Northern festival madness

Japan is not known for doing things by halves. Having developed one of the world’s most technically advanced and super efficient high speed rail networks and taken the experience of going to the toilet to a whole new level it should come as no surprise that when Japan puts on a festival it’s like no other show on earth. Our Mark Johnson reports on his recent trip to Japan which saw him head up to northern Japan between tours to see how they celebrate in Tohoku.

5th August, 2012

I’m wandering the streets of central Aomori (northern Tohoku), it’s 7pm and 32 degrees centigrade and I’m surrounded by a few thousand people lining the streets 5-10 people deep for as far as the eye can see in every direction. Amongst the chatter I can hear distant chants and the looming sound of taiko drums. Welcome to the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, one of the largest and best known festivals in Japan.

Being Japan there is no pushing and shoving and everyone is patiently waiting in anticipation of what it to follow. As the drums roll closer I soon catch a glimpse of the first brightly lit float in the distance edging around the corner. This marks the start of a three hour long parade of the most colourful exotic floats, costumes and festivity and one of the highlights of the festival season in the north.

The intricately decorated floats with imposing demonic faces each the width of the 4 lane street loom high above the spectators whilst the drums and chanting pound through the air creating an electric atmosphere. The floats keep coming and coming until eventually my camera battery dies from lining up too many pictures and taking too much video footage. The drumming is accompanied by flutes, chanting and trance like dancing and the crowd are actively encouraged to join in. The spectacular array of costumes change with every group and every now and then out of nowhere a random Elvis will appear to cheers and laughter.

Many of Japan’s best loved anime characters including Anpanman and Doraemon are represented as well as some of Japan’s biggest brands and sponsors of the event: Asahi, Kirin, 7-11, Panasonic, Hitachi and so on. This year many of the floats carry messages of goodwill to the people of Tohoku, a poignant message in the year following the tsunami and earthquake in 2011.

About Nebuta:

There are many theories surrounding the origin of the festival but the most likely explanation is that it was born out of the Tanabata festival (imported from China in around 755) celebrating the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi who according to the legend were separated by milky way. Tanabata meaning 7th night is celebrated in July or August depending on whether you are using the lunisolar or Gregorian calendar. The giant floats depict scenes to scare off the enemy, take up to a year to build and are decorated with lights and coloured paper. Costs run in to millions of yen and the whole community get involved. As always visitors from overseas are made especially welcome and are invited to join in with the fun. It is even possible to take part in the parade with prior arrangement.

The idea of enduring 30+ degree heat every day for some may seem like hell on earth but for those that are brave enough to visit Japan during the summer months; as well as consistent sunshine, one of the world’s most spectacular displays awaits. Most events are followed by equally impressive fireworks and feature an array of colourful street food ranging from barbequed squid on a stick to octopus dumplings and chocolate bananas. The festival spirit in Japan is something that really can’t be missed during a summer visit.

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The surrounding area hosts several festivals over a two week period (end of July through to beginning of August). As there is so much going on in the area it is quite easy to catch more than one festival during your stay. Hachinohe Sansha Taishai festival is said to be Japan’s biggest float festival and the Neputa festival in Hirosaki with it’s gigantic 22m high floats is equally impressive. Although most of the festival action is at night there are lots of events during the day too. There’s also plenty to see nearby including Hirosaki with it’s beautiful castle, Fujita Gardens (immaculate gardens with a stunning backdrop and tea house) and a walk through the samurai district.

Summer festivals are a great add-on to a group tour or self-guided trip or simply a reason in itself to visit northern Tohoku – one of the lesser visited, but none less impressive areas of Japan.

As we have said throughout this blog, festivals are a great cultural event to experience in Japan. There are thousands of festivals that take place throughout Japan all through the year, but the summer time definitely has more than its fair share.

I thank Mark for sharing this with us and I can’t wait until next year…..first though we have the autumn festivals not to mention the winter ones and then the spring festivals….Japan does love its festivals and so do we!

