There’s a bunch of holidays that hit in rapid succession early in the year in Japan, though they often go unnoticed under the shadow of the flashier festivals. Here’s a not-so-brief road map to the winter holidays and festivals we celebrated this year:
New Year’s Day is, of course, a huge deal here but unfortunately I have no idea what it’s like, as I’m always off exploring some other country for winter break. The first holiday that hits me when I return to Japan from abroad is Coming of Age Day, which marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone who’s turned 20 within the last year gets dressed up for fancy photo shoots in anticipation of all the drinking, voting, and smoking that they are now allowed to partake in. Considering I can probably count on one hand the number of people who qualify for this rite of passage in Noshiro, I rarely witness this spectacle first hand.
Instead of reveling in the glory of being 20 (a distant memory for me), I spent the day honoring the deliciousness of unagi. A friend in Tokyo took us to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in eel, complete with front row seats where you can watch the chef carry out the following process with alarming speed and precision:
Step 1: Place live squirming eel on chopping block
Step 2: Deftly drive metal spike through brain in one stroke
Step 3: Split eel down the middle, removing the internal organs and spine with a few subtle flicks of the wrist
For me, this scene resulted in a complex emotional landscape; my reactions morphed from horror to fascination to scientific detachment as I witnessed the raw ingredients behind the counter go from eel to meal over and over again.
Noting that innards were on the menu, it seemed a shame not to give them a go (they’re certainly not going to get any fresher), so we chucked our hat into the ring and tried a few. I’m certainly no stranger to organs on the table… I’ve gamely eaten my share since moving to Japan, including chicken hearts, raw horse liver, and intestines from anonymous sources. And while I don’t want to be “innardsist” by declaring all offal as, well, awful, I am definitely seeing a clear pattern emerge with repeated culinary experimentation.
A few weeks after this squirmy encounter came Setsubun. This holiday is supposed to be the day before spring, but I don’t really get how this works, as it’s on February 3rd, and still damn cold. Maybe it’s a lunar calendar thing. While you don’t get the day off for Setsubun, you do get the opportunity to toss toasted soybeans from the front door of your house while yelling “Demons out, luck in!” while wearing a kicky paper demon mask. I made sure to throw my beans this year right when Chris was leaving the house… just to cover all my bases.
Inhabitants of western Japan also traditionally celebrate Setsubun by eating a huge uncut sushi roll in one go that’s only slightly smaller than your forearm. I live in eastern Japan, but thanks to the glory of capitalism, conbinis all over the country have taken to selling these seasonal rolls, and now you can find them in Tohoku as well. Chris and I gamely shared one of these humongous rolls between the two of us while facing this year’s lucky direction (N by NE). Only afterward did we learn that you’re supposed to remain silent while you eat it, and eat the whole roll yourself. Double fail on our part. Perhaps two wrongs make a right, and we’ll have a lucky year anyway…
I was still pondering the ramifications of my festive faux pax when Foundation Day rolled around. When I asked my colleagues how they usually celebrate the foundation of their country, I failed to get a satisfying answer. Most people just shrugged and went back to whatever they were doing. This ambivalence was kind of a mystery to someone who’s used to celebrating her own country’s Independence Day with fireworks and BBQs.
A bit of wikipedia research revealed that the low key nature of Foundation Day might have something to do with the history of nationalism in Japan. This holiday (formerly known as Empire Day) used to be all about uniting the country by paying homage to the emperor, and used to be a really big deal. However after WWII, nationalism became a bit of a touchy subject, and this particular celebration was abolished. The current incarnation of this holiday was only reinstated in 1966, and was re-branded to avoid evoking the nationalistic sentiments that are associated with pre-WWII Japan.
In addition to being a bit awkward thematically, Foundation Day is also one of those uncooperative holidays that refuses to stay put on either a Friday or a Monday. In fact, this year, it landed smack dab in the middle of the week. What to do mid-winter with a free Wednesday at your disposal? We tried to make a go of it by hiking through Juniko despite the bleak weather. However after driving for 45 minutes to get to this set of small lakes, we discovered that the park was closed for maintenance. As a fallback plan, we explored the hills nearby, where we discovered a waterfall shrine and a plethora of monkeys. All things considered, I guess monkeys and shrines are as good a way to spend Japan’s Independence Day as any.
Mid-February, of course, is the most exciting wintery time in Tohoku, when snow festivals abound. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we’ve had very little snow this year, which has detracted from the ambiance a bit. Additionally, winter festivals in Akita are pesky in that they all seem to fall on the same day, making it difficult to see everything unless you live in the prefecture for multiple years. With a few exceptions, we were finally able to see the remaining festivals that had, up until this point, fallen through the cracks. This year’s festival bonanza included:
- Hiburi fire swinging festival in Kakunodate, Feb. 13-14
Hiburi’s been a surprisingly elusive festival for the last few years. Kakunodate is several hours away from us by car, and the festival is often inconveniently held mid-week. Last year, we even contemplated driving down on a Wednesday for the festivities, but a snow storm and slippery roads made this trek next to impossible. This year, several events aligned nicely which permitted us to attend. The festival fell on a weekend, and, thanks to a mild winter, ice and snow were not an issue this year.
The festival is pretty straightforward: anyone wanting to work out their pyromania issues can light a bundle of hay (ok, rice fibers) on fire and swing it around until it explodes in a shower of embers. The fire-swinging was mesmerizing, and on occasion, comic, as old men and little boys almost lit each other’s hair on fire. While it all looked like good fun, I held back for some reason. Maybe the lack of snow and the ample drizzle dampened my ambitions a tad. Or perhaps I felt constrained by the work clothes I was still wearing. Even though this was my last opportunity to see such a festival, for some reason I didn’t seize the moment and participate, a small regret which I carried home with me that night.
