The “Kobe Port Marine Fireworks Festival” is a great way to spend a hot summer night in Kobe. As many as 250,000 people will gather at Meriken Park and the surrounding areas to watch as 15,000 fireworks are launched from between Kobe Harborland and Port Island to dance in the night sky.
Image by https://kobehanabi.jp/
Let’s say you arrive in Hiroshima for the August 6th Peace Memorial Ceremony a day early. You don’t feel like sitting around the hotel room watching TV, but what feels right to do the night before attending the anniversary of the A-Bombing of this lovely little city. Anyway, it’s Sunday night, and all the most promising doors in town are locked.
What do you do?
Well, luckily, there’s “A Summer Evening of Prayer and Peace.” This seems to be a fairly new event. I’ve never been myself, but I will be eagerly checking it out this year. In the area called Ekikita or Futaba-no-sato, stretching east and west of the Shinkansen exit of Hiroshima Station, some of the city’s prettiest shrines and temples come together as points along a new walking tour of this part of town, often overlooked entirely by visitors.
From Fudo-in, a former Zen (now Shingon) temple that is Hiroshima City’s only designated National Treasure all the way around to Saizo-ji temple east of the Station, walkers will take in some this area’s best sights, at one point scrambling up through a series of torii gates to the gleaming Peace Pagoda atop Mt. Futaba, easily visible from the northern exit of the Station.
In fact, the documents I find seem to suggest two overlapping and (possibly?) competing routes. One begins and ends with the two temples mentioned above, and encompasses no fewer than sixteen stops along its route, including a Waterworks Museum that I think most people could safely miss. Another considerably shorter route whittles that number down to seven, from Nigitsu Shrine to Shoko-ji Temple.
Either one would be worth doing. The advantages of the longer route are obvious. More things to see, and a deeper exploration of this part of Hiroshima. And several of the stops along this route that don’t make the shorter cut really are worth seeing. On the other hand, it’s quite a hike, and getting all the way out to Fudo-in may be a chore in itself, before you’ve even begun walking back.
The shorter route has the distinct benefit of being the object of a free, guided tour. At 18:15 on the evening of August 5, “Omotenashi Guides” will meet interested walkers in front of Shinkansen exit of Hiroshima Station. These guides should be able to speak English, and will assist you in getting to and around the shrines and temples along the route. They may actually offer this service for the longer route as well. Ask if you’re interested. Again, this looks like a new venture and the documentation is slightly puzzling. All the more adventurous, then.
Another nice feature of the evening will be a local festival taking place in Shiribuka Park, along the shorter route, with kagura dance from 17:30. Farther along at Shoko-ji Temple, “Komuso” monks will perform Zen music on the traditional shakuhachi flute from 19:00. Along the shorter route, at least, candles and flowers are a main draw as well, both to beautify the shrines and temples and to appease the spirits of the war dead. It should be an interesting evening, and possibly a good chance to meet both locals and fellow newcomers as well. See you there!
Time: Sunday, August 5, from 18:15 (though the kagura in Shiribuka Park will begin earlier)
Cost: Free. Temples and Shrines all happily accept donations.
Place: Futaba-no-Sato, stretching east and west along the foot of Mt. Futaba, north of Hiroshima Station’s Shinkansen exit.
Access: English-assisted tour group meets at 18:15 at Hiroshima Station’s Shinkansen exit. For many travelers, this will be the simplest, and probably most enjoyable option. Otherwise, download one of the maps linked below and make a solo trip of it.
More Resources: An English language brochure with a rough map of the shorter route can be found here. A course map and site information for the longer route can be found here and here. It’s worth looking at all three of these.
Both of my daughters have attended and enjoyed this wonderful local film festival for their entire lives. If you’re living in Hiroshima, or are lucky enough to be passing through town between the August 23 and 27, you have to make time in your schedule to drop by, if only for an hour or so.
The Festival, launched in 1985 on a biennial basis, was shifted to even numbered years in 1990, which means that in those years, following the grim anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we enjoy cartoons. That sounds flippant, perhaps, but in fact Hiroshima was selected by Association International du Film d’Animation precisely because the city is an inspirational example of international solidarity and cooperation through the medium of art.