Learning to love Osaka

Our Mark from the UK office spends quite a bit of his time tour leading in Japan too. He recently headed out to Japan to lead a coulpe of tours along with doing a bit of volunteering in Tohoku and partying at the huge traditional summer festivals in the region. Mark also went to Osaka. Mark was famed within IJT for not being an Osaka fan, but he had admitted himself that possibly hadn’t given it much of a chance. Here’s the story of how Mark got on with Osaka.

I’ll be honest, I have been guilty of overlooking Japan’s third largest city for far too long. My previous experiences of visiting one of Japan’s most loved cities resulted in trying to like a place I found to be an underwhelming concrete jungle. I concede that I was missing out all the time and I was being arrogant and stubborn. Whenever I received a new enquiry asking about Osaka I would hesitantly say it is a “vibrant city” with character and is “down and dirty”…  Although I had visited about 5 times before, my first impressions were very wrong… here’s why:

Finally this summer I had the chance to really get beneath the surface and explore the city I had loved to hate. During leading Essential Honshu (another awesome IJT group tour) I made a concerted effort to “do Osaka” as best as I could in 48 hours…

Here are my top tips for a short stay (in no particular order):

1.    Dotonburi – the down and dirty drag. A great street vibe with flamboyant fashion, sprawling buildings of all shapes and sizes broken up by a network of canals, young businessmen being offered all sorts of escort services and some amazing street food. Here’s where you really get a feel for the city. Must see at night.

2.    Hep5 – not a lethal strain of disease but a cool ferris wheel perched on top of a building. Random! Think more fairground than London Eye.

3.    Okonomiyaki (mixed up savoury pancake cooked on a hot plate in front of you). Almost as good as Hiroshima style but having lived in Yamaguchi for three years I prefer watching the layers build up! Plenty of choice in Dotonburi and a must try culinary experience.

4.    Tacoyaki Octobus balls (stuffed doughy balls filled with small pieces of octopus and cooked on a hot plate topped with mayo, scattered with katsuobushi (moving fish flakes!) and herbs). Osaka wins hands down on taste when it comes to this unique Japanese favourite fast food. Available on every good street corner.

5.    Osaka Castle. I have seen a million castles in Japan (well not quite). Although it’s another remake atop the original stone foundations (impressive in itself – just how did they get the stones there?) the castle houses an excellent and very informative walk through history. By the time you leave you will have given up on who was trying to fight who and for what! A great place to check out the lay of the city from the top.

6.    Sky Building – Fantastic views from the top of this looming masterpiece of modern architecture. A walk across the Skywalk (when it’s not being hit by lightning as in my case) I’m sure would be awesome too.

7.    USJ (Universal Studios, Japan) OK, I also confess to being somewhat of a theme park luddite but USJ rocks and makes a welcome break from temples. You can’t fail to enjoy the Spiderman ride. Kids will really appreciate a day off from a hectic schedule of sightseeing.

8.    Osaka Aquarium – who doesn’t like watching one of the world’s few whale sharks in captivity in a massive tank? The building itself is a another great example of modern Osakan architecture.

9.    Shopping – not high on the list of priorities for everyone when travelling around Japan, but Osaka has so much choice and a sprawling network of underground shopping malls perfect for getting lost in.

10.    Love Hotels – just swipe your card and you’re in. Swipe your card on the way out and you’re a few thousand yen down and hopefully all the better for that moment of passion shared! Seedy … who me? Never tried it! ;)

11.    Summersonic Festival… I wish my colleagues would stop rambling on about how great Fuji Rock is! Summersonic is more your V-Festival than Glastonbury so more “glamping” than wallowing in mud but here you see some top acts and lots of Japanese bands for a reasonable price. DO not I repeat DO NOT turn up without a ticket!

A few final thoughts…

Osaka is all about the atmosphere, the quirky people (what other country in the world is divided by people that queue on the right side of the elevator everywhere else and on the left in one city?). Osaka = people with attitude, people with a purpose, people who tell it like it is and people who are not afraid. Don’t be intimidated – the friendly, laid back atmosphere is very welcoming and strangely appealing. Stand clear and let the Osakans get on with their business – after all they are also the fastest walkers in the world (apparently). Take the jabs and jibes from the obaasans (feisty older Osakan ladies) when queuing and forgive the small amount of litter (a welcome sight in Japan that prides itself on being uber clean), graffiti (who doesn’t like a good Banksy or two) and lack of coherent English signing.