- Amekko Candy Market in Odate, mid Feb
The gimmick here is that if you eat some candy from the market (which apparently grows on trees), then you will remain healthy for the rest of the year. As someone who consumed a piece of said candy who is now sitting sick in bed, I can assure you that this was NOT a sufficient prophylactic for the common cold.
From the promotional materials for this festival, I was expecting some kind of tangential activities, like parades or dancing children. However, the little bit of Amekko that I saw was kind of a let down as a) it was just a bunch of people selling stuff and b) the weather was miserable (although, to be fair, the word for “candy” in Japanese is a homophone for “rain”, so I can hardly complain if I got both). But I didn’t mind too much because I was with a bunch of fantastic people, on our way to an even MORE disappointing festival. Which leads us to…
- The Not-So-Frozen Waterfall Non-Existent Festival, Part II: When Chlorofluorocarbons Attack, third Sunday in Feb. (in theory)
Last year by some fluke, I had heard about a frozen waterfall just across the border in Aomori. I somehow convinced all my friends that it was a good idea to squeeze into a car and plunge into the snowy depths of the countryside looking for this mythic specimen.
Not only did we find it, but we happened to arrive on the one day of the year when the shrine members strap on their drums, dust off their flutes, and honor the god of the waterfall. We were treated to a beautiful little procession which snaked its way up an icy path to a shrine cradled against the rock behind the waterfall. The waterfall, which had become a column of ice, was awesome to behold. Despite my burgeoning jaded expat exterior, I had to admit that the day had a kind of magical air about it. I made a mental note to bring more people back to experience it themselves the following year.
I followed through and returned with new friends in tow but nature, alas, did not hold up her end of the bargain. Due to an abnormally warm winter, the waterfall this year was nowhere close to frozen. And to add insult to injury, there was no processional to speak of this year.
Our disappointment was palpable, but we made the best of it by taking silly pictures that would immortalize our sadness and act as a warning for generations to come: global warming means no more fun winter festivals, kids.
- Tazawako Alpine Festival 3rd weekend in Feb. (21,22)
Unlike the “Fire Swinging Festival” or the “Candy Market Festival”, you never quite know what you’re going to get with festivals named after places. As such, the Tazawako Festival has never been high on my list. It’s just too far away and doesn’t spark the imagination. However, with this being Our Last Winter in Japan, with little else to to, we made the long trek through the snowy mountains to Tazawako to see what all the fuss was about.To my delight, this proved to be one of Akita’s smorgasbord festivals, and featured scaled-down versions of events I’d been to in the past, including hot air balloons, snow sculptures, and holy-cow, Hiburi fire swinging.
If I’d ever been presented with a bona fide second chance, this was it. Conditions were perfect: the air was icy. Snow was delicately floating down. So despite my continued misgivings about lighting my hair on fire (it would grow back, yes?), I stepped up to give fire swinging a go. After watching fire-swingers in Kakunodate and hearing their plaintive cries (「おも〜い！あっちぇ！」), I was a little concerned about trapping myself in a fiery inferno of my own making. But once I donned the fire-resistant happi and stepped out into the snow-covered clearing, all my worries dropped away. Nothing was too heavy or too hot. At the center of my own universe of fire, it was captivating. I was shocked at how quickly it was over, and giddy from the experience for hours. Swinging fire was without a doubt the highlight of this year’s winter festival season. Learn from my mistakes: given the chance, don’t hesitate to play with fire.
- Garou Waterfall Light-up in Fujisato, 3rd week of February
I’m kind of at a loss for words for this one. Not a festival per se, the waterfall light-up in the tiny town of Fujisato would struggle to qualify as an event. As explained in the local newspaper, the Garou waterfall is bathed in an eerie blue light for a few days, and then, in a shocking turn of events, the light is changed to a festive green for the final two days of the light-up. There was also a rather nice snow dome nearby, which was made, if the adjacent obnoxiously green sign is to be believed, by monkeys. Such is small town life in the winter, I suppose. Lest you think me ridiculous for driving half an hour to view this modern miracle, I’d like to inform you that there was also a photographer with a tripod from Akita City in attendance, which means he drove at least 3 times as far as me to capture this moment on film.
After the festival madness comes a big fat girlie fiesta called Hina Matsuri, on March 3. This is essentially an excuse to set up untouchably expensive displays of dolls to honor your young daughters. People in other parts of Japan float dolls made of straw out to sea to get rid of bad spirits. In Tohoku, however, the tradition seems to involve grabbing the nearest female foreigner, slapping a kimono on her, and making her husband serve you green tea.
And then, of course, the ultimate sign that spring is right around the corner: High School Graduation. For my school, this falls without fail on March 3rd every year, regardless of the day of the week.
The morning of graduation we all huddled resolutely in our chairs, shivering in a cold and unforgiving gym that was still icy despite the industrial strength heaters scattered about. After long and lofty speeches by the Principal, the Mayor, the head of the Board of Education, the PTA President, an underclassman, and a graduating student, there wasn’t much left to say. The ceremony closed with my former students filing of the gym, looking either somber, bored, or bewildered at their new status as high school graduates. You can see for yourself below: for such a happy occasion, there seemed to be a lot of crying going on. Perhaps these are the students who weren’t hi-fived by the basketball coach? You’ll have to watch closely and draw your own conclusions: