A fiery festival at Nara

After two days of heavy snowfall, and more forecasted, Zoya and I decided it was a good weekend to leave Fukui behind. Wakusa Yamayaki, an annual fire festival, was my justification to return to one of my favourite cities in Japan: Nara.

We left Fukui’s stormy snow clouds and blanketed white fields by train and emerged from the many tunnels in sunny Shiga prefecture. After a quick change at Kyoto, and a forty-five minute ride we arrived at Nara JR Station. Although the sun was shining, the temperature was still hovering at 1’c due to the wind that sweeps across Nara prefecture. Nevertheless we hired bikes, donned many layers of clothing and headed towards the park.

Before going too far we came across an eccentric French cafe, named Monsieur Pepe’s. I can thoroughly recommend it for delicious beef bourguignon, vintage furniture and hilariously huge cutlery! Back in the park we biked around ponds, through forests, trying to avoid hitting deer or starting a Fenton-like stampede (watch this for a guaranteed laugh).

Kasuga Taisha Shrine

We came across the tori entrance to Kasuga Taisha shrine and walked up the lantern-lined path to the main courtyard. Female priestesses with wisteria-like headdresses were performing fortune-telling rituals, whilst male priests in traditional clothing were busy preparing for the evening’s festival. Hundreds of bronze and gold hanging lanterns decorated the orange-painted courtyard, each one with a different design. The most impressive sight were the thatched roofs of various buildings, intricately woven with cypress bark and replaced every 20 years so the traditional technique is passed to the next generation. This place is not to be missed.

This temple is part of the Wakusa Yamayaki festival as Shinto priests light a torch with sacred fire and carry it to the foot of the hill. There they light the dead grass that had been purposefully left to grow since the summer. Their our various explanations why this event took took place in the first place. One theory is the fire scared away wild boars in the surrounding forest. Another is that the fire marked the territory of competing temples in the park. Now, the festival is part of the New Year celebrations and an excuse for a fireworks display and a fun evening out for families. (Click here for more details about attending the festival.)

The real action begins

We arrived at the hill at sunset and watched as thousands of people gathered to watch the annual fireworks display and grass-lighting. Zoya was understandably worried about being just 100m from the burning expanse of grass, but it was a ninja-lookalike group of men waiting by the fire that scared me more! Dressed in all black and presumably wearing fire-protective balaclavas they looked more ominous than usual fire fighters!

Without warning, at 6.15, the fireworks started and everyone gazed up at the sky. That is, apart from a toddler who cried, ‘Kowai!’ (scary) for the first five minutes of it! Then the ninja-lookalikes spread out across the boundary and lit the tall grass with torches. Within 10 minutes the whole hill was ablaze and great bellows of orange smoke were rising into the sky. The main flames lasted less than twenty minutes and soon everyone started descending the hill and walking back to the city.

After warming up in a Chinese restaurant, we made our way back to Yazun Guest House and rested our weary legs. It had been an exhausted but exciting day.

 

Naked Men Festival, Mihama

A tip-off from another ALT about a little-known festival where half-naked men jump into the icy cold sea and have a tug of war was enough to persuade myself to check it out. It made for a more exciting than usual Sunday afternoon!

Mihama is a fishing town in the south of Fukui prefecture. It’s famous for the Rainbow Line, a scenic driving route where you can see the Five Lakes of Mikata and the local nuclear power station. Yet even in an out in the sticks place like this, there are some awesome festivals.

When my friend Teari and I turned up at the Lake Centre there was little activity going on apart from balloon-making and a tombola. Things started getting a bit more exciting when the mochi band started up, and we were of course called to the stage to hit the gooey rice dough with a metre-long hammer whilst everyone said “Yoshi” in time with our beat. I’m sure the film crew there also got shots of us foreigners getting in the spirit of the festival and we’ll probably be on local TV tomorrow!