The face of the festival is a somewhat troubling mascot named Lappy, some sort of a sea lion or aardvark with an alcoholic’s nose. But my kids love him. Maybe you will too. What I love is the chance to see some genuinely outstanding animation brought to the festival by filmmakers from around the globe. There are children’s sessions, of course, with features running from cute to whimsical, but there are also some very challenging pieces shown here.
In 2018, the festival headlines short films from Yoji Kuri, at 90 years of age one of the truly Grand Old Men of Japanese animation. His darkly comic, often bizarre animated films helped set the tone for generations of animators to follow, both inside and outside of Japan.
However, lest you think this is another predominantly Japanese event masquerading under the “international” tag, this year’s festival also prominently features a selection of films from the Belgian Raoul Servais, another 90-year-old legend, and the Dutch Oscar winner Michael Dudok de Wit. There will also be an introduction to the animation of Estonia, and a “Best of the World” section. Jurors for this year’s competition come from Canada, Estonia, Russia and Switzerland, in addition to Japan.
Each of the first four days of the Festival features a competition, with 75 carefully chosen films to be screened in addition to the special exhibitions mentioned above. On Thursday, August 23, for instance, the first day’s competition begins at 17:30. After an opening ceremony, 19 films will be shown, ranging in length from “The Battle of Romano,” a two and a half minute Swiss entry, to the 13 minute “Strange Case” from Poland. Multiple jurored prizes will be awarded, the top two for a million yen each, along with a 100,000 yen “Audience Prize” for an animation selected by Festival viewers. The best part is that the competition segments are scheduled so that they never conflict with the Festival’s other offerings, allowing attendees to pick and choose from an array of options without having to forgo the main event.
I’ve only scraped the surface here. With loads of features to watch, and events ranging from lectures to a flip-book contest, from hands-on computer animation tutorials to the chance to bring a character to life through voice-acting, the Festival has something to occupy anyone who visits. The films are subtitled in Japanese and English, with opportunities to speak with their creators after the showings. Truly one of Hiroshima’s best ongoing events.
Time: 09:00 to roughly 21:30, August 23 to 27 (Thursday to Monday)
Cost: Children 12 and under are admitted free. Otherwise, ticket prices range from 600 yen for a single-program student ticket purchased in advance to 12,000 yen for an adult all-programs-all-days pass purchased at the door. Check the website’s “Ticket and Access” section for further information.
Place: JMS Aster Plaza, a five minute walk directly south of Peace Park.
Access: The red Number 24 bus from the local (south) side of Hiroshima Station runs approximately every fifteen minutes and makes a stop across the street from Aster Plaza, shortly after turning south from Peace Park. Any taxi driver in town will know Aster Plaza as well. Again, check the website for alternate routes and a map to the venue.
Website: The English language website is located here. And it’s extremely useful.
The entire world knows what happened in Hiroshima on the morning of August 6th, 1945. Today, the events that occurred on that date and in the following days are one of the main reasons that Hiroshima receives such a disproportionately high number (for a city its size) of visitors.
You should know, then, that the first two weeks of August are peak season for travel to Hiroshima, despite being the hottest days of the year. If you’re in Hiroshima on the 6th itself, it’s more than worth braving the heat and crowds to be part of a communal act of memory that speaks so directly to the heart of the the city’s modern history. Here’s a brief rundown of the main schedule for the Peace Memorial Ceremony and surrounding events.
Thousands attend the Peace Memorial Ceremony, which is still televised nationally and in some locations overseas. One section of seats is reserved for survivors, their guests, and dignitaries. Unreserved seating (some of it beneath canopies) opens to the public at 06:30, while those who don’t arrive early enough to claim a seat end up standing as close as they can manage. There are tables near the entrance to the Peace Memorial Museum where assistance is available in a range of languages. You can also pick up water and cold towels in this area.
At 08:00, the ceremony begins, focused on the famous cenotaph, which contains the known names of all whose deaths have been connected to the bombing. At present, the number stands at roughly a quarter million. At 8:15, the moment of the bomb’s detonation above the city, sirens sound and a minute of silence is observed. Despite the passage of years, the weighted suspension of those sixty seconds is still a palpable force.
The city’s mayor takes the podium before the cenotaph and delivers a speech calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and other words are offered depending on the year and attendance. After a release of doves and a song written for the day, the ceremony concludes at 09:00. Crowds remain in the area until well after dark, however, when the lantern floating is finished.
