Sunday, January 15, 2017

Weekend (12.2 - 12.4) Japanland: A Very Sci-Fi Midtown Christmas and the Chichibu Night Festival

The first weekend of December was a tour de force of interesting and stimulating creative and cultural shenanigans, and I shall henceforth describe them to the best of my ability, in great detail, and with a shitload of pics.

Rejon and I spent Friday afternoon together (neither of us had any work scheduled) and decided to go to The Universe and Art, Mori's latest hip and cool and neato exhibit. As long as we were in Roppongi I also wanted to see the Starlight Garden LED display, and picked one of the two vegan cafés also right on the same block for lunch. As it turns out, this fateful decision would be one of my last.

...

No, not really. I mean, of course not. But it did suck an awful lot and I won't be going back.

This is Café the 6BT, across the street from Tokyo Midtown Plaza. 

I thought the prices seemed surprisingly reasonable considering the area, and that it looked really cute and trendy. 
A couple of minutes after we sat down, though, I accidentally knocked over one of our glasses of water. In Japan they use serviettes or cocktail napkins, not real napkins, and also wet wipes, so something like this is always kind of an ordeal. We used up the delicate tissue sheets almost immediately and naturally tried to get our waiter's attention. He ignored us very thoroughly, even though he was mostly just standing and wandering back and forth. We tried to get anyone's attention. One of the cooks, standing a couple of metres or less from us behind the small counter that also housed the cooktop, made eye contact and nodded in acknowledgement, giving us what I thought was the universal "Yeah, I see, I'll be with you in a minute/when I finish this" look, but of course that wasn't the first time such a look also turned into being thoroughly ignored here in the land of the not-actually-polite-at-all. We sat at the little table, completely covered in a puddle of water, and stared at each other awkwardly. Rejon said that trendy little places like this tend to be really good at being frigid and unfriendly toward non-Japanese customers. 
Oh, I replied. I guess that does sound right.

It was at least 5 minutes. Not 10, but probably between 5 and 10. And we had tried to get everyone's attention, in Japanese, loudly enough for the whole café to hear by that point. It's a small place. 

Finally this idiot comes back, we say, excuse us, but can we have a towel, and he acts surprised and goes and gets one of those shitty little synthetic fiber towels that's extremely thin and never dry. I think it's impossible for people who haven't spent time in Japan or Korea to know what I mean, but I have no idea why anyone uses them; just, like, imagine and extremely thin, small, and already completely wet towel that never dries. That he then used to clumsily sweep the table puddle right into my lap. I jumped up and yelled "Really?! That is extremely rude!" and probably some swearing in English I don't remember because my Japanese isn't good enough to have asked him how it's possible to be that dense. "Ohh-h-h! Excuse me!" he said awkwardly, rushing away to get something else. When he did, he took the menu, which he had picked up before, and didn't bring it back. What he did come back with was a pile of wet wipes, which he dumped on the table before scurrying away again.

We sat and stared awkwardly at each other across the still-wet table. We hadn't chosen what we wanted to order from the wet menu. Then we repeated steps 1 - 3, waiting another solid 5 minutes for a female employee who actually seemed to have half a clue to say, "Ohh, I'm sorry!" and bring us another menu. As we awkwardly pushed and pulled the moist towelettes across the table they produced a lot of what looked and felt like wet eraser dust. "You know what, I think that water just sat here for so long that the cheap finish on the table is coming off," Rejon said in mild exasperation.


We both ordered the curry set for around 1400 or 1600円, I don't remember and don't care.
This is the salad starter stuff it came with. The shot glass is corn potage. It was okay.


This was the curry, of course. 

We were both really hungry by that point and completely unimpressed by how bland it was, though the untrained eye might have been fooled by how I was shoveling it in lol. Somehow they managed to make the sauce taste completely uninteresting. I mean, how do you fuck up curry? Whoever says the food scene is great in Japan is either talking exclusively about raw seafood and has a lot of money to burn or has a brain that's half gravel like our waiter.