After eating a local dish of kaki-age don (fried shrimp over rice), we’d noticed that most people had left the centre. An excited tourist officer must’ve seen us looking lost and came to help to us. She was so excited to have foreigners at this small family festival that she was literally jumping from foot-to-foot as she spoke to us! Yuko, her name was, told us that the part of the festival we’d been waiting for, the naked men of course, was five minutes down the road to an even smaller fishing village. So off we went.

Sure enough there was a bridge lined with wrapped-up onlookers and flags with colourful fish emblems on them. “Gaijin!”, said the man grilling ika squid and handed us a piece of the grilled white meat, no exceptions accepted. Seeing huge barrels of sake being sold in bamboo trunk mug, I decided that’d be the perfect tipple to wash down the salty taste of the squid. It seemed the locals had the same idea and were eagerly awaiting the bare-chested men with a bamboo mug in their gloved hands.

Yuko had told us that, the festival Hiruga Suichi Tsunahiki Matsuri (Underwater Tug-of-War) has been taking place for the last 360 years! According to legend, an evil sea serpent once entered Hiruga Lake from the Sea of Japan. The people drove the snake out by using a huge rope in the water. Now, the rope in the tug-of-war represents the snake and the aim is to rip the rope into two pieces. According to our new friend, the ritual also ensures that the Shinto gods give plentiful catches of fish in the coming year. This festival gives men the chance to act uber-macho and for women, the chance to eye the young men up, but that is just my theory.

The jolly locals started cheering as the men, old and young, appeared dressed only in white shorts and a coloured hachi machi head band. One even had a tattoo, which could’ve meant he had yakuza associations, but it didn’t cause a stir. Their torsos were red from pre-drinking and goose-pimpled from the just above zero temperature. Onlookers were urging them to jump into the water, some even offering to push them off! It seemed the bravest, or drunkest, men went first and everyone cheered as they jumped off the bridge. Profanities became universally understood in situations like these, and we easily got the gist of their “Itai Itai” as they swam downstream to the waiting rope.

For the next twenty minutes, the forty men pulled at the rope, tearing off straw that had been braiding around it. Their drunkenness must have been wavered by the cold as they did a good job at heaving at the rope, whilst a strong current pulled the rope downstream. Men on the banks also pulled at the rope and finally, the rope broke in two. The men who had pulled the longest part of the ‘snake’ had won and dragged the rope upstream in victorious spirits. The other team was still smiling as they clambered up the rocks and made their way back to a warm building, for presumably, more sake.

Within minutes everyone had dispersed to warmer places and all the excitement was over. We drove home happy to have seen such a bizarre event in a small town, where foreigners are such a novelty that they are still given free squid. Thanks Mihama town folk!

 

Settling in, school life and summer festivals

Once I found out the meaning of the kanji (Chinese characters) on my air con remote, my apartment has been was less like a sauna and a lot more liveable! I’ve had the TV on as much as possible trying to watch the Olympics and now know all the Japanese Olympiads! Whilst writing this I’m staying until 5am to watch the closing ceremony so I’m afraid I have 5 hours to rattle on things I’ve seen and done this week!

My new home: an apartment

Myself and Steven have our own apartments in a large three-storey apartment block. Other new JETs living here which we’ve been hanging out with are Niamh and Alice (both from Ireland) and Zoya (the only JET in Japan from Finland). Lots of other JETs live on their own so we are lucky we can just pop over to see each other. My school, Takefu Junior High School, is only a five minute walk from my apartment so I am really lucky in one sense, but on the other hand this means I have no excuse not to go in to school!

Once the temperature has dropped to a comfortable temperature, even if it’s still sticky, the other JETs and I have been exploring the area. We are surrounded by rice fields which give off a warm, sweet smell and remind me of South-east Asia. The sun goes down incredibly quickly here so there hasn’t been much time to enjoy the scenery. On the way back from our adventures around we often come across huge spiders, frogs and once this red headed centipede which can cause a very nasty bite! At night we can hear the chirping of what seems like hundreds of frogs having a pow-wow in the rice fields! Luckily I’m on the top floor so my apartment is free from unwanted visitors!