From 10:00 to 12:30, you have a chance to hear, firsthand, the stories of people who were present on the day of the bombing. The testimony is given in English, and speakers change from year to year. Some survivors have been doing this for decades. Others have only recently begun, feeling the rush of time and fearful that their experiences, often kept secret from all but closest family, will be entirely forgotten. Go if you have a chance. This generation is vanishing quickly, and their stories, awful as they are, bear hearing. The speakers will appear in the Cosmos Room of the Hiroshima International Conference Center (the west wing of the building housing the Peace Museum), and seats are unreserved and free of charge.
Many visitors will have seen photographs of the crowds of colorful paper lanterns, each bearing a handwritten message of peace, released on the surface of the Motoyasu River as it flows through Peace Park. In recent years, the event has taken on a slight carnival atmosphere, which troubles some older residents of Hiroshima. But there’s no turning back. From 18:00, people from around the world pack the park as the sun begins to set (in fact, this year the sun won’t set until shortly after 19:00) and linger until the last of some 10,000 lanterns is set on the water at around 22:00. There is a 600 yen charge to receive a length of colored paper, and people linger over them singly and in groups writing their wishes for peace and reconciliation. The lines to the water’s edge are long, snaking through the park, and it can take an hour to before you light your candle and hand the lantern to an attendant. People crowd the bridges and riverbanks as well, taking in the scene or seeking a perfect photograph.
Throughout the day, you’ll find other things going on in and around the park. Over the years, I’ve seen live music, political demonstrations from all points of the ideological spectrum (though none of these are allowed within the confines of the park itself), films projected on the sides of buildings and small circles of various countercultural groups making their own observances of August 6th.
A final word. I’ve heard visitors express concerns that they will be unwelcome, or a target of blame, however veiled. This simply isn’t true. Or rather, if there are individuals who bear animosity toward citizens of countries that fought Japan, such sentiments are drowned out utterly here in the calls for peace, harmony and a permanent cessation of war.
Plan on a long, hot and emotionally exhausting day. But one you’re unlikely to forget.
Hours: August 6th. Events mentioned above will run from 08:00 until the morning hours of August 7th.
For the Peace Memorial Ceremony, unreserved (and free) seating opens to the public at 06:30. The ceremony itself begins at 08:00 and will be finished at 09:00. Information desks with English speakers on hand.
A-Bomb Survivor Testimony, in English, will take place from 10:00 to 12:30 in the Cosmos Room of the Hiroshima International Conference Center, in the west wing of the building housing the Peace Memorial Museum.
The Lantern Floating Ceremony begins at 18:00 and runs until approximately 22:00. If you plan to float a lantern yourself, rather than simply jockeying for the best photo location, allow an hour to purchase and decorate your lantern and wait in line to reach the release area.
Price: All the events listed above are free with the exception of the Lantern Floating Ceremony, which is free to watch, but costs 600 yen if you wish to float a lantern.
Location: Peace Memorial Park, in downtown Hiroshima City.
Japanese cuisine is well known for its delicate flavors, its subtlety, its exquisite fragility. However, here in Aichi we do things a little differently. Nagoya-meshi is famed for its full-flavor, its richness, its piquancy.
When it comes to breakfast, Nagoya too differs noticeably from the the rest of the nation. While the rest of the nation is starting the day with miso soup, tamago gohan and natto, Nagoyans are heading out to their favorite cafes to enjoy ‘Morning’.
If a Nagoyan asks you ‘have you had a good morning?’, there is a good chance that they are asking you about your breakfast. ‘Morning Service’ (モーニングサービス) can be found in cafes right throughout Nagoya and its surrounding cities, and for the price of your cup of coffee, for no extra charge, you will receive a small – or sometimes not-so-small – breakfast of some kind to accompany it.
Local legend has it that the Morning Service has its origins in the city’s historical links to the cloth manufacture trade. Merchants in the industry had to be up early and required a quick meal before the morning markets opened. Some coffee shops in the 1950’s started giving its customers boiled eggs and peanuts with their coffee, and an institution was born.
For the most part these breakfasts consist of a slice of thick-cut, fluffy toast, dripping in butter and served with a boiled egg. However, as the custom has grown in popularity, cafes have begun to compete with each other to serve the biggest, best and most interesting Morning Service.
Morning Kisa Lyon, just south of Nagoya Station, knows which way its bread (or toast) is buttered and is open for Morning Service all day.