You will enjoy if…

You’re fun loving, open minded. Don’t go expecting more historic sights and temples… there aren’t many of noteworthy importance since Osaka is a modern city largely rebuilt after the heavy bombing during WWII.

You’re a kid – it’s one of Japan’s most child friendly cities with so much to keep the kids entertained.

You’ll hate it if…

You’re stubborn, pedantic and fussy like me!

A cool way to arrive…
If you’ve made it all the way down to Kyushu and want an interesting trip back to Osaka then take the overnight ferry from Kitakyushu. The tatami flooring is cheapest but unless you want to cuddle up to the random stranger next to you then don’t go during busy holiday periods. Head up on deck when passing under the bridges that span across to Shikoku.

I think that means Mark is converted. It is not always easy to tell, but I think that this is generally a positive piece from Mark. In my own opinion, Osaka is a great city for getting to grips with down-to-earth Japan. The city has a lot of surprises and I think that most people will be pleasantly surprised by the Kansai capital. I love Shinsekai for example and I think different people will like different things about this place, but they will like it. Why not go and take a look.

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My favourite place in Japan – Nathaniel

One of our latest additions to the IJT crew is Nathaniel (Nate) Saito who is responsible for dealing with our friends from Australia and New Zealand. In the past, we have dealt direct with customers from the southern hemisphere, but we thought we would give them the opportunity to speak to someone more-a-less on their time zone. Nate is that man picking up calls to the Sydney number or dealing with emails to the IJT Australia email address and so I thought we should give him an opportunity to tell us about his favourite place in Japan.

Being asked to name my favorite place in Japan is always difficult. But then the other day it got a little bit easier. I was having dinner with my wife and a good friend of mine from Matsumoto.  Through dinner, we kept talking about all the great things to see/do/eat (and drink) in and around Matsumoto. To be fair my friend mostly talked about the great places to drink and I mainly talked about all the great places to eat. That evening I came to realize how much I missed Matsumoto and how much I can’t wait to take my wife there.

Matsumoto is famous for Matsumoto Castle (one of the finest original castle’s in Japan), for soba (buckwheat noodles), for the Saito Kinen Music Festival, and as a gateway to the Japan Alps.

But for me what makes Matsumoto such a great place is the food, the people and the location. Some of my favorite restaurants in Japan can all be found in Matsumoto. The great thing about these places is that they are all on side streets, small, and the amazing food is cooked and served to you by the owner. My favorite would have to be Agareya.

It is on the first floor of an old, beautiful building and only has two tables and a long counter. Its specialty is fresh vegetables, chicken, nabe and nihonshu which is the perfect combination. They serve more parts of the chicken than I knew existed. The first time I went, the waitress not only drew me a picture of a chicken but also used her only body to explain where each part was located!

Walking around Matsumoto is great, but to really appreciate what makes the area so special you need to get away from the downtown. Even if you don’t have a car you can easily visit a wasabi farm north of town (beautiful and delicious all at once) or get away to Kamikochi.

But if you have access to a car then you are in really in luck. The number of places to go hiking in the area is uncountable with each trail offering amazing views.

If you have the time and you’re looking for a bite to eat you can head into the mountains in Azumino. The drive itself with take your breath away but once in the mountains the variety of restaurants is quite surprising.

But don’t worry about your waistline because Matsumoto is great for hiking and running! For first timers to Japan, Matsumoto is great for a night or two. If you are on your second or third trip and aren’t afraid to drive in the mountains, then Matsumoto is a great place to spend a week or more!

There you have it -Matsumoto. The castle is impressive and the mountains stunning.  It’s good to know that Nate is an outdoor man…and that he loves his food. Although miles away from Tokyo in terms of ambiance, the alpine town is relatively easy to reach from Tokyo. A direct train from the beating heart of Shinjuku will get you to Matsumoto in under 2h30. You have got to love Japanese trains!


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