It has been a great summer here in Japan. I decided that if I was to be here, I would have to not let the infamous humidity get in the way of having fun and going on travels. In fact, summer is in a way the best time to be here, what with all the festivals and fireworks to be seen, though it is a season I usually escape as being away from air-conditioning in this region makes you sweat in minutes. Now I’ll tell you a little about some of the things I’ve been lucky enough to see- it’ll be a long one-
Star Wars Celebration Japan
Some of the main stars from the original trilogy and far more of the lesser-known contributors made it all the way to Japan for this celebration of 30 years of Star Wars here (coming on to 31 for the English speaking countries), as did Glen and me, diehard Star Wars fans as we are. It was also a chance to see some exclusive footage of the upcoming ‘Star Wars’ movie- Clone Wars, actually an animated piece directed by the man who brought us Ghost in the Shell. It seems that computer animation and unrealistically drawn characters are the way the series is heading now, what with a similar TV program coming.
What was one of the biggest hits here were all the fans dressed up as their favourite characters, many of them hailing from the so-called ‘501st Legion’, who are strangely enough celebrating an imperial movement that surely was thrown into the dustbin of history many years ago (in a galaxy far, far away) by one Luke Skywalker? There were also a few wookies, a scantily-clad Leia longing on a full-size dewback, bounty hunters and galactic emperors, not to mention what seemed to be (but probably wasn’t) a real-life R2 unit!
Luke himself was there, well Mark Hamil was, sitting in a conference he quite clearly didn’t want to be at,as he would rather be known for his present (relatively unknown) projects, such as the ‘Spore’ graphic novel and a part as The Joker in Batman on radio than his early adventures. Apparently, he said he’d only go if they flew his entire family, business class and gave them a luxurious hotel room to stay in. Still, when the questions from the fans did come, I was overcome with an emotion that only Star Wars can give me, as he recounted how he’d asked Lucus if Luke could go to the dark side- "No- that’s just not Luke, that isn’t what he does. You’re thinking as amn adult, but this is a movie for kids" was the reply- ironically so, given that a very much for kids set of prequels would explore that very theme in the case of Annakin.
Yes, I did get to socialise with some of the lesser stars. I took a photo with, Raymond Park, who played Darth Maul and got a photo signed by Jake Lloyd, who played the childhood Anakin. "Iconic of the series" was how he described it and I couldn’t agree more. I also got to see Peter Mayhew , who played Chewbacca (yes, he is tall and, actually hairy, on his head at least), but who i didn’t see were Anthony Daniels (C3PO) and Mark Hamil (except in the conference), as they stayed hidden in booths people came to autographs in.
Fireworks by Teganuma Lake
We found a good spot to put our mat down on to reserve it and then went off to get some food. Barbequed corn on the cob, yakitori, fried potatoes and of course some drinks were all there, not to mention some pineapple on a stick. Having set up my tripod, I tried for some shots.
Afterwards we met my old friend Micheal and his other half, for some izakaya drinks and chat.
Sankeien Garden, Yokohama
Going to visit my old friend Matt in Yokohama, we went to the Sankeien Garden. The site of an old samuri ruler (I think!), it had a great museum detailing how life was before cable TV and air-conditioning and you know, it wasn’t half bad! People paddled their feet in water instead, or sought the shade of a tree- remember those green leafy things that used to grow where the parking lot is now? Well, by being in that museum, we had the best of both worlds, and I even got to try my hand at making some macha myself.
Outside, some beautiful lotuses were in bloom.
The garden itself is lush and shady, with the regular rythmn of insects and birds.
You can even see my YouTube video of the place.
We decided to make our way to the garden’s famous pagoda, but the signposting had made it inaccessible to anyone but a Zen Master. Fortunately, we received enlightenment before the place closed, but ultimately, there wasn’t all that much to see up there!
Kashiwa Matsuri (Festival)
For some reason there seemed to be more people than ever there this year. At times you could hardly move, which put a lot of people off staying there for too long. It also had a wild and vibrant atmosphere that I never encountered before, especially around the area of the taiko drumming and floats. Swept up in the crowd, who could feel separate from it all?
I went both days, going with Yoko on the first day, where we both met our students, which was actually a nice feeling as I felt less like a stranger in the crowd. I stayed later that day, to see the night-time dancing. The next day I went with Yuko, just for a few hours, but enough to have some Tai curry, watch some local dancing and finally narrowly avoid a tremendous thunderstorm crashing and rumbling through the night. It led to a detour in which we got my first ever dehumidifier, which has made sleeping a lot easier in my air conditioner-less bedroom.