We both ordered the teensy weensy slices of gf vegan chocolate cake because Rejon's first choice was sold out. As was her second choice. And her third. These were 750円 and smaller than a smartphone. The spoonful of soy ice cream was watery. 
Both tasted like nothing.

At this point you're probably like, "Wow, so, uh, it was a really good weekend, huh?" 
It got off to a rocky start at that piece of shit restaurant, yes, and there was another bump the next day actually, but here's where it starts getting really good. 

I went to the Mori Art Museum, on the 54th floor of Mori Tower, 4 times last year, and expect to go back at least once more before we leave. The weakest of the four exhibits was the Sailormoon one, but even that I wasn't actually disappointed in or anything. The Universe and Art ended up being the strongest of them; our theory is that the poppy anime ones were held to pay for this one, which included everything from ancient and pre-modern Japanese pieces to a da Vinci sketch, early telescopes, a Johannes Kepler illustrated text, and more


Also, look! Rejon gave me my Christmas present early! Note the Howl's Moving Castle deco tape. She knows I collect postcards and got this samurai cat one from an all-cats-all-the-time art gallery in Koenji.

Now that I've seen the new Disney movie, which was surprisingly excellent in my and Hannes' opinion, I'm even more excited about this colouring book with accompanying text. Thank you!
Ok, so let's start with the exhibi- shit, do you guys see that? Wtf is that, a comet?


Terrifying but true: the placard said this monolith actually exists in Hyogo prefecture.
Wat.


"Oh, Cool! Some kind of light installation!"


"Hey! You know what this is? This is stuff from Home Depot is what it is!"
Rejon has done installation work before and was like, yep, basically.


I couldn't find this painter's name online and I didn't take a picture of the placards and it's killing me. They were done the same year Alien came out, though, in 1979. I thought that was especially appropriate because they look like they could've been concept art for the movie. 



This was part of a wonky spacy video installation room that was pretty cool in an eerie-resonant-ambient-electronic-noise kind of way.


This is a photo of a conceptual educational diorama that depicts the Carboniferous Period.


With my phone camera you can't see neon lights in the dark, of course, but it says "ancient aliens" and I had to take a picture of it and this very Stargatey sculpture (which is not ancient, for clarification).


These, though, are real. The bottom coloured one is titled "The Strange Boat Drifted Ashore on the Fief of Lord Ogasawara", and all three 19th century Edo period accounts creepily depict a beautiful woman in a blue blouse holding something like a shoebox after emerging from what looks quite distinctly and uniformly like a UFO. Spoopy.


"Ew!" was, I think, everyone's reaction to this sculpture. I don't remember the artist's name, but its watery, lifelike eyes were the detail that we found most unsettling.


We spent a while looking at these spectacularly derpy old sci-fi magazines/comics.
Read it!


"Sexy Robot", appropriately enough, by Sorayama Hajime.


It rotates on its platform and its skimpy swimsuit covers the top half of its shiny and chome buttcheeks in an oddly satisfying way.


Apollo 11 mission log? Yep, we've got that.
This must be a reproduction though, right?






A mars colony diorama doing kind of cool reflective things in its plexiglass box


Wow, 500円 packets of space food and canned bread! No thanks.

This pseudo-futuristic smoked glass bubble orb tree was outside, 
at the shopping mall portion of the Mori complex.


And.. wait, what? A Christmas Market, you say? We must investigate!


Weird depressed crying drunk Santa, check..
Wait, what?


Okay, this is more like it. Except for those typical Tokyo pricetags, yikes!


We stopped for cups of hot apple glühwein and Rejon also got a warm butter-stuffed pretzel. The drinks were 100円 cheaper than the Yokohama Weihnachtsmarkt last year and this of course didn't require an hour + train ride followed by a 15 - 20 minute walk to get to. 
Just a little thing, but an instant upgrade.