At Lyon you can choose from six different sets, and perhaps the most popular is the Ogura bean jam sandwich, which is filled to bursting with sweet red bean paste inside toasted bread; very much a Nagoyan institution in itself.
When Nagoyans think of Morning they probably think of Komeda. This coffee shop chain is Nagoya’s biggest, and is considered to be ‘the daddy’ of Morning, bringing the custom to its branches around the country.
Komeda offers the classic complimentary set with your drink: half a slice toast so thick that my grandmother would have called it ‘doorstep slice’, oozing with butter and a boiled egg. For an extra 110 JPY you can get a small bowl of sweet azuki bean paste or for 220 a small side salad.
While most cafes offering Morning Service are still very much of the Showa era from which the custom originated, Kako is a little bit different. This isn’t about ojisans sitting around, smoking themselves to death; these guys are motocross enthusiasts, mountain bikers. They’re cool.
But still, these cool kids don’t scrimp on the Morning Service. Until 10:30 there are five different sets to choose from, with prices ranging from 500 to 850 JPY. A big favorite is the fruit bowl, which is perfect in this summer heat.
Since opening in 1986, Kato Coffee shop has been a place for coffee lovers, and this specialty gourmet roaster is renowned nationwide for its online store stocked with beans directly sourced from all over the world.
Again, the most popular Morning Service here is the ogura toast set with sweet red beans, but there are others on offer, including German sausages. Whichever set you have, the Coffee Zenzai comes highly recommended, and it is said to be a favorite of Japan’s most famous writer Haruki Murakami when he visits.
Rather controversially Ichinomiya City, about 15 minutes from Nagoya on the JR line, also claims to be the birthplace of the Morning Set. Whether or not that is indeed the case, there can be no doubt that the city’s cafes have made it their own. All across Ichinomiya you can find cafes doing a variety of insanely good breakfast sets, quite often far superior in both quantity and inventiveness than you can find in Nagoya.
Each year there is a Morning ralley to celebrate the custom, with competitions and prizes for cafes and diners alike. Keep an eye on the Ichinomiya Morning Project website for further details.
By Mark Guthrie
Having a car gives you a great way of traveling around Japan. Although the country has a very good public transport system, this mainly serves the major cities. If you want the flexibility to travel further afield and see some of the country’s spectacular countryside, it’s better to do it by car if you can. It also means that you can travel with family or friends and not have to haul luggage around with you all day on trips. Japan has good road networks and relatively low road accident rates, so many foreigners and expats choose to drive when in the country.
If you’re living or staying in Kobe, here is some useful information on getting a car and driving around.
Renting a car is a great alternative to buying a car. You may want to consider renting if you may be only occasionally making journeys by car, or if you want to try out a few different cars before buying one. Advantages to renting a car are that it’s cheaper than buying one, there is less maintenance hassle and you can try out various different Japanese cars.
If you want to try renting a vehicle in Kobe, Lease Japan is a great option. They have a local office and a large selection of new and used cars including Toyotas, Hondas, Mazdas and a selection of European cars.
See website: http://leasejapan.com/en/
If you do decide to buy a car in Kobe, the next thing you need to decide is – new or used? There are plenty of used car dealers in and around Kobe, including Lease Japan (who offer a range of used cars to sell as well as to rent) and others such as Imperial Solutions. Used cars are usually good quality but, like with any country, you’ll need to do your own research and check everything is in order before signing away. The cost of used cars start at around 200,000 – 300,000 yen but can be millions of yen too, it all depends on the car and its quality.
If you want to buy a new car, it’s best to go directly to the dealerships. Information can be found on the main Japanese brands – Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Subaru. New cars will normally cost in excess of one million yen. You can often trade in your old car to reduce the price.
One thing to bear in mind is that there are generally two types of car in Japan – yellow number plate (smaller, slower and cheaper) and white number plate (faster, bigger, safer, more spacious).
When buying a car anywhere in Japan, either new or used, you will need to fill out lots of forms and have numerous documents ready (see below). It is common (even expected) to negotiate on the price and there are options to pay in installments.
Japanese Automobile Federation – http://www.jaf.or.jp/
For many foreigners working in Japan, Obon is a great time, as most companies close for a bit of a summer holiday; it gives us a chance to hit the beach, travel, or just hang out at home glued to the air conditioner. In fact, many Japanese see it as a similar way, as Obon is of Japan’s three major holidays (including Golden Week in April/May and the New Year celebrations). However, there is so much more to Obon than a few mid-summer days off.
