Most small communities throughout Japan have several festivals throughout the year to celebrate milestones along the way. The largest festivals are usually derivatives of the traditional harvest festival, while smaller festivals usually are tied to specific events. On Kume Island, the start of spring is marked by the arrival of fireflies.
Since Kumejima has its own species of firefly, they have become an important symbol of the island. The official character is even a Kumejima Firefly. Aside from Kume Island, fireflies are deeply rooted in Okinawan culture. Fireflies thrive in wetlands, and throughout the islands, they would mark the start of spring. If you’ve ever ridden the Okinawa monorail, you might notice songs played to distract nervous riders whenever the monorail turns. At the turn before Tsubogawa station, there is a song that echoes the pattern of lights the fireflies make as they fly.
Jin Jin Road
On Kume Island there is a road along the kanegusuku area full of shops, stores, and restaurants. Every year the association of owners shuts down the street to vehicles and host the Kume Island Firefly festival. The street is lined with paper lanterns, and restaurants set out tables and stalls to sell food. Children draw with chalk along the road, festival games like darts, fishing, and other games are out and a stage is set up for entertainment.
This year, the event started around 4:00 on April 27. There were a surprisingly large number of students, far more than I usually see around the other events on the island. The local school band started off the entertainment with popular show tunes and other music. Throughout the evening there were also live eisa performances, a signing group from Minamidaito called Borijinaru Musume, chugging competitions (soda for kids, beer for the adults), arm wrestling, and a small band to cap things off.
They also revealed the new official mascot for Kume Island, a cute Kume Island Firefly with a tsumugi patterned front.
While this festival doesn’t have the long history and ritual appeal of older festivals, it is a fun way to relax and enjoy a carnival atmosphere while providing local businesses a much-needed boost from local and tourist spending.
With its tall mountains and island geography, Japan has areas with heavy rain throughout the year and snowfall in the winter. Over the years, in many areas the snow has been changed from a hardship to benefit. The first place in Japan to create a snow festival is Tokamachi in Niigata prefecture.
Tokamachi (十日町市) City is located in eastern Niigata prefecture. The names of that area are interesting in that they refer to the days it used to take to travel to them by foot. When we went there from the Echigo-Yuzawa station we passed several towns with these similar names such as Muikamachi (six-day town). The area has many small towns and is primarily full of rice farms. Niigata is famous for the delicious rice that the large amounts of snowfall help create.
This year’s snow festival took place between February 15 and 17th with the main stage events taking place on the 16th at the local Tokamachi Elementary School sports ground. As with all the nearby farms, the fields were topped with over two and a half meters of snow. While the snow is difficult to live with, the locals have found some ingenious ways to not only make it work for them, but to enjoy it as well.
One of the major attractions of the Tokamachi snow festival are the snow sculptures. From small igloos to towering designs the sculptures turn all the excess snow into art. Local artists and teams transform piles of snow into everything from popular manga characters to full size replicas of buildings and ships. These are so popular that they have spread to other snow festivals such as the more famous one in Hokkaido.
Every year the main stage for the event is constructed of snow. This year the design was a towering ship and compass. The portals were lighted and throughout the main event fireworks were lighted around it. It was a surprisingly long and steep walk from the lower town to the event but as guests of the local town government we had great tickets that put me 5 people back from the stage and only three from the walkway.
Originally, the focus of the festival was to highlight the beautiful kimonos created in Niigata. The main event after the opening speeches is still a fashion show of kimonos which are especially striking against the pure white of the snowy stage. Following the show were performances by artists Junichi Inagaki, Becky, and LG Monkees. As well as appearances by the local school children singing along with Tetsu and Tomo who helped to MC.
Despite the cold weather and snow falling throughout much of the show, huge numbers of people came out to see the show and it was well worth a few cold toes. The entire event was well-organized with crowd control built into the area with snow dividers. While we weren’t allowed to take photos or video of the performers, we were allowed to take pictures of the stage and fashion show. We didn’t have time to see every sculpture but I did catch a few on our way out. I hope you enjoy a little look at a wonderful town and event. I’ll share more on the trip soon.
