festival, Festivals, Japan, Outdoors, Photography, travel

Iizuna, Japan. More than ski.

What’s good in Iizuna?

Of course, Iizuna is known as one of the locations hosting the winter Olympics in 1998, but since I’m just a beginner skiing, what else is there to see? I was lucky to be invited to an unusual trip organized by Iizuna’s town hall where I could answer this question.

The short answer is: “Food, outdoors and people”. Iizuna’s main economy is based on agriculture, being apple and chestnut some of the most common products. Not a surprise we spent most of the time doing outdoor activities and eating. But it was blending and talking with the locals that made of this trip a great memory.

The following are just a few highlights of the trip:

Snowshoeing

dsc_8229Iizuna city is located right next to mount Iizuna, making it a popular location for hiking during summer and snowshoeing during the winter season in addition to skiing. Snowshoeing was a “must” and we had to try it, but our tour took an easy route, snowshoes and poles were provided and then the bus driver took us to an elevated point where we started our walk down the hill. It was a easy walk that didn’t require much physical strength, totally suitable for families.

On the way, we found plenty of footprints of rabbits and raccoons. The guide commented that bears are commonly seen, but not during the winter season and it is perfectly safe to do snowshoeing. It always helps however to have someone who is knowledgeable of the area to prevent any accidents. As we approached to the end of our walk we found nice views of the snowed city. We ended the walk at an apple farm owned by the same family who owns the pensions where we stayed at. Right after the walk we had hot soup, hot coffee and headed to have lunch.

Wakasagi – Ice fishing.

dsc_8040Wakasagi Ice fishing is a popular activity in Hokkaido (the northern Island of Japan), but Nagano is conveniently located just a few hours from Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train). You can experience this and other winter activities without having to go as far away as Hokkaido if you are in Tokyo.

I didn’t know what to expect from this activity and probably the shocking part was that we ate the fish that we caught. I have done fishing in the past when I was living in the USA, but it was always catch and release. This time, the organizers took the fish we caught and passed it on to the restaurant where we had lunch. They deep fried it and served it to us!

The logistics were very simple. We arrived to the lake where the host showed us the way and let us choose where we wanted to place our tent that protected us from the cold wind. He drilled on the ice two holes per tent and handed us the fishing gear. Waksagi is a very small type of fish and our fishing poles had about half a dozen hooks with bait to attempt to catch more than one at a time. Although, fishing was a lot of fun, after one hour of fishing I went for a walk to take photos of the landscapes before taking off.

Obuse-machi

dsc_7959Obuse town is a quick drive from Iizuna, we started at Ganshion temple where we had the chance to see some of the paintings and collectibles, unfortunately photos inside the temple are not allowed, which was not a big issue as most of the good photography spots are outside the temple. We spent around 30 minutes there just walking and taking photos before we moved to Kurino Komichi.

Kurino Komichi is the area with a look and feeling of old Japanese town. In this area, you can try different local products, chestnut and apples are the most traditional here and you can find things such as chestnut ice-cream and apple jam locally produced. We walked around the streets for around 30 more minutes before we landed in a restaurant to have some sweets and green tea. This was a good opportunity to buy some souvenirs and curiosities.

Ketsu-zori

We were lucky that during our trip, Iizuna city was celebrating the Ketsu-zori festival which is a type of snow sledding competition. Locals bring their kids to participate and enjoy some quality time with their family and friends. We as visitors were encouraged to participate in the competition to which it was obvious that those kids were a lot more skillful than us.

Same as many other places in Japan, we were the only foreigners and we quickly got the kids attention who wanted to play and talk to us. After a while, we totally forgot about the competition and turned it into a snow fight against the kids.

I’d been traveling Japan for a while now and my best experiences are always when you get the chance to blend with the locals in their regular festivities and gatherings. Certainly, Iizuna was not the exception.