Takefu Junior High School

Being part of the school has been the most fascinating aspect of Japan so far, mainly because it is so different from British schools. For example the second time I went in to school I met the kyochosensei  (principle) and kyotosensei (vice-principle). It was here I realised that unlike in the UK when teachers escape for a month’s vacation, school doesn’t stop throughout the hot August vacation. Teachers are expected to continue preparing lessons and most importantly keep school clubs going. Each teacher is either coach or sub-coach for a school club, such as tennis, table tennis, volleyball, baseball, brass band or basketball. This means practising most days and even coming in on Saturdays to run sports practice! Junior high school students all have to participate in one club and it is very important to them. There are inter-prefecture school competitions and teams practice for months leading up to one. Whilst I was making a display board I watched in awe as the girls tennis squad did five laps around the school premises in army-like fashion shouting ‘Takefu! Hai, hai hai!’. And this was before the two hour practice in 30’C heat! Niamh, reported on how a girl had described coming second-place in a brass band contest as ‘motifying’!  These students train to win and anything less is a disappointment.

It is not just the school clubs which surprised me but how the students take responsibility and pride in their school. It is like their school is their second home and their teachers their second parents. On Thursday I got a taste of this when all the students and teachers came back for a half-day of school. The day started with ‘cleaning time’ where six students are assigned to clean a classroom. I introduced myself to the students in the English classroom and unsuccessfully tried to make conversation with them. The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) told me that the school motto was ‘Cleaning Quietly’! So for the next ten minutes the students took a white cloth and on their hands and knees wiped the floors, corridors and stairs cleaned of every speck of dust! All without a single word of complaint! It was verging on being spooky! Next, in a very ordered fashion the students made their way to have an assembly in the gigantic gymnasium. I had to introduce myself in front of the 500 students which I admit was nerve wracking but I think I did ok until, it came to the bowing. After I finished I bowed as a way to make it clear I wanted to get off the stage. Then, all of the students were told to stand up and they bowed back to me! This was a very humbling experience but I’m pretty sure I bowed at all the wrong times and got a few sniggers from the kids. To finish the assembly the students and teachers all heartily sang the school song whilst looking towards a large Japanese flag. A very different assembly from the ones I use to go to!

Most of my time at school has been spent in the staff room. All the forty-so members of staff have a desk of their own in a large staff room and every morning starts with a ten minute morning meeting. In one of these meetings I introduced myself in Japanese and then spent the morning making a seating plan so I could remember the teacher’s names and subjects. Most of the teachers spoke enough English for me to understand them but in future I will try to practice my Japanese on them. One saying I am yet to master is ‘Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu’ which means ‘Sorry for leaving before you’ and it is said when leaving for the day. In reply other teachers say ‘you must be very tired’, even if the teachers have worked a 12 hour day! I’m sure I’ll write more on the Japanese work ethic.

Mikuni fireworks 

Since arriving in Fukui I’ve been on two beach trips. Never in my life have I seen so many people on a beach! Each person marks their spot with a matt and that is there square meter for the day. Yesterday we went up the coast to Mikuni to watch their annual fireworks festival. We got their early enough to mark the ‘gaijin territory’ but I declined going in the murky looking water as people complained of a biting fish, jelly fish stings and then we saw a squid in the water! The day was full of surprises: I spotted a pod of dolphins, we got invited in to a Japanese woman’s house for watermelon and we got to see the Fukui-famous Tojimbo cliffs as well. The best part of the day was seeing lots of young couples dressed up in traditional Japanese dress buying festival food together. Girls with flowers in their hair, wearing yukata (summer kimonos) and geta (wooden flip flops). There was such a fantastic atmosphere as we watched the fireworks on the beach full of Japanese fireworks. Probably nothing on being at the Olympics but it was a good substitute!