun was about to set and I needed to get to my hotel.

I walked back to the Tourist Office that was located near Motomachi Port and asked the lovely ladies inside if there was any chance of finding a taxi.  They asked me where I was going to and then proceeded to call a taxi for me.  As I went outside to wait, the same lady came outside and took the flag banners inside and closed for the day!  

If I had been a few minutes later, I would probably have been spending the night on a park bench!  My taxi arrived and took me to my hotel, the Blanc Bleu.

The owners of this small boutique Japanese style hotel were a lovely older couple who went out of their way to make me feel at home and drove me to restaurants for dinner and, on my last day,back to the port to catch my return ferry.  The lady, once she realised that I could understand a little Japanese said "Yokata!" ("Good!") and proceeded to speak Japanese to me the rest of the time!  Whenever she saw that I couldn't understand her, she spoke to me in more simple Japanese.  Her husband spoke a little more English and we communicated in half Japanese and half English.  She showed me to my room, and it was beautiful!

After dinner, I decided to go for a wander around the area (also, I was getting no WiFi signal in my room, so I thought I could get better reception if I went for a walk).  I came across a little port that was quite eerie.  It was silent all around, except for the occasional loud grinding noise as the boats occasionally rubbed up against the pier.

A few boats had been hauled up onto land, obviously undergoing some kind of repair work.  It looked like a boat graveyard!

A little further down the street, there was a lovely old wood house that took on an unusual orange glow under the streetlights

Next was a demonic looking train.  I'm sure in the daylight, it looks perfectly cute, but at night, definitely not......

Deciding I had had enough exploring, I went back to the hotel, (locked my door!) and went to sleep.  I was looking forward to the next day.  I was going to explore a volcano!

Thanks for reading.  Please check back again soon for part 2 of this series.  See you then.

Friday 24 October 2014

Another festival! - Kawagoe Festival

Back in August I went to visit a couple of friends Masae and Hiroaki who live just north of Tokyo in a historic city, with buildings that date back over 300 years, called Kawagoe.  At the time they put out the invitation to return in October for the city's festival held on the third weekend of October every year.

The beginnings of the Kawagoe festival date back to 1648 and was centred around the local Hikawa Shrine.  As time went on Kawagoe became more and more wealthy due to river trade with Japan's capital, Edo (now Tokyo), and the festival developed and became larger each year.  In 1844 the addition of festival floats to the festival gave the festival it's final and grandest touch.  Now each year the festival concludes with a parade (called Hikkawase in Japanese) of 29 festival floats (each one representing a different neighbourhood of Kawagoe) parading through the streets of the old part of town.  These floats are about 5 metres high and appear very imposing if you are standing next to them!  

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people from Kawagoe, nearby areas and Tokyo come to Kawagoe to experience the excitement of the festival.  I am sure that the population of Kawagoe probably doubles during the Festival as it only has a population of about 340,000 during regular times!  In 2005 the the festival was given it's greatest honour as it was designated a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.

I met Masae and Hiroaki at the train station and we started off towards the festival area.  We had already been alerted by one of the people I work with , Jarrett, who we were on our way to meet, that the area was so crowded it took him a couple of hours to cover what would usually have been a 15 minute walk!  The crowds were huge, but it only took us about an hour to make the walk and we were finally able to catch up with Jarrett.  I had bought a large capacity memory card for my camera to be able to fit more photos on but when I turned on the camera I was faced with "CARD ERROR"!  The first of the majestic festival floats had just turned the corner and was heading our way!  I thought Jarrett might know what the problem was as he is an expert on cameras and a great photographer himself.  It turns out that the capacity was was too large for my camera to handle.  Jarrett quickly reached into his camera case and pulled out a smaller capacity card which I was able to slap into the camera just as the first float arrived!

The floats are pulled around by a large number of people who pull on ropes extending from the front of the float.

The top part of the float is where some musicians and a dancer stand at the front performing a Hayashi performance (a traditional Japanese orchestra comprised of flutes, drums, bells and dancers).

Like I said, these floats are huge, and you do feel very small standing next to them.  There are also usually a couple of people who sit all the way up on top of the float.  You wouldn't want to be scared of heights!

Pretty soon another float appeared with it's musicians and dancers in full swing entertaining the massive crowd.

In this next shot you can see the ornate detail that goes into the crafting and decorating of one of these floats.  No winder they cost so much (over $200,000 per float)!

We next walked into an area of a temple that had been set aside for food stalls and sideshow stalls.  There was the usual array of food stalls that you can find at any Japanese festival.  In fact upon telling some Japanese people that I had been to the Kawagoe festival, the first question I am asked is "What did you eat?".  Food is an integral part of a Japanese festival!

Shooting gallery.  I noticed that the kids were firing the guns extended one handed out in front of their bodies.  That's how safe a country Japan is.  The kids don't know how hold guns when shooting them properly.


Goldfish (with a little scoop, try to scoop up a goldfish to take home as a pet),

This guy was doing the same, although, with the mask he was wearing, maybe he was not looking for a pet......

bird whistles (although I can't imagine any sane mother or father buying them for their kids!),

the same game as the goldfish, but to get a rubber ball or toy instead.

Takoyaki (battered balls of octopus),

karaage (fried chicken),

chocco bannana (as the name suggests),

and, of course, my favourite, okonomiyaki.

No prizes for guessing what I ate!

We next went back out to the street and took in a couple of more passing floats.  Something very interesting was happening.  As 2 floats passed each other, they would stop, the top of the floats would then swivel around to face each other and the two sets of musicians and dancers then would have a dance battle.  Unfortunately the float staff wouldn't allow us to get close enough to get a good shot, but that is what is happening in this picture.

Another thing that the floats do is when they arrive at certain points along the street where special seating has been set up, they stop and turn around so that the performers are facing the seats and proceed to give the people in the seats a special performance.  I happened to be close enough to one of them to get some nice video footage.

At this point we decided to finish as Masae and Hiroaki had to get their beautiful daughter Akari home for the night.  On our way back to the station we passed one final food stall where a master candy craftsman was crafting finely shaped pieces of candy.  Masae mentioned that he is quite famous in the area.

We got back to the station and Jarrett and I made our way back to Tokyo well and truly impressed with Kawagoe and it's beautiful festival.

Thanks once again to Masae and Hiroaki for showing us their festival.  They really gave great information and showed us places that I would not have known about.

I hope you enjoyed seeing and reading about the Kawagoe festival, the second of my 2 festivals in a week.  Thanks again for reading and see you next time.

Monday 20 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.