We talked about how glorious the Christmas markets in Germany are, and how I looked forward to the possibility of seeing the ones in Copenhagen, and Rejon said she would probably just curl up in a corner and cry at the sight. I told her that she'd have to come and visit us for the holidays once we're settled there, and her dad is really into Christmas, so it would make sense if her family were to come, too. 
I really, really hope the Noah Family Eurotrip becomes a reality. Maybe in 2018?


We went back down into the subway and came back up at Tokyo Midtown, because that was easiest and warmest, then walked around to the Starlight Garden. We were instantly transfixed by the incredibly-fucking-blue Toshiba LED display, which in some areas appears to hover, which has super chill yet epic accompanying music, and which very clearly depicted the Big Bang and the universe swirling around.


Mother. Fucking. Blue.


These aren't edited at all.

It was go good, I videoed it! Duh. Did you expect anything less? 
Running commentary included free of charge.

I took so many pics and videos over these two days, actually, that after going through and editing them all I resolved to do it less, and instead of trying to capture and share everything try to go back to experiencing it in the present and on a more personal level. That sounded really pretentious. But my intentions are good. 


On the way back we walked through Midtown Galleria, an upscale mall that reminds me of the IFC mall in Seoul, partly because I also used to work for a time in the office tower connected to that one.


Everything was so cute! I bought ornaments (that I ended up writing on the back of with a paint marker) for my mom and grandparents and Rejon tried to find a super fancy $15 light-up diorama card for her especially festive dad, but of course, the one perfect one was sold out. D'oh.


The next day Rejon, NiQui and I took the Seibu Ikebukuro from the start to the very end of the line, in Chichibu, to check out their annual night festival (which made it to the UNESCO world heritage list under possibly a slight misnomer). I had been excited about catching the special express train there, but lots of other people had the same idea because the festival doesn't usually fall on a Saturday, and it was full. There's one every hour, but we just hopped on a different not-quite-as-fast train instead.

Not long into the train ride we noticed this guy - a really young guy, maybe about 18 - in an outrageously well-tailored Maritime Defense Forces-esque uniform that fit him like a glove, and who was posing as he stood in front of the window. It was just like a scene out of an anime, and I'm not even into Japanese guys or anime, but none of us could stop staring. He noticed and continued posing and letting the light hit him at certain angles for our benefit. 
It was, well, outrageous.

One of us should've just taken a picture; we were actually sad when he got off the train.


Of course the first thing I did was take pics of the manhole covers.
The dozen or so people who read these with any regularity know that a picture of one signals a new place. And I like that.

But, okay, it's time to bitch about Japan's many failings again. The love-hate relationship I have with this country tears me up something fierce, really. 
My interactions with people are overwhelmingly positive; I make a point of noticing and appreciating as many different kinds of flowers and butterflies as possible; I enjoy the traditional rice and bean sweets and because of the gluten-free thing probably know more of them than most; sometimes store clerks and other people are so pleasant, and relieved and impressed that you can communicate with them that they just smile earnestly and treat you like an equal without any kind of scripted comment about how your Japanese is sooo good, wow, come look at this monkey do a trick everybody, it's crazy, kind of thing. 

That's the thing about people, though; if you can deal with people on an individual basis, you can make a connection. You can relate. You can look into their eyes. Most people are lovely. If nothing else they're probably civil, at a minimum. But the authoritarian bureaucracy that has "democratically" controlled Japan in an almost unbroken ribbon of repetitive and unnecessary paperwork and stamps that goes back to the exact point at which the U.S. dismantled its authoritarian military seeks to destroy the individual to establish as much control as possible, and in many ways it has successfully done so. 

I could go on, but the thing is, I'm not sure how this particular problem ties into that. These are the most frustrating failings, the ones that you can't even think about for a minute and go, "Oh, yeah, of course, I can see how this particular group of upper-echelon fucks is stacking mad Benjis with this deal". 
The failing is this: lack of public transportation to a well-known local and international tourist attraction that may even have great cultural significance.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Everyone wants to give Japan the benefit of the doubt. I've heard it all. It's always some variant of "Oh, well, clearly they have their reasons for doing it this way, and you just haven't understood them", sometimes including "foreigners are ruining Japan anyway, good for them for not catering to these rude nasty outsiders (this is said almost exclusively by non-Japanese people)".