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Musemus

No trip is complete without visiting the local museums to learn one or two things about the location. This is the very first time that I see a museum dedicated to apples, which kind of gives a good hint of the importance of the apple production in Iizuna. The apple museum was just across the street from the Oyaki cooking class, for such reason we visited it during the time we were waiting for our Oyaki to be ready.

The last day we went to the Iizuna history museum in our way to the winery where we had lunch. The third floor of the museum have a nice view of the city where once again I had the chance to take some photos.

 What about the food?

Although, during the ski sessions we ate at ski resort, the organizers squeezed a few foody events. Whether it was the homemade dinner at the pension we stayed at, the wine tasting at the local winery where we had a chance to try a cider made of apples unique to Japan, or the food samples and souvenirs on the streets; The food was always good, clearly made of fresh locally grown products. One way or another, we spent most of our time eating and exercising (outdoor activities). Life was good!

It is part of the Japanese culture to socialize through what they call the “Nomikai”, which the literal translation means “drink meeting”. We were invited to a few social events organized by the comity of tourism where we had the chance to chat about upcoming festivals and events and shared some food and drinks. We even went to sing to the karaoke with the vice minister of Iizuna to continue the party after dinner.

We also had a few cooking lessons, they took us to a restaurant where we made our own Soba noodles which turned out to be quite challenging. We were grouped on teams of 3 people and provided with the ingredients. It happens that the noodles are cut by hand without any special equipment other than a knife to make exact cuts. Of course, our team’s noodles looked a bit more like fettuccine instead of thin noodles, but at the end the taste was just as good. It was in this restaurant where they cooked for us the fish we caught earlier that day. They also taught us how to make Oyaki (a type of Japanese dumpling) filled with sweet beans or vegetables.

Conclusion

Nagano in general has a lot to offer to the tourist wanting to see something different than Tokyo or Kyoto. It is conveniently located a few hours from Tokyo and will fit perfectly well for a weekend trip. Among the many things to see in Nagano, don’t forget to swing by Iizuna and try some of the activities I just mentioned in this article.

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Art, festival, Japan, Nature, Photography, Tourism, travel

Mino festival : Hana Mikoshi (花みこし)

Mino City is known for its history of more than 1,300 years of making washi (Japanese paper) characteristic for its fine texture, strength, softness, and its endurance of centuries. It is commonly used in traditional crafts such as lanterns, umbrellas, fans, etc.

Despite its great success with the paper industry, Mino city remains relatively unknown to tourists (even for domestic tourism). It required a little extra skills to travel all the way there, as most of the signs were written in Japanese only, people don’t speak a second language and I had to make an extra effort to ask for directions using my very limited Japanese.

However, the effort paid off when I found a city rich in Japanese traditions, extremely friendly people that were not shy at all to approach fascinated by the fact that I was the only foreigner who showed up to see their festival. They were even more surprised to find out that I’m from Mexico. Their international influence is so limited that many people asked where Mexico is and what the spoken language is.

Being a major paper manufacturer, is not a surprise that the Mino Festival involves paper in some way. People decorate the mikoshis (portable shrines) with sakura flowers made of paper. Thousands of paper flowers standing meters tall in top of each of 30 mikoshis that people carried around the city while dancing and celebrating in a very cheerful and energetic way.

This time, I noticed that people were passing around a wooden bucket where everybody drinks during the celebration. I was approached multiple times and was asked to drink from the bucket as well, and for my surprise the bucket was full of sake (rise wine). Such a good quality sake and so much of it that I actually got a bit tipsy even though I was just an observant of the celebration.

The following are just a few pictures that I captured of this festival:

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festival, Fire, Japan, Photography, travel

Tejikara Fire Festival

The Tejikara fire festival is one of those hidden gems not many people know about. It falls somewhere between eccentric and awesome festival. It makes it even more special that it is celebrated just a few weeks after the Sakura festivals near Kyoto and Nagoya, making April one of my favorite months to visit Japan.
This is a celebration with 300 years of history, where groups of people carry small shrines around and dance under a cascade of sparkles of fire and firecrackers and make noise hammering big bells. Most of the participants are naked from the waist up while dancing under the fire. It is believe that this practice will grant the participants with good health.

