AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Nagano’

Matsuri da! (42): Okinawan whistling and Nagano drumming

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2007

THE SUMMER FESTIVAL SEASON IN JAPAN is nearing its peak. By the end of next week, the entire country will have been out on the street at some point dancing, drinking, and grinning from ear-to-ear. There will be so many distinctive events held from Hokkaido to Okinawa over the next fortnight there won’t be enough space to cover even a fraction of them, but I’ll try to get a handle on the ones worth special mention. Consider this a head start!

Most Japanese festivals originate from Shinto observances, but of course there are exceptions. Any old excuse is fine for the folks in this country to get together for a summertime party, and there are no finer examples of non-Shinto observances than two events coming up in the next week.

One is the Ginowan Hagoromo Festival, which will be held in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on the 11th and 12th. The area residents dress up in costumes and hold a parade recreating the period of a local folk tale. Legend has it that an angel descended from heaven to a pond in Ginowan to take a bath. A local farmer happened along while she was bathing, and, in a bit of quick thinking, hid her wings (hagoromo), preventing her return. One thing usually leads to another in a boy-meets-girl story, and that’s what happened in Ginowan, too. The farmer and the angel were married and had a son (and in some versions, a daughter as well). The couple didn’t live happily ever after, alas—she discovered her wings by accident one day and flew back to heaven.

Perhaps the lesson is that heavenly angels can be just as fickle as the earthbound species!

Some Japanese say the tale is a variation on Tsuru no Ongaeshi, known by every schoolchild. Here’s a quick summary of that legend.

The festival’s main attraction is its kachaashi contest, however. The kachaashi is a local folk dance anyone can perform. All you have to do is hold your arms up in the air and rotate your palms in time with the music. The rest of the choreography is left up to the dancer. The appeal of this particular dance is that even those people with two left feet can join in and enjoy themselves. It’s a different matter for talented dancers, of course, who turn the simple form into something both elegant and dynamic, spurred on by the hand clapping and interjections of traditional Okinawan whistling. (The sound pattern of their whistling is so distinctive it is immediately recognizable, but their technique is the same as the good old American method of making a circle with one finger and the thumb and sticking it in the mouth.)

The individual kachaasi competition usually features more than 100 participants, while about 30 teams vie for honors in the group competition.

Meanwhile, there’s going to be a big noise in Okaya, Nagano Prefecture, on the 13th and 14th during the 38th Okaya Taiko Festival. The program starts with groups of taiko drummers and dancers parading through the city on floats. When it gets dark, they gather at a specially built 60-meter-wide stage for performances of drumming and singing. The climax occurs when 300 drummers appear for a simultaneous performance. I’ve seen—and heard–taiko performances with as many as 10 drummers, and those were thunderous. I can’t imagine what it sounds like when 300 drummers pound away at once. Reports say the drums can be heard throughout the city, and I’m sure that’s no exaggeration. The homes and buildings in the town might well need special structural reinforcement.

The people in Okaya must really like whacking things with sticks to make music—they’ve also sponsored the World’s Marimba Competition for the past few years, where the musicians perform pieces ranging from traditional Japanese folk melodies to Debussy!

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Matsuri da! (21): Divine sake drinking

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 25, 2007

IT’S NOT A Japanese festival unless there’s plenty of sake flowing somewhere, and at some places they dispense with the rice planting stuff and just hold a festival with booze as the centerpiece. One of these is the Doburoku Festival in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, which starts today and will continue for a three-day period. Doburoku is a milky white, very sweet form of sake that has not been fully pressed from the fermenting rice solids, which are left floating inside.

They don’t leave anything to chance in Chino, so they got an early start on March 25—a month ago–when they began to make the doburoku at the brewery on the grounds of the Gozai’ishi Shinto shrine. They ritually purified the tools, cleaned the rice, and then gradually mixed the ingredients. Each year’s batch is looked after by men specially chosen for the task by the shrine during last year’s festival. They will stay at the shrine to brew the sake, checking the temperature and churning it as necessary until it’s ready for consumption on the 27th. But first things first—agents from the Suwa Tax Office will come to inspect the sake on the 25th. Even in Japan, they have to render unto Caesar.

It’s no easy task to look after the sake as it’s being brewed. Temperature control determines the quality of the batch, so they’ve been dipping in the thermometer morning and night. If the tank gets too hot, they have to add ice. It’s a painstaking process that requires work and dedication.

Yet the men supervising the process tell reporters it’s an honor to be chosen, because it’s an experience that comes only once in a lifetime, if at all. They say that the sake becomes almost like a living thing during the brewing process But it’s all for a worthy effort—they hope everyone enjoys their tipple and has a righteously good time.

They’ve brewed 1,600 liters of doburoku for the shrine parishioners to enjoy. Imagine what it might be like in the United States if the elders of the local Baptist church brewed up 1,600 liters of bourbon whiskey every year with the church’s blessing. Holy rolling in the gutter!

The festival has been designated an intangible cultural property of the city. That’s because after everyone finishes downing all that doburoku, they can’t feel a thing!

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