Having been celebrated for more than 500 years, Obon can be translated to The Lantern Festival or The Festival of the Dead. Also simply called ‘Bon’ (the ‘O’ is an honorific to be used in politeness), this Japanese-Buddhist celebration has become a time when families return to hometowns to gather and honor their ancestors.
It is said that Japanese are born into Shintoism, but die in Buddhism*, thanks to the latter religion’s belief in the afterlife, and Obon is a time of year that those that have passed on return to the family home from the spiritual plane to spend time with their loved ones.
Obon celebrations take place in a variety of different times, with Eastern Japan’s centered around the Solar calendar on July 15; in Okinawa and much of Western China they celebrate Kyū Bon” (Old Bon) on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so differs each year; and the rest of the country around August 15, which is when the official celebrations take place.
Ways of celebrating Obon too differ depending on locality, but the three day festival almost always begins with the lighting of welcoming fires, or ‘mukaebi’. These may be small fires lit outside the home or a pathway of lanterns, lit to guide loved ones from the spirit world to the family alter.
In some areas it is felt that fire is not enough, and disposable chopsticks or matchsticks are inserted into eggplants or cucumbers to create cow- or horse-shaped figures for the spirits of their ancestors to ride on their journey.
Inside the homes fruit, rice, green tea, sake and special handmade sweets are offered at the family’s altar. This food shared with the dead upon ‘reunion’ is an attempt to treat the spirits as if they are still alive, and is called ‘ozen’ in Japanese.
Throughout the Obon holiday families will visit cemeteries to clean gravestones, and on the final day yet more fire ceremonies are attended, with the intention of guiding the ancestral spirits back to the spirit world. These events may differ from place to place, with lanterns often floated down rivers or out to sea, and Kyoto’s Daimonji festival perhaps most impressive.
Bon Odori (literally ‘lantern dancing’) festivals have their origins in the story of Maha Maudgalyayana, a disciple of the Buddha, who used his powers to look upon his deceased mother. Discovering she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts he asked Buddha how his mother could be released. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to monks who had just completed their summer retreat, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Maha did so, and upon seeing his mother’s release, danced for joy.
To this day this dancing is replicated in festivals the length and breadth of the country, where huge communities gather, often wearing yukata summer kimono and geta wooden sandals, and perform orchestrated – though relatively simple – dance routines.
The dances generally take place around a ‘yagura‘ raised platform from where performers sing and play traditional instruments. The dancers move in a large circle around the yagura, simultaneously stepping and clapping as they do so, the sound of wooden sandals clacking on the ground being perhaps one of the most evocative aspects of the festival.
The dances themselves vary greatly depending on location, and there are tutorials all over YouTube, but if you want to get involved, it’s best to just turn up, watch what everyone else is doing, and follow their lead.
By Mark Guthrie
*In modern times this phrase is altered to add that they are married into Christianity, a reflection on the recent popularity of Christian style weddings in Japan, but that is another topic for another time.
For so long the area of Osu has been considered Nagoya’s district of cool, but for those in the know, it is Endoji, a stone’s throw from Meieki, that is becoming the place where all the good stuff is going on.
On the face of it, Endoji looks like any old run down shopping arcade area, but scrape below the surface and you will find an abundance of interesting happenings. From upscale Italian restaurants to Japanese cuisine in traditional old buildings to handicrafts and hipster stores, Endoji really is where it is at… And ask anyone in the area, there is more to come.
Though Kabuki has something of a conservative image, the idea behind the Kabuki Cafe was to bring it back to its traditional routes as entertainment for the masses. Much like the Edo period Kabuki theaters, Kabuki Cafe is a raw, raucous affair. It is, as they say, “a rock and roll kabuki experience!”
With almost two hours of performances there are various acts including ‘shamisen’ displays, the crashing of ‘taiko’ drums and great battle scenes that fly out over the audience’s heads. There are even question and answer sessions where the stars explain their show and even perform off-the-cuff skits. Expect long queues on weekends.
There are a number of events throughout the year in Endoji, from the Festival de Paris to hip-hop music festivals with huge glittering mirror balls, to Bon Odori. But it’s the tanabata festival that really brings the community together.
At the end of July, the area’s shops, restaurants and community groups build huge papier-mache figures that hang from the arcade, and over five days thousands of people line the streets to get together to eat, drink and party below them. At the end of the festival winners are chosen and, while some are a little bit on the naff side, for the most part they are pretty striking. It’s not the biggest tanabata festival in town, but it’s perhaps the most interesting
There is not a lot that can be said about The Corner that has not been said a million times before, so forgive me if you’ve already heard it.
Just to the south of the Endoji Arcade, The Corner is a New York-style saloon and is perhaps Nagoya’s best known – and also just plain ‘the best’ – burger joint. With 100 per cent beef patties made to their own personal recipe, great international beers and an English menu, the The Corner has been a staple of the expat experience since god knows when, but you will find that it is the locals that line the street, sometimes queuing for hours at a time to get a table. But it’s worth it.
With a name like ‘The God of Sake’, you know it’s going to be good. Osake No Kami Sama is a standing bar with a majorly relaxed atmosphere, a knowledgeable master and a foreigner-friendly clientele of salarymen, local folks and nihonshu aficionados. It is a must-visit bar, just as long as you have the legs to stand while drinking.
They also have a great menu of Nagoya foods at unbeatable prices.
Knot kind of stands out amongst the bistro cafes and upmarket restaurants and hand-crafted leather shops which surround it, and it is the newest climbing gym on the Nagoya scene.
It’s a pretty small gym, but it has a nice variety of climbs, from very simple to some pretty dramatic overhangs, meaning it’s good for all ability levels. They are also foreigner friendly, with admission forms in English as well as Japanese, and everyone there is really supportive. They also have showers, meaning that you can scrub up before hitting a nearby restaurant or bar.
There are of course loads of ‘British’ bars around Nagoya of varying authenticity and charm. Now, as a Brit myself, 80’s Kitchen doesn’t necessarily get many points for authenticity in the way the bar is laid out, but the master is an unashamed Anglophile, and more than makes up with it in gusto.
Having spent years as a chef in both London and Scotland, the master makes some pretty cracking British food – I’m pretty sure it’s the only place in town that you can get haggis – and the tunes are always spot-on. Dire Straits, Queen, The Clash, The Beatles or anything you care to request, and the master will put it on, and no doubt sing along. There are only four seats inside and room for four more standing, plus a couple more outside, so it’s not somewhere to bring a big group, but for an intimate night with great British food (and that does exist) and great British banter (see the sign above for evidence of that) it can’t be beaten.
Okay, not many of you will think of a butcher as ‘street eats’, but bear with me. Maruko serves up some of the best kushi katsu, tonkatsu and croquettes you are likely to find in the city. They prepare and fry them in front of your eyes, so you know that they are fresh, and what’s more, they are staggeringly cheap comnsidering the quality of the meat.
Again, expect queues, but once you’ve got your order, peeled back the greasy paper and wandered down the street munching on it, you’ll understand why.
By Mark Guthrie
Images: by Mark Guthrie (Own Work)
Throughout July and August there are festivals all over Japan celebrating all manner of things – from the literal star-crossed lovers of Tanabata to the returning of deceased ancestors at Obon. However, for the citizens of Aomori Prefecture, August is a time to celebrate warriors of the past.
‘Nebuta’ festivals, in which giant floats of samurai warriors are dragged through towns, are held right across the prefecture, but by far the biggest is Aomori Nebuta Festival. Held in the prefecture’s capital, it is an all singing, all dancing, all drumming, all excitement festival that is so big that it is makes up one of the Three Great Tohoku Festivals (along with Akita’s Kanto Matsuri and Sendai’s Tanabata Matsuri).
As tends to happen with these ancient cultural events, there are a number of stories explaining the origins of the Aomori Nebuta Festival. The most likely is that it simply springs from Shinto tanabata rituals and has grown over the years. However while that explanation may have the largest grain of truth to it, it’s not quite so exciting.
A tale that perhaps does live up to the frisson of the festival, the one that is most widely circulated, is that the festival originated as a reflection of the flutes and ‘taiko’ drums used by the great warlord and future shogun, Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, to attract the attention of the enemy during a battle in Mutsu Province. Unfortunately, as it is unlikely that Tamuramaro actually conducted military expeditions in what is currently Aomori Prefecture, this explanation can probably be discounted.
