Kawagoe: a day of street feasts, tranquil temples and painfully helpful locals

Another week full of linguistic advancement (much more in terms of my students than myself, I must admit…), capped off with a spectacular day of noise, chaos and splendour at the Kawagoe festival yesterday. I’m currently snuggling down into my new futon and duvet (ordered a second set for extra cushioning!) with a cup of Yorkshire Brew, which I have been saving for blog-writing sessions as my supply is running low and am having to ration them – although that gem of a girl Leanne Todd has just told me she’ll pop some in the post (LOVEYOULOVEYOUTHANKYOU). And so, to business.

Kawagoe. Alaina pulled a blinder by discovering that this local(ish) town in Saitama was celebrating its annual festival this weekend. Boasting a rich history and featuring many Edo period warehouse buildings, Kawagoe had already been on our list, so with sun forecast and nothing else on the agenda, we headed north bright and early on Saturday morning. Two also became four on this weekend’s excursion; I invited Japanese class buddies Yasuko and Kako along too. Yasuko is half Nicaraguan (I KNOW – what are the chances!?!) and Kako is studying English and Spanish, so communication took the form of an excellently dizzying code-switching mish-mash of our three languages. Bloody love multilingualism.

Food. Everywhere. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have never seen such a bewildering array of edible offerings in one place in all my life. Within minutes, we came upon a network of cobbled streets containing stalls sizzling, dripping and heaving with foods of every description. Without being able to provide an exhaustive list, I walked past squid speared on skewers or enveloped in batter balls, endless griddles of yaki soba accompanied by ginger pickles and edamame, kebabs made with myriad meats, giant parcels of bean sprouts, noodles, cabbage, mystery meat and unnameable sauces, topped with fried eggs and/or squid shavings, clusters of glistening fried chicken served in carnival cups, sweet rice balls filled with bean paste known as mochi, elaborately decorated bananas dipped in chocolate, candied apples, cherries and plums wrapped in gleaming cases of hard-boiled stickiness, dehydrated sugared aubergines and helter-skelters of sweet potato ice cream (yes, really – and it tastes incredible!) I also went for a chocolate banana and a generous pile of yaki soba finished off with pickled ginger. NOM.

Kita-in Temple. As I have come to expect in Japan, however crazy and bustling your surroundings may be one minute, an oasis of tranquillity is never far away. Having satisfied our appetites in the crowded street market, we made our way over to Kita-in, the head temple of the Tendai Sect of Buddhism. The main temple was spectacular, featuring an impressive golden alter and many back rooms filled with relics from the Edo and Shogun eras, century-old artworks and a sublime zen garden. I remained on the veranda of the latter for quite some time, marvelling at the ability of zen gardeners to balance all elements of their creation, from the placement and layering of foliage and rockeries to the sonic harmony of the rustling trees, trickling water and birdsong.

The temple also contains a courtyard of 540 Rakan statues, each of which represents one of the Buddha’s disciples and displays a distinct human emotion. After an extensive game of Guess The Emotion, we went in search of our Chinese zodiac symbols, which the guard told us would be hidden somewhere amongst the statues. If we found ours, we had to rub the appropriate Rakan’s head for good luck. I’m happy to report that I successfully located the snake, and am therefore looking forward to much good fortune – marvellous news.

I must just pause here to give special mention to the simultaneously heart-warming and excruciating experience of stopping a traffic warden for directions after leaving the temple, as I think it perfectly illustrates the extent to which the Japanese feel compelled to provide assistance. The poor bloke patently had no idea where we wanted to go, but did that stop him trying to be helpful? Did it heck. He made many uncertain sounds and a few vague suggestions, before rummaging in his pockets for a map, causing him to drop all the papers he was carrying onto the road, at which point he called over his colleague, who then also started fumbling around for a different map while the first warden bent down to gather his possessions. We offered repeatedly to help them pick everything up and assured them desperately that there was no need to worry, that we would find our own way no problem, but they wouldn’t hear of it. After many more painful minutes of map-scrutinising, the wardens located our destination, and we were sent on our way with many smiles and bows, and no indication of having been even mildly inconvenienced. About as far as it’s possible to get from the shrug and look of disdain I’d expect in the same situation at home. God bless the Japanese.

Float wars. Central to festival proceedings are the magnificent floats that wind their way through the crowds, dragged by neighbourhood teams to cries of “SO-RE!” (which Yasuko told me means “Come on!”/”let’s go!”, or something to that effect). These were originally offerings taken by the different neighbourhoods to the Hikawa Shrine, in order to bring prosperity to the town. They are incredibly ornate, are decorated by hand and are ridden by a host of musicians tootling on wooden flutes and drummers banging out marching beats. A dancer, whose face is hidden behind a clown-like character masks, takes the limelight, twisting and beckoning hypnotically to the crowds as the float continues to make its creaky progress. Something of a rivalry has developed between the different neighbourhood floats over time, so when they pass each other, the dancing becomes rather more confrontational as each tries to outdo the other before moving on. Utterly entrancing to watch, especially once darkness had fallen and the performers were illuminated by the light of hundreds of paper lanterns dangling from the balustrades and streetlamps.

Ooooof what a day.

So concludes my post for this week. Thinking of getting down some more teaching-based anecdotes over the next few days, and no plans for next weekend as of yet… let’s see what this week throws up first 🙂

Extending the luck the Buddha’s disciples bestowed on me this week to all of you lovely people – have a good one!

Trina x x x x x


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