January 26th marked the beginning of the 2013 Kumejima Sakura Festival. Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) are an important symbol marking the change of seasons in Japan. As the weather begins to warm, cherry trees sprout beautiful flowers in a range of colors from white to red. Since Okinawa is so far south, cherry blossoms begin to arrive in January. They work their way north through April. During this time, people flock to areas with cherry trees to picnic, drive, and see the beautiful flowers and wildlife.You might have noticed the new header, a compilation of 3 shots taken of a Mejiro (Japanese white-eye) in cherry trees I caught the Friday before the festival along the Ara Forest path.
As part of the sakura season, many locals often have festivals to support tourism, create entertainment for locals, and to simply celebrate the beautiful surroundings. This year the Kumejima Sakura Festival took place on January 26th, a day of sun and generally great weather (I got sunburned in January. It was also a little windy.)
On Kume Island, the festival takes place at Daruma Mountain Park in the western/central part of the island. The festival was set up in a clearing surrounded by cherry trees. After an opening ceremony, new cherry trees were planted for the future. Arrayed around the clearing were many tents with local restaurants serving specialty foods. This year, the restaurants competed in a competition to see which one had brought the most popular item.
There were several live performances from local groups including Nankuru Sanshin and the “Super Bridal Band,” as well as karate demonstrations and other entertainment. The band I play with (Super Bridal Band started up a few years ago to play at my boss’s wedding, I joined a bit after moving here) just after the opening ceremony. There’s a compilation video below of our set.
After we finished our set, I quickly jumped over to the 89.7 FM Kumejima radio booth to do my weekly Haisai English! show live from the event. It was a lot of fun despite a few technical snafus from going on location.
Then, around 2:00 the Karaoke competition started up. I hadn’t planned on participating, but they wanted more people so I jumped in. For your entertainment, here is a short video of me singing “Shimanchu no Takara” by BEGIN.
There really was a lot of great food at the event. Many of the local restaurants had booths in the competition. Here’s a few of them:
There was also a tea garden run by local elementary students. Wearing Kumejima’s popular tsumugi (pongee silk) kimonos, they served green tea and small snacks under a cherry tree. Festival attendees could also try on a selection of the festive wear. There was so much food that I only tried a few of the selections, including great curry-basted yakitori (grilled chicken) and soup from Kiyose one of my favorite restaurants on the island.
All this month on my radio show Haisai English we’ve been playing Christmas music and talking about the differences and similarities between the American and Japanese holidays. The overall theme we’ve found is that in many ways, Christmas and New Years are flipped between the two countries.
Christmas in Japan
In Japan, like many holidays, Christmas is promoted by stores as a way to sell products. Just as the Japanese version of Valentines’ Day was essentially created by chocolatiers, PR firms promote the ideals that will best sell their products. No one does this better than, of all places, KFC. KFC’s campaigns are so effective that many Japanese assume everyone eats chicken on Christmas. They dress up their Col. Sanders statues from November and have special holiday sets. They even teamed up with All Nippon Airways to serve KFC on some flights.
When I talked to various guests about their views of Christmas in Japan, many talked about how its a time for couples to give presents and go on dates. While there are decorations, and each year they grow more popular, they are still vastly limited (compared to the all out decorations in America) and usually just at stores or restaurants. There is also little connection between religion and Christmas here. Often, Christmas parties are tied in with bonenkai, a popular part of the Japanese office and work culture.
Sound familiar? Maybe not for Christmas, but how about New Years? In America, New Years is often a time for friends and dates rather than family. People ring in the new year with noise and fun, just as Christmases in Japan tend to be more for friends than family affairs.
New Years in Japan and Okinawa are far more solemn events than American New Years. It is a time for families to join together, eat traditional foods, and visit shrines (the religious element). Instead of Christmas Turkey or ham, families in Japan eat special boxed meals prepared in advance called osechi. Instead of cookies, they often make mochi. Just as presents are given for Christmas in the West, Japanese children often receive gifts (of money) on New Year’s day from their relatives.
While the traditions are certainly separate between different cultures (they’re different even between families in the same cities), there are definite similarities that help lead to a better understanding of both holidays.