This year (2015), during the introduction, they made a mistake and some of the sparkles of fire made it all the way to the regular public, and I was lucky (or unlucky) to be one of the few people who reached the sparkles of fire, and trust me … those things burn … I’m not sure how these people can handle so many sparkles of fire for so long.

When and where?

  • Second Saturday of April, 6:30 PM to 9:00 PM approximately
  • Tejikarao Shrine (Kuranomae, Gifu city)
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Hifuri shinji: Fire ritual

DSC_3896It is an ancient japanese believe that when Kunitatsuno (one of the 12 gods of agriculture) got married, spring was borne, bringing the beautiful Sakura (Cherry blossoms trees) and a good harvest through the season. Every year at the Aso shrine, locals conmemorate this wedding and pray for a good harvest with a unique display of fire.

This is part of the fire festival in Mount Aso in Kyushu during the month of March and celebrated just right outside of the Ichinomiya Aso Shrine.

The celebration starts with an area with food stalls where you can find horse meat traditional from Kumamoto, later on, around 5:00 pm the wedding ceremony starts with a display of Taiko (Traditional Japanese drums). It is a little after dusk when the bride arrives and the worshipers will set bales of straw on fire and swing around in circles to welcome the bride. After the ceremony is performed (a few minutes later) regular people from the crowd are encouraged to join the celebration and grab their own bale of straw to set on fire and swing as well.

Details of the festival: http://discoverjapan.info/Details/HifurishinjiFireritual

Pictures and text : Enrique Moreno

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Toh-shiya – First arrow of the year, first arrow as an adult.

    DSC_8286 Toshiya is an archery competition originated in the late 16th century. Nowadays celebrated only in the Sanjusangen-do temple (Kyoto) in conjunction with the Coming of age day, attracting thousands of archers from all around Japan.

Although, this event is open to archers from all the different ages, the highlight of the day are the young adults celebrating that they reached the age of majority (20 years old). Ladies wearing beautiful and colorful kimonos with hakama make of this event a unique sight.

The event starts 9:00 AM, but I was unfortunate enough (or lazy enough?) to get there by 10 AM and the place was already packed; the area with direct view to the archers is so small that it made the task of taking pictures something close to impossible with a little bit of dangerous. If you want to get the best spot for taking pictures (without having a press pass), you have to be there from early in the morning and you won’t be able to move or you will lose your spot.

Somehow this isn’t exactly the most popular festival (even for Japanese people), but it is absolutely worth taking a look if you happen to be around Kyoto during mid-January.

Complete details can be found here:

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/festival/tohshiya.html

Photos and text : Enrique Moreno

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Japanese Dolls

Hina-nagashi

It’s an ancient believe that dolls had the power to contain bad sprits. People used to set straw hina dolls on a small boat and sent them down the river taking the misfortune and bad spirits away. In Japan this is known as Hina-nagashi (doll floating) and although not very common these days, it is still practiced in some areas.

Hina matsuri

DSC_9961This eventually evolved into what we know today as the Hinamatsuri ‘Girls day’ or ‘dolls day’ celebrated in March 3rd. This tradition has been preserved from the edo period (1603 to 1868) until these days. Japanese families traditionally mount a multilevel platform covered with a red carpet and a

set of dolls representing the ancient emperor, empress, attendants, musicians and so on. The number of levels varies from 1 to 7, depending on the family’s taste and wealthiness, although nowadays most families will mount a 1 level platform for simplicity.

Some of these dolls were so very well elaborated with so many fine little details that only wealthy families were willing to pay large amounts of money for the most beautiful dolls. Often these dolls were passed from generation to generation and today you can see some that are hundreds years old on display at the museums.