Ah, but in reasoning with the logic of the typical Western demon you would be the one to have misunderstood something crucial. With a lot of things, there is no reason. Take the Zao Fox Village in Miyagi prefecture, for example. Something like 2 buses a day on weekdays, no buses on the weekend. When the fuck you think I'm headed there to pet foxes, bitch? On a Tuesday? It's nearly an $80 taxi ride or a steep and longish hike - after the long and expensive bullet train ride - each way.

Mitsumine Shrine is situated in what I understand is one of the 100 best places in Japan to view autumn foliage, a forested valley in central Saitama, and it is yet another victim of what I consider to be criminally poor transit planning on the part of I-don't-know-who. The first thing we did upon joining the huge throng of people just outside Seibu-Chichibu Station - after finding out that all of the express trains back were already sold out, actually, so the second thing - was go to the bus information office.

The friendly middle-aged man showed us a chart that involved four buses. He explained the times to us even though we were looking at them. First we noticed that it takes over an hour to get there from Chichibu itself, and immediately after that we noticed that the buses only left between 9 and 3.

"So," the friendly old dude concluded, "you could take the one leaving at 3 (or whatever), but, then, you see, you'd have no way back."

We're like, "Okay, ahh, so, if we were to take a taxi.."

"Oh! There are no taxis, haha. No, there are none there."

"If we were to walk there, how long do you think-"

"Oh! Impossible. You definitely cannot walk there, it's too far. Also, there are no trains."

"So... What you're saying is.. We.. absolutely cannot go there at all."

"Right!" ^^

After staring at each other for a couple more seconds we thanked the man and left.

The tents outside were selling food, and we weren't especially hungry yet, so in a ragey ranty huff about the things I've tried to describe in a more level-headed way above, I asked NiQui and Rejon if they wanted to walk to the long mountain in front of us and look for a trail up, so that we could see some autumn foliage anyway. They were all for it, since we didn't have any plans set in stone or anything.


Not sure if vintage, but love



On the way there we walked through several blocks of shabby houses, almost all of which had persimmons hanging out to dry, which I hadn't seen before. 
One man slowly and disbelievingly ambled to the road to stare at us, dumbfounded, craning his head to see until we were out of sight, after I loudly sang part of The Night Man Cometh from It's Always Sunny because I brought it up but my friends haven't seen it (-narrows eyes-). I felt like kind of an ass, but everyone there knows when the day of the bigass festival is, so.. I am available to a-ny in-te-reeested men, if you'd like to get my number after the shoooooow.


We powered up a very steep walkway that cut up the side of the mountain and had a railing in the middle for balance. We had to take a break at one point and an older Japanese man casually walking right up laughed at us, so I called after him something along the lines of, yeah well, at least we don't live here. I do this kind of thing a lot. I really shouldn't. 
Anyway, these torii gates came into view as we reached the top.

This picture of their accompanying shrine makes me happy.


The park we went to at the top of the mountain was at first sparse and unexciting, but we needed to sit down and have a cool drink (and a snack), and it was nice and peaceful. NiQui noticed these little slow flying puffballs hovering around the shrubbery and wondered aloud what they were, so I was like, "Well here, I'll grab one," and this whimsical game of catching them and trying to get decent pictures ensued.


Turns out they're called woolly alder aphids. Googled a description when I got home, instant answer and HD pics. The Internet is one hell of a drug; wish more people used it for good instead of evil.


Also, lichens. Or fungi. Not sure. Texture!


When we'd had enough of that we walked to an embankment with a thick layer of spongy fallen leaves that probably, eventually, gets to the bottom of the other side of the mountain.


Okay, well, we got our foliage. Check.


