Monday, 13 October 2014

Excursions: Yanagawa Onigie Festival

Monday the 13th of October will be a holiday, so there's no school at GenkiJACS. As always, they compensated by arranging an excursion on the Sunday, with transport for free. As with our trip to Dazaifu, Ishibashi-san of FCC English seemed to be managing the excursion - I'm not sure of the exact logistics, and several people were involved in wrangling us all, so apologies for any inaccuracies there.

Our objective was Yanagawa, a nearby city where a shrine festival was taking place centred on Mihashira Shrine (三柱神社). A typhoon was due imminently, but we were not deterred despite plans to spend the entire day outdoors.

There were somewhere around thirty GenkiJACS students, and around ten Japanese volunteers who'd come to guide us, talk to us and generally look after us. Again, I'm not sure exactly what the arrangement is there - some might be FCC staff, others are English students at FCC or elsewhere, maybe some are just friends of Ishibashi-san. Anyway, all of them seemed really nice and friendly, and were a pleasure to talk to despite the obvious language issues.

After meeting at school, we wandered down to Tenjin Nishitetsu station and caught the train to Yanagawa. For those not in the know, trains in Japan are a bit complicated because (as far as I can tell) there are still rival companies with their own separate railway lines and stations. Getting between places is often trickier than you might think! The journey was about 40 minutes, giving us plenty of time to get to know each other a bit.

Just a building we passed early on.

Punt party

Oh, hello Oxford. Fancy meeting you here.

We arrived in Yanagawa, and were soon ushered onto a bus that reminded me strongly of my brief fraternal visit to Madagascar. Fold-down seats filled the aisle and we crammed everyone onto this rather short bus, which rapidly also became a rather hot bus. Thankfully I haven't worn anything heavier than a t-shirt since I arrived, and the journey wasn't too long. We were deposited by a riverbank.

I should have remembered this from the guidebooks, but Yanagawa is known for being a lot like Venice, in that it's completely riddled with canals.* The plan for the day turned out to be that we would have a punt ride for a couple of hours accompanied by lunch, and then head off to join in the festival. Onigiri, various unidentifiable boiled vegetables and so on were duly produced, as were large amounts of beer (which, it being 10.30am, I declined in favour of Aquarius**).

*However, I didn't see a single person trying to sell flick-knives and lighters from a rug laid on the pavement, so it wasn't all that much like my memories of Venice.

**Aquarius is another Pocari Sweat-alike sports drink that tastes of very little. I've actually grown weirdly attached to these and will miss them sadly when I get back to the UK.

Our lunch was rendered complicated by a few factors. One was that it was raining on and off, so that we regularly had to put umbrellas up and down - the hardy singing boatman just had a large hat. Pleasingly, these hats are called 傘 (kasa) in Japanese, which is the same word as umbrella.

Not surprisingly, there were also many bridges to navigate; these were universally low and narrow. The boatman (with some help from us) got us through these by hauling ropes on the ceiling, as it was impossible to pole through here. There were rather a lot of collisions associated with these bridges, though, especially when there were other boats coming through. None were particularly heavy, but it wasn't the sort of smooth, slalom-running image you tend to be given of gondoliering. At one bridge we ended up waiting for about five boats to pass us from various directions, at one point getting halfway through before an opponent shot through in the opposite direction and we were forced to pull back.

Honestly though, the biggest problem was room. Being Japanese, the idea was that you kneel at a low table in the centre of the boat - no sitting down here. This was possibly fine for people used to kneeling for long periods (like I said, two hours), although I believe even many Japanese people don't do it that regularly now. Alternatively, you could sit cross-legged or fold your legs like a lady on a horse. However, the table was very low, and it turned out that none of these methods were really designed for foreigners nearly 6' tall with no particular yoga skill. Sitting cross-legged I take up a huge amount of room sideways, which wasn't a great option, and couldn't really fold my knees low enough to get under the table anyway. I ended up kneeling for a bit and then adopting a kind of inelegant sprawl. With regular shifting I was just about able to stand and walk when we finally arrived, but it was looking pretty touch and go!