Hinano Tsurushi Kazari matsuri

DSC_2188Of course not everybody could afford buying a set of dolls for display at home. Some mothers helped by the grandmothers made their own version of the Hinamatsuri by hanging ornaments for their daughters wishing them happiness and good health. This is known as Hinano Tsurushi Kazari matsuri and is celebrated in the Izu area.

These ornaments are simply small little figures of animals or objects. Each different figure represents a different wish.

What are the details of the festivals?

Location:

There isn’t a fixed location for the Hinamatsuri as this is a tradition mostly celebrated at home. You stand better chances to see some of these dolls at the museums or some temples.

Hinano Tsurush Kazari matsuri is celebrated at the Inatori Onsen Hinano Yakata. You can enjoy also the Kawazuzakura festival few minutes away from each other.

Dates:

It usually starts around mid January to March 3.

Resources:

Hinamatsuri: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinamatsuri

Hina-nagashi in Kyoto: http://www.kyotoguide.com/ver2/event/event %20archive3-.htm

Hinano Tsurushi Kazari matsuri: http://www.japantimeline.jp/en/0000726/

List of festivals in Izu: http://www.izukyu.jp/foreign_language/en/06.html

Photos and text by: Enrique Moreno Daniel

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Eyo Hadaka matsuri (Naked festival)

DSC_0512Although, its name suggest nudity, this festival is not what most westerners would think it is. For starters people are not fully naked, they wear loincloths, and not for exhibitionist reasons, but spiritual reasons.

Close to 9,000 men wearing nothing but loincloth packed in the Saidai-ji temple struggle fiercely to catch the lucky sacred talismans thrown by the priest to become the lucky man. It is believed that whoever brings the talisman (called shingi) back and sticks it into a wooden box filled with rice will be guaranteed with good luck for the entire year.

Considered by many as one of the most eccentric festivals in the world, the hadaka matsuri is a real challenge of physical strength and resistance. Contestants start by running around the freezing streets wearing nothing but loincloth, then jump into a pool of cold water to purify their soul, run to the temple where the priest throws more cold water from the second floor and then repeat this sequence 4 times. As the time gets closer to 10:00pm, people start pushing, pulling and fighting with each other for a good spot to catch the shingi; The dispute is so intense that you can see steam coming out of their bodies as the monk continues to throw cold water on them.

Of course all of this is a bit dangerous and often people get injured, a person had a heart attack and one more person died a few years ago. The platform is elevated by a few meters meters and avalanches of people falling down the stairs is one of the many dangers. On top of that, yakuza members (Japanese mafia) are frequently seen in the crowd just picking up random fights.

But …. why are they naked? (or almost naked)

DSC_1000Simply because it is easier to fight for the Shingi being almost naked. If you wear regular clothes, other contestants can pull you out of the crowd easily and take your place. Some records indicate that in the early years of this festival, people actually used to wear regular clothes, but as the festival became more popular and more competitive, people started wearing this type of loincloths called fundoshi to give them advantage over the others.

It all started longer than 500 years ago when worshippers competed to receive paper talismans (called Go-o) thrown by the priest. People receiving these paper talismans had good things happen to them and the number of people requesting them increased year by year. However, as paper was easily torn, the talismans were changed to the wooden ofuda as we know it today.

What are the details of the festival?

The location is Okayama city at the Saidai-ji temple. The main event starts 10:00 PM and actually the entire fight for the shingi last for a few minutes, however the fun starts from around 2:00 PM where they have taiko performance, folk dances, food stalls, fireworks and also the kids version of the same fight. The preparation where they start running around the streets and jumping into the pool of water starts from 7:30.

Be aware that they block the streets, and if you want to guarantee a good view, you will need to pay for access to the reserved areas with the best view, either standing or a reserved seat. The festival by itself is not dangerous for the general audience; Unless you participate in the fight, you have nothing to be afraid of. However if you are faint of heart, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Full details: http://discoverjapan.info/Details/SadaijiEyoHadakaMatsuriNakedfestival

-Enrique Moreno

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