Thursday, July 14, 2011

Japanese Summer Festivals: がいな祭り Gaina Festival in Yonago, Japan

Summer is one of the best times to be in Japan. Why is that Jason? Is it because of the sweltering hot weather and humidity? No. Is it all the short skirts? Well, yes that’s nice, but not what I’m getting at. Japan is great because of all the Summer festivals or “matsuri” in Japnese. Almost every town in Japan has their own festival with music, parades, and fireworks. Each one is unique. I live in Yonago, Tottori Prefecture. Yonago has the Gaina Festival がいな祭り . I want to share it with you here.

“Gaina Matsuri” simply means “Big Festival.” It is held for two days, always on a Saturday and Sunday. It’s usually held on the last weekend in July, but this year(2009), it was the first weekend of August. They city adjusts the dates sometimes, as not to coincide with other popular regional festivals, like Matsue city to the West or Tottori City to the East. The big events are held on the main street, directly in front of Yonago train station. On Saturday, during the day there is a parade of large dance groups. This modern Japanese festival dance is really fun to watch, complete with costumes and make-up. The dancers have little wooden noisemakers that they click during the performance. The music is really good and high energy. It’s kind of a mix of hip-hop and Japanese music. These dance groups are just regular local people, but they train for months prior to the festival. There are children’s groups, too. It’s a contest and the groups are very competitive. Each group has their own music and sound system on a truck. They play the music and dance, then stop and move forward, then dance again. This process is continued as they slowly make their way down the street. They might do the dance 20 times in the process, and all during the hottest part of the day. Finally, they reach the end of the street where a stage is set up with the judges. The groups are judged and the winner is announced.

The main event of the festival however, is on Saturday night; the mantou parade. What is a mantou? Well, imagine a bamboo pole, 20 or 30 feet high, with bamboo cross bars and between 30 and 50 paper lanterns or chochin hanging all over. Those are real paper and real candles inside. One person balances the whole thing. I don’t know how heavy they are, but their not light. The mantou are carried by teams of 20 people or more. The teams bring there mantou down the main street just as in the dance contest. Music is played and members of the team take turns balancing the mantou. The trick is to balance it in different styles; two hands, one hand, on the chest, on the hip, on the head and so on. The teams are sponsored by local companies and businesses and the lanterns bear the company logo. This is also a competition. Winning the mantou contest is a matter of local pride. Do they ever fall down? Yes, all the time. Some team members carry long poles and push them back up. It’s funny, in all the times I’ve watched the festival, I’ve never seen one catch fire. The lanterns are made from a special waxed paper and are fire resistant. As the teams, get closer to the stage, they will sometimes add bamboo segments one by one to the bottom of the pole and push the mantou higher into the air; two stories or more and then bring it back down. The teams are judged on originality and skill. It’s really amazing to watch. When I first came to Japan and saw it for the first time, I thought this festival must be nationally famous, but it’s not. It’s just one of thousands of festivals going on in Japan during the summer..

Sunday is relatively uneventful. In the day time, there is a huge wading pool set up in the middle of the street in front of the station, and families bring their kids to go swimming. The end of the festival is at night with a big fireworks display in Minotoyama Park.. My family and I don’t usually go to the park because we can see most of the fireworks from the street in front of our house. The Gaina festival is the biggest event of the year for Yonago.

One reason I love Japanese festivals is all the festival food. Vendors set up food stalls or yatai along the street and sell all kinds of Japanese fair. They have octopus balls(don’t laugh, they’re really cooked batter balls with a piece of octopus inside. They’re really good and a favorite at festivals.), fried noodles, grilled corn, grilled squid on a stick(not my favorite), beef or chicken kabobs, boneless pieces of fried chicken, candied apples, cotton candy, among others But my all time favorite and hit in Yonago are the dekoman cakes. “Deko” mean is short for picture and “man” is short for manju, a kind of traditional sweet. Other versions of this confection in Japan are called “ningyo-yaki” or doll cakes. They are very little pancake type cakes cooked into the shape of the seven lucky gods of Japan. Apparently dekoman are unique to this area. When I talk to people from other parts of Japan, they’ve never heard of them. They are soo good. I can eat a whole bag just by myself. I know they are popular because the dekoman lines are longer than for any other stall. If you come to festival in this area, check them out. In addition to food, there are stalls with games for kids. There’s the traditional Kingyo-tsukui or goldfish catching game. You’re given a paddle with a paper net and have to scoop up as many goldfish before the paper breaks. Another version, you have to scoop up little plastic balls from the water on a revolving track and the number of balls gets you a prize. There are also toy stalls with lottery type drawings for a small fee.

Summer festivals are a great way to enjoy and get to know Japan. I encourage you to visit one soon.

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