Going the other, apparently easier way back down, we came across a particularly nice playground that we ended up having to ourselves, and the childlike wonder continued.


See?


NiQui was a little bit scared lol.








And hey, wouldn't you know it! Another shrine!

Apparently one to Inari, judging by the foxes and hall of gates.






More foliage, mhmm, approved




And here's - yes, friends - more foliage! With a view of Chichibu below.

NiQui had mentioned early on that she'd been to Chichibu once before, for the other thing they're known for, the annual 芝桜 or moss phlox festival. Google it, it's beautiful; carpets of pink and fucshia with Fuji in the background on a clear day if you get lucky. 
Hitsujiyama Park, the same one we had just randomly explored, is also where the flowerbeds are, and NiQui was totally right in anticipating that the much easier and more sensible way we were headed down was the same way she had come up on her previous visit. No wonder you can see Fuji on a clear day, if the park is on top of a damn mountain!



Another photo of a typical suburban-rural (Japan doesn't have any zoning laws that I've ever been made aware of and doesn't make any distinction) house.


An overripe pomegranate that split open; these things are like $6 in the rare event that you can find and purchase them, what clueless elderly person just left it here?!

On our way down we looked up the 珍石館, or the museum of rocks that look like they have human faces, which was the third and final thing I'd decided I wanted to see before asking my friends to come with me. Actually, it was the first thing I'd decided on and how I found out about the night festival and the shrine. I happened upon this article by Colossal, an online art magazine I follow, and checked to see if there was anything else worth doing in Chichibu after being like "Wait, wait, what the fuck. That's amazing."

"Uh oh," NiQui said. "It closes aaaat... 5. And it's after 4 now. It's not that close, actually.. about a 30 minute walk from here. The way we went up the mountain would've brought us down closer, actually, because it's that way. We can make it if we hoof it."

And hoof it we did.




Just houses and a shockingly colourful garden nestled riiiiight up to the train tracks..


"Is that ice up there?" I asked. "It looks more like sand."


How deep did the rabbit hole to the hall of amusing stones go? Fucking papaya tree in winter deep, that's how. Deep. What the eff. Apparently Japanese papaya is a thing, but like.. 


Really?



We continued to hoof it, and continued to weave along roads that should be too narrow for even one small car, deeper and deeper into the middle of nowhere, once crossing this big one next to a new housing development. "Who lives here?!" I asked repeatedly and emphatically, usually gesturing to something appallingly substandard as I did so. "And how the fuck did Colossal find out about this place?!" I would add. 
Rejon was shockingly far ahead of us, silent but for one hilarious and timely called-back reply to one of those questions, obviously determined, as our dauntless navigator, to locate the obscure attraction.

But hey, we were so far off the grid that someone had a new manhole cover on their property, woo!

And then, miraculously, we finally made it!

Oh, but. The door was closed, and there were a couple of signs and a little gravel parking lot, but it was basically just a house, and the sun was setting, and there were obviously no streetlights anywhere between there and the center of town. 

There was a sign on the door, though, that said to call the number listed, so we did, and a very nice-sounding lady said she'd be right there.


(oh don't mind me, I'm just taking a picture of the little animal figurines 
in your potted plants while we wait)



The middle-aged woman who came opened the door, turned on the lights and heat, and charged us the modest 400円 admission fee. As soon as we were inside we were making "Owwwhh!" "Awwh!" sounds at the rocks around the entryway and counter, and our enthusiasm for what turned out to be her father's museum seemed to bring her genuine joy.

He had lived to a very old age (you can see him on her website), reinforcing what Rejon said is a marked Japanese tendency to live to be ancient if you have a hobby involving rocks. He had also collected rocks and a few other curiosities not only from the immediate area - and it turns out there is a quarry on top of that mountain with the sandy stuff spilling down, the lady explained - but from all over Japan, bringing some a kind of absurd distance considering how large and/or heavy they are.