The industrial Fair, or sangyo matsuri in Japanese, is a fixture in the annual event calendar on my island. From the English translation you might think of cars, heavy manufacturing, and other well-known industry. In Japan, though, many products are made by very small local companies rather than in large factories. Even when big factories are necessary, there are often many small shops acting as suppliers. Taken to a further level, small rural communities without those major industries often have a vibrant industrial community supporting local needs. You might be surprised to learn about all the things going on around you in small local Japan.
Recently, our island had its yearly sangyo matsuri, and event designed to inform locals about the various products made on Kumejima and also to sell those products. One of the local kaizen (community) centers was taken over by scores of tables and activities for everyone to enjoy.
Since Kume Island is primarily agricultural, it is perhaps no wonder that there were plenty of produce tables outside the center with local farmers selling locally grown vegetables. Groups sold everything from daikon to benimo.
On the island, sugarcane is a primary export, so there were also booths highlighting different strains of cane and a booth that produced raw sugar from the sugarcane so that the whole process could be observed, and tasted! The workers used a machine to squeeze out cane juice then boiled it down (with certain chemicals to maintain the proper ph balance) to create the dark brown sugar cubes that are a popular snack item in Okinawa.
Kumejima is known for its prize-winning cattle. There were recently national awards and local presentations were made to acknowledge the hard work of local farmers and their livestock. There was also a small petting zoo set up for children to see local animals up close. There were various goats, small pigs, and even a couple of horses.
Japan is known for the many ways its people use the ocean. Kumejima is blessed with an abundance of natural oceanic beauty that helps support the local economy. Many products and services are built from the ocean and were also highlighted at the event. The most spectacular way this was done was through the creation of a shallow seawater pool. Children were given bags and then allowed to go out into the pool to try to catch fish and kuruma shrimp with their hands. The children had great fun trying to grasp the little fish, though some got over excited and ended up going for a swim.
Another spectacle thrown by the local fisherman was the filleting and auction of a whole tuna. The tuna was brought in and cut before a crowd of onlookers, then the sections of fish were auctioned off for sushi or steak. I ended up with a nice piece for 400yen (about 5 dollars) that I pan seared with garlic, salt, and pepper. It made a really delicious dinner!
There were also booths highlighting the various ways Kumejima uses Deep Sea Water. I bought shampoo made from the water at the Point Pur table. Nearby there were various bottled mineral waters that Kume Island companies process.
Perhaps the most obvious way both agricultural and fishery proponents highlighted their industries were through appealing to the many hungry visitors. There were many tables selling delicious foods, including fish tempura, shrimp skewers, soups, curry, bread, miso and more. With so many local and delicious ingredients to work with, there were plenty of options for great food. Local bakeries, omiyage makers, and onetime restaurants all showcased the great local ingredients. I ended up with tempura, gyoza, taiyaki, benimo tempura, and more! It was all too much to eat on my own but there was so much great stuff to try.
Culture and Creations
About half of the booths at the center revolved around things that are made in Kumejima, some of them as part of a long tradition. Two areas were interesting takes on reclamation art, where old buoys were turned into characters or planters. One of these groups included a game for students and was run by a local home for the impaired.
About a third of the center was devoted to Kumejima’s tsumugi (pongee silk weaving). The many patterns available were shown off and several items were available for sale. Throughout the day visitors were asked to dress up in full silk kimono to show off the great beauty of the classic fabric, while a local also demonstrated the method of string preparation.
Of course, there was also a bit of heavy industry thrown in too. A local solar panel company erected a giant solar panel set to encourage it adoption.
Throughout the day there was plenty besides shopping, fishing, and eating to keep people entertained. The local high school band played several sets, and local nursery school teachers created balloon art. The local radio station 86.9 FM Kumejima did a special live broadcast throughout the event (their studio is housed in the center), and yours truly stopped by for a bit to chat about the event.
Three athletes from the Okinawan professional soccer team also stopped by and had a soccer booth for the athletically inclined. Students got to challenge a player to a kick off against a target.
Even after more than a year living on this island of more than 8,000 people, I was surprised at all the different things people make and do here. With all the research I do for my weekly Haisai English radio show and The Ultimate English Guide, I was still floored by the variety and utter deliciousness of everything there.