Another explanation that has a little more gravity – and even more brutality – is connected to the etymology of the festival’s name, ‘nebuta’. Following his defeat at the hands of Sakanoue no Tamuramaro, rival warlord Aterui was beheaded and his followers were condemned to death, forced to dig large pits before being buried alive, with prisoners stamping the dirt down.
It is believed that the word Nebuta (written “根蓋” in kanji) comes from this grotesque act, as Aterui’s followers were returned to their roots, or to the world of the dead (根) with the dirt as a covering (蓋). According to this legend, the ground was stomped while carrying the float of Sakanoue no Tamuramaro on their shoulders, dancing as they did so.
While this tale is less than jolly, today the festival is joyously celebrated by around three million revelers between August 2 and 7 every year.
Over the year leading up to the festival, local teams or companies construct the 24 floats from painted washi paper over a wire frame and, they can be up to nine meters wide and five meters tall. The floats often depict gods or tales based on kabuki or mythical stories.
Each night of the festival (except on the last day, when the parade is held in the afternoon) the floats are paraded by the teams through the streets of Aomori. The floats are dragged, weaving too and fro, and spun for the excited crowd. Each float is joined by teams of taiko drummers and flautists, as well as hundreds of dancers, stamping and chanting “rassera, rassera” as they do so.
The dancers, called ‘haneto’ by locals, are not restricted to the teams who built the floats. In fact, anyone can join in. All it takes is the wearing of the haneto dress, which can be rented for approximately 4,000 JPY. For further information on how to take part, check out the website here.
By Mark Guthrie
Japan is a country rich with mythology and fascinating tales. The Kansai region, with its many popular tourist areas and shrines to gods and kings, is no different. From folklore heroes to dark creatures, there are many tales associated with Kansai or have their roots in the region. Some are familiar, others not so. Here is just a short selection of Kansai legends.
Situated next to the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto is the fabled Jisshu Shrine that has been attracting those wanting to change their romantic fortunes for centuries. The shrine is believed to be the home to several gods of love, including Okuninushi no Mikoto who is known as a god of love, wisdom and happiness.
Visitors flock to the shrine to pray to the gods – there are different deities depending on whether you wish to find new love, pray for a long-lasting and healthy relationship or even curse a love rival by nailing a straw doll to a tree! The shrine is perhaps most famous for its two ‘love stones’ – about 10 metres apart. According to legend, if you walk between them with your eyes closed, all of your love wishes will come true.
At Taisei Shogun-ji Yao in Osaka, you can see a statue of one of the most famous figures of early Japanese history, the semi-legendary Prince Shotoku. Historians debate over how much attributed to the prince is real but he is credited as one of the key figures in introducing Buddhism to the country.
Born in the 6th century BC to the 31st Emperor Yomei, Shotoku became involved in Japan’s early battles over whether to accept Buddhism. Fighting for the Soga clan accepting the religion against the Mononobe clan opposing it, legend has it that Shotoku prayed to Buddhist gods and promised to build a giant temple in victory. Instantly, the Mononobe clan leader was killed by an arrow and the Soga clan won. Prince Shotoku kept his word and the Asuka-dera Temple, Japan’s first Buddhist temple, was constructed.
Omononushi is the reason why Mount Miwa is considered the most sacred mountain in Japan. It is also the reason why the mountain was until recently considered too sacred to enter. Today, tourists can climb the mountain although it is believed that Omononushi still resides within it.
Omononushi is a Shinto god believed to have resided in Mt. Miwa around 1st century BC. According to legend, he revealed himself through an imperial princess and promised to bring an end to war and chaos if he were worshipped. There are many myths associated with Omononushi, including one that he takes the form of a white snake that lives within the Omiwa Shrine at the mountain.
There are many legends associated with waterfalls in Japan. One of the most endearing is that of Inunaki Falls in Osaka. The name Inunaki translates as ‘dog cries’ and the story goes that in ancient times a hunter at the falls was attacked by a giant snake and was saved by his dog, who fought the snake and died for its master. Today, the falls have become a final resting place for dogs and many small tombs can be found there.
Not all Kansai legends are associated with warriors and good spirits. Some have a darker side. One of these is Akurojin-no-hi, which translates as “the fire of the god of the bad road”. This is associated with folklore in Mie Prefecture. In bad weather, a ghostly flame will appear. Those who encounter it need to run because it has the power to make those it catches very ill. So if you’re ever in Mie, beware if the storm clouds start gathering!