Most, though, are anywhere from about the size of a ping pong ball to the size of a grapefruit, and all sit on little handmade wooden stands (she showed us the little blocks from which she shapes them) that tilt them slightly depending on the perspective needed. Among her favourites, for example, seemed to be the couple arguing and the nearby couple with a good relationship, leaning in lovingly.


She acknowledged the some of the references - like this rock's resemblance to a politician of some years back - would be lost on us, but of course we all appreciated what was going on in these whimsical cases either way.


Not all of the curious rocks have faces: this one creates a miniature landscape.


But omg. Omg. This guy. This guy right here.


Some have little things added to enhance their natural shape, like this fucking awesome pirate right here. Looohhhl.


Oh, right, here are the fighting ones.
Right above my personal favourite: Melted Elvis! Hah!


This one got me too. Like, just in case the "Munch's Scream" label isn't already more than enough, let me place a print of it in the background for the full effect x'D


Top center, No Face from Spirited Away


She told us about all kinds of interesting stuff, like how painters such as Vermeer used pure mineral powder before oil paint was invented (not actually the case for him of course) or when it couldn't be easily obtained. We didn't ask her if she has a day job, but honestly, I hope she's an elementary school teacher. 


Even though we struggled to understand much of what she was explaining, she commented on how well we were able to understand in general, and could easily see when we did not. She would either boil what she was describing down to a couple of simple sentences or say "Well, anyway," and seamlessly move on to the next interesting point. Excellent communicators like this with genuine passion for their subjects are rare. 


Also LOL this one has a penis


And this one looks like Jesus in agony


And here's another one that looks like the background of an ink painting


"Toast. That one looks like toast."
"Ahh, yeah, it does look like toast!"
(the placard says something like "drywall", though it's not technically the same, and I was like, what the fuck, why


Actually, she said, mostly children who visit name them. She constantly wonders at their unique and insightful perspective; sometimes they'll come up with something new right away that never even crossed your mind as you spent so much time looking at the same things.


That one on the left reminds me of the disappointed face Rick and Morty characters make




Okay, stepped back to take a picture of what the second floor looks like. Came up for air. We spent an hour in there giggling at the rocks and learning shit. After leafing through those books with us the curator just kind of left us to our own devices and went to tend to her three year-old grandson.




Okay, this one requires some explanation.
I think this turtle shell-looking rock came from Okinawa? and it's quite a rare specimen; it's kind of famous, actually. A photo of it is in at least one reference/educational text. 
Anyway, there's a picture of her father behind it posing with the same props (below), because its turtleyness and suitability as a seat reminded him of a Japanese fairytale so ubiquitous that anyone here would get it immediately.


It's called Urashima Taro, and tells the tale of a fisherman who saved the life of a turtle on a beach. The turtle was so thankful that he came back later and was like, "Hey, to thank you, please let me take you to the hall of the Dragon King beneath the waves," and the fisherman was like, "Okay, cool".



He goes down there and it's like fucking respendent. I think he becomes infatuated with one of the King's beautiful daughters but remains faithful to his wife? I'm relating this without having checked and I only read it once, in Japanese, several years ago, but messing it up probably just makes it funnier, so whatever. Anyway, the King welcomes Taro most warmly, and he experiences delicious delicacies and super soft cushions and is entertained and all kinds of great stuff, but then he starts to feel kind of bad for not having told anyone where he was. Don't ask me how he's been breathing underwater this whole time, either.

The Dragon King was like, "Well, okay, it's been real, but I guess your turtle friend can take you home if you need to go back to your family". But when he gets back...

It's been like 100 years.

Fuck.

Everyone he ever knew and loved is either long dead or super elderly. It's some weird Rip van Winkle shit. And I don't remember the moral or if anything else happens at the end, hahah. Interpret it or correct my memory as you will!


Right, the real point is: Who wore it best?!


And here's a final group shot! What a fantastic place. This woman and the collection she's maintaining are both national treasures.

It was a long, dark, cold walk back to the center of town. We stopped at a convenience store and grabbed some drinks and snacks to steel us for the journey ahead. Actually lol it was mostly a straight shot, but it was legit dark and legit far.


