Koenji Street Festival

Hello everyone! So August has been RIDICULOUSLY hot and humid here in Tokyo. I’d like to give big props to mates of mine who came to visit early this month and managed to survive. However, I have to say that despite the heat, August is a fabulous month to be in Japan becuase of the Matsuri.

Festivals, or Matsuri, as they’re called in Japan, are just everywhere this month. Every tiny little temple seems to have an event. It’s the month of Obon, a Buddhist holiday in which it is said that dead ancestors come to visit their living relatives for a couple of days. Nice of them isn’t it? A slightly spooky holiday you might think, but the Japanese celebrate with big fireworks and dance festivals all over the country.

Last Saturday night Tamago and I went to the Koenji Awa Odori Dance festival. Koenji is only a few stops away from us on the Chuo local line. We really had no excuse not to go!

We got there about 7pm and it was super duper humid and really really crowded as expected. This is one of the three big summer festivals in Japan. The first thing we saw from the train platform was this:

People were dancing down the street to the sound of massive taiko drums as well as flutes and a kind of traditional string instrument (if anyone knows what that is feel free to tell me). [pretty sure it was a shamisen — Tamago]

We grabbed a couple of beers and fought our way through the crowds to wedge our towering gaijin selves in a prime viewing position.

The parade was organised into groups of performers from different parts of Tokyo. The dancers in the group go first. There are two different types of dance: a dance for men and a dance for women. It seemed that usually, the women who are dancing the womens’ Awa go first, followed by men and women dancing the mens’ Awa. There are also a lot of kids mixed in which is really cute! The dancers are followed by a walking band that plays their music, although to be honest most of the music is really similar.

The music itself has a foot-stomping rhythm that starts out slow and then gradually builds to a massively energetic crescendo where the dancers twirl their fans and lanterns ferociously in increasingly complicated steps and formations. I’m informed by reliable sources (*cough* Wikipedia *cough*) that the daytime performances are more sedate, but the nightime ones are more wild and are called Zomeki.

Above you can see a woman dressed in the traditional women’s Awa Odori costume. Beautiful right? The women dance in a very elegant manner, holding their arms above their heads the whole time. They also dance wearing the traditional Japanese shoes (geta) but on tip toes!

The men and women dancing the mens’ Awa dance wear short yukata (cotton robes) and dance crouched down with their knees sort of akimbo. They movement is much more free and the dancing is a bit more creative with different props and formations used.

It was so much fun to be a part of this atmosphere. Everyone was smiling and laughing and having a great time. Alcohol is freely available in Japan from every convenience store so people were drinking, but in true Japanese fashion only enough to be jolly.

The most delightful part of the night for Tamago and I were the expressions on the faces of the dancers. We spend a lot of time in our respective jobs hanging out with grumpy businessmen, and sometimes it can be hard to imagine my students or Tamago’s business colleagues having a genuine giggle at anything. Traditionally, Japanese culture doesn’t encourage the wearing of one’s heart on one’s sleeve. The performers in this festival were dripping with sweat, had been dancing with their arms over their heads for far too long and were wearing what I’m sure were not entirely comfortable costumes. But their faces were completely lit up. Pure joy was radiating from everyone and it was so much fun to see.

August Matsuris in Japan: highly recommended. However, I would recommend that you take a fan and a bottle of water. Also getting there early is a good idea. 7pm was getting pretty late to get a good viewing spot. Finally, the closest train station can get crowded so if it’s possible and you have comfy walking shoes it’s best to just grab a drink and hoof it to the next station on the line – much less stressful!

— Moon Tan

[For some reason, Moon Tan deleted the other photos from this post. I’m going to repost them because I went to all the trouble of photoshopping them. So there! –Tamago]

An evening in Odaiba

Yesterday was ‘Marine Day’ in Tokyo. Neither Tamago nor I know what this is about but it means that Tamago had a long weekend and I didn’t have to work Monday morning – yay! To celebrate, Tamago and I decided to go to Odaiba on Sunday night.

We took the Yamanote line out to Shimbashi and then changed to the Yurikamome which is something between a monorail and a train. The Yurkiamome ride gave us spectacular views of Odaiba and some impressive Tokyo skyrise.

When we got to Odaiba we headed for what passes as a ‘beach’ in Tokyo. Happily we stumbled across the annual Festival of Seaside Lights which happens every Marine Day long weekend! This year’s theme was in support of Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympics in 2020. I wish we could say that careful planning went into this but it was just beautiful serendipity at work.

Enjoy:

From the beach. That's the Rainbow Bridge.

 

Feeling jolly after a few drinks on the water's edge.

Yes. There is a replica of the Statue of Liberty at Odaiba. No. We don't know why.

They gave people lighters and everyone helped to light the candles. Even kids!

Magic

Odaiba Festival of Seaside Lights: highly recommended

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossom (sakura) season has been and gone for another year. There’s a reason it’s a thing. Those people you meet at parties who drawl “oh, you simply must go and see the cherry blossoms!” are irritating (Moon Tan and I may be part of this club now), but they’ve got a point.

In Adelaide, winter turns to summer with a few weeks of not-quite-so-cold-but-not-yet-boiling weather in between. But in Japan, spring is a real season, and the cherry blossoms announce its arrival.

During winter, it’s easy to forget how many people there are in Tokyo (answer: a lot). But as soon as the first sakura blooms arrive, it’s almost impossible to go anywhere or do anything. You’d think this would be annoying, and it is in a way, but it’s also really exciting. Everyone’s in a good mood, there’s picnics and drinking, and you don’t need to put on two jackets to leave the house.

We had an Australian guest staying with us — code name “Two Humps.” I took Two Humps to Meiji Park (as distinct from Meiji Shrine) because we heard that there might be some cherry blossoms there. Indeed there were — along with a sqillion people. We had to line up for about 45 minutes just to get into the park. Totally worth it, though.

Pictures!

(click for a larger version)

 

 

The cherry blossoms are really only at their best for one, maybe two weekends, so everyone really does drop what they’re doing to go and see them before they fall.

Thanks for visiting, Two Humps!

Sunday afternoon in Yoyogi Park

Is insane.

Imagine a music festival, the post-Christmas sales at David Jones, a Wiggles concert, the Clipsal and Australia Day at the beach all rolled into one and you will begin to approach a slight understanding of what Yoyogi Park on any given Sunday from April to October is like.

The crowd is just as diverse and it is just as insane.

Tamago and I unwittingly and delightfully stumbled across this phenomenon only recently. Up until now, it has been the dead of winter in Tokyo (see earlier blog post) so we haven’t been venturing out much. But at long last the weather has finally turned and we have had some days where the top has been in the double figures! We decided to take advantage of the sunshine and have a relaxing picnic in Yoyogi Park.

Or so we thought.

We emerged from the packed train and were immediately gobsmacked by the sheer amount of bodies in such a small space. Harajuku station was a zoo and Takeshita Street (the main drag) was ridiculous. We shoved our way through to Tamago’s favourite takoyaki shop (if you want to know what takoyaki is click here) and spent a fascinating 15 minutes standing in line watching the deft hands of the shop owners make hundreds of takoyaki. Of course when we started waiting in line, we only wanted four, but by the time we got to the front of the line we ordered 16. I’m sure there’s some kind of exponential maths equation that could explain this. Something like time spent waiting multiplied by original number desired to the power of the deliciousness of the smell.

 

Anyway, that mission completed, we clutched our takoyaki like a trophy and slowly made our way to Yoyogi Park. The first thing we saw was this:

Yes. Rock and rollers in the park. They didn’t seem terribly organised. There was no performance per se and no routine to speak of. They were just dressed up and boogieing down. Completely assured that they were contributing to the general happiness of everyone else. And they sure were.

We made our way into the park and found a patch of lawn to sit on. Being gaijin, we hadn’t got the memo about bringing a picnic blanket. But also being gaijin, that didn’t really phase us. We plonked down amongst hundreds of groups of people sitting on blankets, eating, playing games and just revelling in the sunshine.

Oh and:

Women in incredible outfits that I would only wear to job interviews were slipping off their stilettos and plonking themselves onto blue tarps. Young men were skipping with giant skipping ropes. Mothers and sons were playing badminton. It was awesome chaos.

Tamago with his takoyaki!

After we finished our takoyaki, Tamago and I took a stroll through the park and soaked up the atmosphere.

Space is at a hugely high premium in Tokyo so people tend to get together with recreational groups to practice in the park because it’s free! We saw girls doing baton twirling routines on a bike path, old men practicing kendo under the cherry blossoms and even a bunch of people dancing in a thick clump of trees in strange Rocky Horror-esque costumes and filming the whole proceedings.

Japan is weird. This is not news.

We wandered past some stunning flowerbeds:

Plus a couple of dog parks. We spent a good 20 minutes gawking at the dogs and deciding which one we would most like to dognap. The highlight for me was the man with two Saint Bernards. To state the obvious: these are freaking enormous dogs. Like, you need a small farm to have one in Australia. So the million dollar question is: WHERE IS HE KEEPING THE SAINT BERNARDS WHEN THEY’RE NOT AT THE PARK??

Possibly the coolest part of our afternoon in Yoyogi Park was this:

That’s right. He’s holding a giant bubble wand. Kids and adults alike were going nuts. As far as we could tell, the bubble man was not getting paid for this service. He was just in the park making bubbles for the masses. What a champ.

Christmas Day

Merry Belated Christmas everyone! We hope you all had a fabulous Christmas Day and that you all ate too much, got spoiled rotten with presents and enjoyed spending time with your family and friends.

Tamago and I had a very successful Christmas together here in Tokyo. A couple of weeks ago we got a tip-off from one of Tamago’s students that you could get Cooper’s beer at a certain mythical supermarket in Tokyo, so a few days before Christmas we went to investige Nissin World Delicatessen in Roppongi. This supermarket is located in the notorious foreigner district in Tokyo. In addition to the bars and clubs it’s famous for, Roppongi and the surrounding area is where a lot of foreign embassies are located (including Australia). Also, incidentally it’s a good spot to go for a gaijin keitai, if the Softbank near the train station has any left. The staff there speak English!

Anyway back to Nissin. As I was saying it’s located in the foreigner district. As soon as Tamago and I got inside we felt right at home. To begin with there were several Australian mums doing their Christmas food shopping with some very cute kids in tow. Considering how few foreigners we see in our daily lives, it was very tempting to give everyone I saw a huge hug. I managed to keep myself under control and amazingly we found everything we needed for our Christmas feast at this supermarket. We could even have had an Aussie steak if we’d wanted, but we decided to embrace Japan even at Christmas time and bought the biggest hunk of Waygu beef I have ever seen in my life for our Chrissy dinner. We also found TimTams, Lady Grey tea in bulk and Western food in general that is just hard to get hold of in average Japanese supermarkets. It was predominantly American brands but some Australian ones were nestled in there which was nice to see. We ventured up to the liquor store level and found Cooper’s beer, some cider for me and even some decent Australian wine.

Tamago and I had an excellent lazy Christmas Day. We got up late and opened presents from each other and from friends and family. Then we had a fabulous bacon and egg brunch cooked by Tamago. Just because we’re not at home being force fed by various branches of families doesn’t mean we didn’t eat big. After that we had to recover for a couple of hours and watched a DVD. We also spoke to our far away families via Skype which was very special and it made it feel like we were still a part of everyone’s day.

After this it was about 5:30 and we still weren’t hungry enough to do dinner justice so we went for a walk up to Shinjuku to check out the scene at KFC, it was pretty busy and there were KFC employees brandishing fried chicken in plastic bags trying desperately to get us to eat there but we resisted. I still kind of want to grab people by the shoulders here and explain to them that no self respecting Westerner would eat KFC on Christmas, but then I realise I’d have to mime the killing and eating of lambs to depict my perfect Christmas dinner and the urge fades.

After we’d worked up a bit of an appetite we trundled back home and cooked our dinner: Waygu steak! As Tamago said, it was the first piece of meat he’d had in Japan that actually required a knife and fork. It was excellent and well worth the walk in the cold.

Finished off the day with some Christmas themed Father Ted. A perfect Tokyo Christmas.

 

Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve Moon Tan and I went to have a look at the Christmas lights at Ebisu. There are about 8 or 9 different “illumination” spots scattered around Tokyo at Christmas time, and I’d received lots of recommendations from my students. Ebisu won out because it was the closest.

The lighting diplasy featured a massive Christmas tree flanked by smaller trees covered in lights. It was nice, and the place was swamped with Japanese teenagers in love or lust (Christmas is a romantic holiday over here, and all of the love hotels are reputedly booked out on Christmas eve. No room at the inn, indeed!).

The centrepiece of the whole display was a ghastly, hideous, but very expensive looking chandelier. There were seats arranged in a circle so that you could sit and watch the chandelier. It didn’t really do anything for us, unfortunately. On the other hand, I did learn that there’s a museum dedicated to Ebisu beer in the vicinity, so that might be worth a repeat visit.

After Ebisu, we headed over to nearby Shibuya to see what the yoof were doing. That place was going off. It seemed like every santa suit in Tokyo had found its way to the central intersection, and everyone wanted to be part of the Christmas cheer. There were santas on foot, santas on motorbikes and santas in taxis.

We went to the Starbucks that overlooks Shibuya’s main intersection (reputedly the busiest in the world, for those that didn’t know), and tried to order a coffee. Moon Tan wanted me to take a photo of the barrista’s shirt, which almost got us thrown out because apparently photography is forbidden at Starbucks.

We found a nice little Italian cafe that did a decent pasta, and it all felt very festive. A good Christmas eve was had by all.