Despite our proclivity for procrastination, The Professor and I made it out to see one of the three biggest and most famous float festivals in Japan yesterday: the Chichibu Yomatsuri, Night Festival. The activities of the two-day long festival culminate on the second day with the pulling of six giant floats through the town and up to the City Hall Plaza to be blessed by priests. These ancient floats—each representing a neighborhood in the mountain city of Chichibu—are decorated with wooden carvings, brightly lit paper lanterns, can weigh up to 20 tons each, and are about 6 meters tall. During the festivities these massive floats are pulled up a slope by small squadrons of people dressed in traditional garb, and are perfect examples of ancient Japanese history in action—and the event was top of our Things-To-See list.
First, I’d like to share a quick note as to how we made it to this festival because it’s such an Only-in-Japan example. We had waited until the day before to book our train tickets to this event—even though we knew that hundreds of thousands of Japanese attend. On Wednesday we went to the Ikebukuro station to purchase reserved tickets for the Red Arrow Limited Express train, but found that nothing was left for the return times after 7:30pm. Considering the best of the festival happens after 7pm and lasts until 10pm, we sadly determined we would have to miss this event. However, upon leaving the ticket office, I spied a tourist desk across the hall and decided to go over and ask them about the festival. The four people manning the tiny desk area of about 20 square-feet were very helpful. We mentioned to them how the trains were sold out, and one of the English-speaking girls offered to accompany us back across the hall to speak with the non-English-speaking train people regarding other options. She took us back to the ticket office, talked to the woman, and voila, a few minutes later we were told we could purchase express ticket seats leaving from a small town outside of Chichibu called Hannō. This option would require us to take a local train from Chichibu to Hannō, but we’d have seat reservations back into Tokyo from Hannō. We happily bought our tickets, then followed her back to the desk where she wrote out the train times and instructions. It was an amazing new height of customer service never to be seen in America.
And that is how we found ourselves the next day, Dec 3, in Chichibu. As we exited the train station and onto the street in front of it, we found ourselves immediately immersed in hoards of people and food stalls. Wandering around we heard Taiko drumming and followed the sounds to a nearby stage where we stood listening for a few minutes before deciding we could multitask and followed our noses to the food vendors. We then began our attempt to taste a bit of everything we could get our hands on, it seemed. Over the next six hours we shared dumplings, two types of noodle dishes, bowls of ramen, a grilled fish, chunks of grilled pork on a skewer, miso-flavored potatoes, a huge meat-filled bun, candied grapes, and copious amounts of beer and sweet wine. We were killing time as we waited for the beginning of the float pulling.
During the day the floats sit on a street behind the train station and those who are to later participate in the parade use that time to self-medicate or build up their strength reserves, I believe. I saw a lot of happy red faces in the crowd of soon-to-be float-pullers during the hours leading up to the beginning of the parade. As the darkness started to settle, the groups of men and women grabbed the heavy ropes and began pulling the floats down the street and over to the main street, and on up a slight slope to the main plaza area near City Hall in response to the expectant screams and cheering from the massive crowds. Accompanying the floats were the sounds of Taiko drumming, and the calling out of a sing-song chant that sounds like it’s a ‘you-can-do-it’ mantra coming from those astride the top of the floats as well as from others in the crowds on the ground, and lots of fire works
The beauty of this event—besides the spectacle of the many lights and the impressive size of the floats, the excitement of the crowd, and the seemingly endless sea of food options on little streets winding off in various directions—was the seemingly endless supply of fireworks. From about 7pm until 10pm, there were multiple fireworks going off in various groupings. It was not a nonstop three-hour show but there were more fireworks at this festival then I’ve ever seen at one sitting. It was beyond amazing. As far as I’m concerned, the fireworks made the whole trip worthwhile. And those fresh dumplings. And the noodle dishes and warm, sweet rice wine. And those potatoes were pretty darn great, too...
The only bad part of the evening was that the local train leaving Chichibu was late, getting us into Tokyo late—Japanese trains are rarely ever late—and it caused us to miss the final train to our neighborhood stop. Trains in Tokyo do not run past 12:30am (which is crazy as far as I am concerned). Missing our train meant we ended up walking the last mile or so home, which wasn’t really a bad thing since the night was crisp and clear, and we needed to work off a few thousand calories.