The food was decent, although I didn't eat a huge amount, and I really enjoyed chatting to an array of new people in various languages (he says, smugly). There was also an unexpected matchmaking attempt, which I dealt with with my usual grace and charm - which is to say, making a nondescript remark and then pouring some more drinks. Apparently I exude some pheromone which inspires this sort of thing?

We also discovered that Yanagawa is absolutely full of spiders, which hung in vast webs in the gardens all along the riverbank. This is not a trip for the arachnophobic.

For anyone bemused by discussion of feeling singled out for attention on the part of ethnic minority folks, I can heartily recommend taking a boat trip through Yanagawa with a large group of white people as a safe, friendly introduction to the notion. We were greeted enthusiastically by every passing boat, called to in English, waved at, and photographed exhaustively by boaters and passers by. Several people hung over the riverside to watch us, and at least one car actually stopped so the family inside could lean through the windows to see. There was some wry discussion on our boat as to whether a notice of a Gaijin Boat Parade had been placed in the paper, and so on and so forth. All of the attention was, of course, entirely friendly and well-intentioned, and having a certain amount of experience of this before I wasn't particularly bothered by it. However, after a while it does feel like an interruption to your social event having to constantly respond to this, and some people seemed a bit irked by the attention. Most other ethnic groups should be so lucky.

The Festival

秋季大祭「おにぎえ」 (Shuuki Taisai Onigie: Autumn "Onigie" Festival)

Apparently, the name derives from a word related to noisiness, clamour or being throng with people.

Anyway, we finally arrived and I disembarked cautiously. Some people were pretty vigorous about springing from the boat, and there had been quite a lot of standing up to take photos - rather alarming for me. I think the boats were rather wider and heftier than what I'm used to and more robust in surviving that kind of behaviour. After standing around for a while, we were led down the road to some park where various floats had been assembled. We were given colourful cloths, and shown various ways to attach them.

At this link here you can see videos of each of the floats - taken before the festival, so no crowds getting in the way, and no me either.

We then were shown around a bit, and I learned that "opportunity to participate in the festival" actually meant "you will pull this float across the city".

Some folks not quite wearing their happi coats, making preparations.
One of the many festival food stalls - we had no time to actually explore the festival. This seems like a bit of an oversight to be honest. Perhaps the boat trip could have been a tad briefer and given us time to look around?

Festival floats ready to be carried to the shrine.

The float we would pull was occupied by some local maiko (trainee geishas) and geishas. Various folks posed for pictures with them, and some were lent festival happi coats to wear. There was some very excited announging of everyone's home countries, with fist-pumping and shouting - I believe this kind of psyching up is more widespread in Japanese culture than I'm used to. Thankfully there was little waiting around and we soon set off hauling the float down the road.

I couldn't take many photos due to, well, pulling a float, but it turns out there are some videos up already. this one features us setting out from the field - I actually appear about 8.30, not yet attached to a rope and looking extremely portly for some reason. And here we are getting the float over a bridge.

Maiko, geishas and a small boy of unknown purpose waiting in their float. This is the one we pulled.

This probably isn't a weathercock. It's the top pole from one of the floats. Each one is undoubtedly riddled with significance that I'm ignorant of.

These three floats each feature people dressed as oni (evil spirits). They were doing some vague acting, with some background music, which eventually gave the impression that they were being conquered as they entered the shrine.

Search me.

This person has a red mask with a huge nose and a long wig. I'm sure they represent something important.

Now, small children dressing up is something we can all sympathise with.

These ladies almost certainly do not represent the healing powers of mushrooms, but that's as far as I'm prepared to go.

A portable shrine. This mini-shrine is being carried to the bigger shrine, which creates a kind of Russian doll situation. Actually most shrines have multiple sub-shrines within the site, some very small and others huge.

A man on a horse. Of that, we can be sure.

Ah, this is a bit more familiar. This is us lot lining up to carry the shrine.

Carrying in progress. There was a modest amount of people lining up along the streets, but most were narrow enough that there wasn't lots of room for a big crowd. However, it was a pretty long route so I don't imagine it was a problem.

It wasn't particularly tough due to the number of people involved; the locals hauling the float body had a tougher time of it than those of us on the ropes, as they also had to handle braking. And there was a lot of braking, because the whole convoy kept stopping and starting at various bottlenecks, from crossroads to bridges. The logistically-inclined part of me tut-tutted at various things, like the rather inefficient pulling of our amateur group and overall speed management, but it's all a bit of fun. The geishas kept up a constant traditional drum rhythm, pausing occasionally to shout "onigie" and other things; it was all a bit hypnotic. I felt quite sorry for them actually, maintaining the beat all that time.

Aside from some minor chafing on the hands, a great thirst, and rather tired legs, I came out okay. Negotiating narrow streets with occasional traffic was a problem, and there were a couple of minor collisions with scenery, plus one traffic mirror had a nasty accident. On the whole, though, we did surprisingly well and eventually made it to the shrine. Here the float was parked and everyone stood around for quite a long time while nothing in particular happened. I'm sure it made sense to somebody, but not anyone I talked to!

Shrine parking.

Not our float, but another maiko float. The middle maiko here seemed rather dissatisfied with proceedings throughout. At this point, though, they'd been carried all through town playing the drums, then hanging around at the shrine for about half an hour. I imagine their knees were pretty painful. Maybe she was just really keen to get down and stretch.

Little shrine being carried into big shrine.

Donor acknowledgements outside the shrine.

Super wedding bonus round

Around this time we were due to be picked up by coach and returned to the station for a 4pm return to Fukuoka. However, there was a sudden announcement that the coach would come later, due to the area being very crowded. Instead we would go and watch part of a wedding. River weddings are traditional in Yanagawa, apparently, with the bridal party processing off down the river in various boats, and as luck would have it our guides had just learned that one was happening right out of the temple where we stood. Much to the surprise of us Europeans, the family had said they were quite happy for a gang of random foreigners to come and gawk at them and take photos. So we stood along the riverbank. Obviously we were trying not to be intrusive, and so photo opportunities were limited, but it was a nice bonus opportunity.

The wedding party

Some keen-eyed readers may spot some discrepancies. This appears to be another couple who were marrying at the same time! One boat headed in each direction, and this was the one that came my way.

Our lot milling around at the wedding.

Unfortunately, the bus was a bit of a problem because I'd agreed to meet someone immediately on return to Fukuoka. Previous experience was that public transport was reliable and we'd be back on time, so the sudden delay was a bit of an upset to plans for various people. We scrambled to try and contact people, but at least in my case I didn't manage it, which was quite embarrassing.

I'm not entirely sure what the eventual plan was. Some people were going back to another shrine for a while, which according to rumour might have been another couple of hours. We convinced Ishibashi-san that we needed to get back, so us early birds were dropped off at the station before the others headed off. I eventually returned at 5pm, by which time my friend had understandably left. So that was a bit of an unfortunate ending to the day.


Linguistically it was an interesting day. I had to be regularly asked to slow down when speaking English, which was mildly embarrassing. Only a small proportion of the GenkiJACS students are native English speakers, though most have very good English; this tends to mean most people share a similar kind of second-language-speaker accent, especially as virtually all of those are European and the majority from Germanic-speaking countries. The native accents of Albion are a bit puzzling to most. I was also quizzed on whether I was half-German (no), a point which has come up several times recently. Apparently my German is good enough to more than once pass muster as "some kind of German dialect from some country other than mine" in brief conversation, which is deeply flattering. I have been making the effort to speak it a lot while I'm surrounded by German speakers, it's nice to have the chance.

I must admit I also like the air of mystery, since people are fairly often puzzled by my combination of unrecognisable name and uncertain linguistic background. Since everyone here speaks some English, my accent gets very weird in a mixed-language environment, and mostly we speak Japanese, there are limited clues as to where I come from until it inevitably comes up in a conversation exercise. Obviously, some people just ask.

The festival was fine, and the boat trip also interesting, although if I'd gone with just a couple of friends I suspect it would be much longer than I wanted to spent out of my trip. There's a half-hour version available, apparently. It seemed like it might be nice to have a stroll through the town, but equally I didn't see any particularly striking places. I'd want to do more research before deciding it was definitely worth a visit.

Some nice leaves. I just liked that one, and only one, was yellow.

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