Sendai’s Tanabata Matsuri
Thanks to a suggestion from Matt, and now having caught the festival fever, I made my way all the way to Sendai on the Joban line to catch this timeless display of art and energy. Tanabata is a festival in which people generally hang prayers or wishes on a small branch of bamboo, to celebrate the union of two young stars in the milky way, who according to the legend only get to see each other this one day a year. Talk about a long-distance relationship! I personally think it is a way to introduce the concept of ‘cosmic time’, as for a star our year is but a second, but that’s just me.
Sendai, where it is held, is an impressively wide-roaded city for Japan, so it never felt all that cluttered, though it was certainly packed for the festival. The enthusiasm here, like many festivals in Tohoku, is unbelievable. It was clearly the event of the year for the region and with good reason. The creative displays and the sense of wonder of it all just sweeps you away in another world. There was also a great procession of dancers, from the modern cheerleaders and brass-bands to mysterious ancient creature-costumes from the depths of Tohoku’s misty past. Whilst a lot of it was just a chance for mums to see their kids or for local clubs to have a ‘happio’ (performance), some of it was really good and it was all both sincere and sincerely appreciated by the crowd. The food was a lot better than usual, with some of the best yakitori and roasted corn I’ve ever had- though I was very hungry!
I stayed a few days, two of which had the festival (which only runs for a couple of hours each day, then the decorations get covered up to protect them). I made some day trips nearby, seeing a temple with a gorgeous garden, complete with coy fish, turtles and dragonflies, where I spent a few hours doing photography and videos, soaking in the serene atmosphere. There was also an unusual shrine, decorated for Tanabata and in a striking mix of black and gold, apparently a unique one. My other day trips were to…
Renowned as offering one of the top three views in Japan, this certainly is a beautiful island to visit. Amazing temple gardens, including one in Entsuin, designed by a secret Christian, incorporating hidden crosses in the patterns and a rose garden made from flowers brought from Italy, there is certainly a lot to see here.
There are also the great views of the smaller islands nearby and the coast, all of them covered in matsu (pine) trees. Small bridges lead to other mini-islands, offering other perspectives and views of striking, sea-side sunsets. I was lucky enough to meet three girls in yukatas there who I photographed and hung out with for a time. Nothing like meeting the locals to bring a trip to life!
I also went on a boat-ride around the islands, one of the more amusing things on this being the seagulls sweeping around the sky to scoop up tossed snacks midair. There is also one of Japan’s first aquariums, featuring a number of items, including a large mambo fish, seals and penguins and my favourite, aurora jellyfish, which keep changing vivid colour in unison, for no apparent reason other than to entertain the likes of me.
Another thing here was the sea-food. I got sashimi oysters (kaki) that were so easy to eat, all my fears of them coming straight back up again (and perhaps those of the chef!) were averted in an instant. afterwards I felt full of the clean, endless energies of the sea, almost like i was walking on air- or water, I suppose, though I never tried. Coming back the next day to see more, I tried a sashimi bowl, which was just as incredible, including sea-urchins and fish eggs that usually I would have to leave behind, but when they are so fresh they taste of nothing but the sea, who can resist!?
Like any trip, there were all kinds of possibilities in the area, only some of which I experienced, though I would certainly like to go back, perhaps in the winter, as one of the chefs told me it looks great in the snow and isn’t really too cold- at least by his standards.
Yuko told me about this one morning and I was off there on the train quicker than you can say, ‘don’t forget your camera’. It was another chance to use my ’18 train pass’ and see some fireworks, so there was no need to think about it all. There were some dances, mainly by the local hip-hop and Hawaii enthusiasts, but with a fun-loving atmosphere to it all. Some amazing taiko drumming was to be found and the rather cruel (I thought) trained monkey act, where the owner gets hard currency and his pet, well, peanuts I suppose! The crowd was full and vibrant and , as I had my trusty D300 along, I took quite a few candids for the collection- something these outdoor events are so good for.
The big hit was the seaside fireworks, and luckily, as I went over to see an incredible view of the sunset, so also did I spy the perfect spot- flat grass and a good(ish) view of the explosions to come. The whole event was pretty drawn out, due to the long, pregnant pauses between displays, which wasn’t such a bad thing as it gave me time to get my camera ready. One funny thing was an elementary-school boy sitting near me asking if he could join his dad for a beer! Natural to want to be like dad, I suppose.
This year I’ve been enjoying the fireworks more than ever. They may be an old technology, but they can’t be beat by anything else for the sheer ‘wow’ factor of colourful lights in the sky. Seeing the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony convinced me of this, even though some of the impossible bits were of course CG.
After all that, I was back to the packed station, but lucky enough to get on the first train back, so no waiting around for me.