Some more persimmons, this time drying more creepily in the pitch dark.


American-style Christmas lights..?!


"Liquor & Dainty" lol


More American-style Christmas lights on a different house. What sorcery is this?


They also had an old-fashioned telephone booth in their generous driveway.


Sorry guys, but like, your house is right on the main road and we're not the only ones stopping to take pics.. Nothing spoopy going on here..


We made it back to the bustling center of town, where all the streets were blocked off for the food and game vendors and so that the shrine floats could later come through.


Making taiyaki


I shouldn't have eaten this but oh my good golly gosh was it delicious. It's 今川焼き (imagawayaki), two thick delicious pancakes stuffed with your choice of filling. I think she had custard, chocolate, sweet red bean paste, sweet white apricot paste? and a couple more. My custard pancake here was essentially full of delicious vanilla pudding.


It took effing forever for NiQui and Rejon to get theirs though! The two older ladies making them were taking their sweet-ass time despite the growing line/crowd of people waiting, and I think it was a good 20 minutes. I took a picture of the cute bottle of "Piano" sparkling sake I was drinking. And by the way, I learned that 今川焼き was originally sold in the 1770's near a bridge of that name in Tokyo, which is why it's called that. The more you know~


I really liked this cute squid. Usually it's takoyaki, not ikayaki!


Oh god, finally! I was like, "This is a moment of triumph to be savoured, let me take a picture!", and I think it's my favourite pic of the whole outing.


The main thing that kept us going during our long and arduous journey back to Chichibu itself was the promise of じゃがバター, literally "potato butter", or a baked potato with butter. 
Understandably, じゃがバター man temporarily became a sort of fixture or point of orientation in our lives lol. I got my potato with just butter, Rejon got it with butter and a special miso sauce, and NiQui's had butter and seasoned mayo. All had lots of salt. It was so nice to actually have good, affordable food with generous servings and condiments! And - d'oh! - of course NiQui's eyes were closed! I do this all the time and so does Hannes. 
Still cute, though!


I had never actually seen these character manju, or pancakey things usually with filling, outside of the special Hello Kitty stand at Odaiba's DiverCity mall before.


Ohh, the poor dead little things, look at all their little arms! ><


Little plastic fish and gold coins swirling around in a game where you have to catch them.
Anybody else remember that little game where you picked up the rotating fish with a wee pole with a magnet on the end? I loved that freaking thing.


This lady looks super done with life, but her candy-coated fruit is pretty on-point

Getthefuckouttatheway kudasaaaaaai! It's starting!




We ended up squeezed into a small side road behind these parade participants, trying to balance and finish snarfing our large piping-hot potatoes, and unable to see much of anything. That's why the video below starts with me saying it seemed like the natural thing to do to just follow these guys out and walk behind the parade to find a better spot.


In addition to being more than 300 years old and at the top of the intangible heritage UNESCO list, this is the third largest float parade in Japan, and I would guess that it's got to be the largest in Saitama. 



It was kind of awkward, actually; I'm not sure how many floats there were in total, but they didn't all come down the road at the same time. The traditionally-clad volunteers would shout loudly and repeatedly and usher everyone to the sides, packing us in front of the stands, long before a float was actually headed our way, so that there was quite a lot of waiting. Then everyone would break free and start moving again once it and all the people accompanying it had passed, only to repeat the process again and again. 

The surge of the crowd took us unwittingly up and down the road with it more than once inbetween floats, which is what those chaotic video clips are from. At one point we were packed in next to a nice lady NiQui made friends with and a tall man holding a surprisingly calm grey poodle, which I only noticed when I realised its gentle sniffy snoot was right next to my head, and which NiQui commented had the same hair as her as she failed to stifle her powerful urge to pet it. The Japanese man holding the dog seemed to find this pretty cute.




The elaborately painted shrine floats are covered with lanterns with candles inside and pulled along by maybe 20 people at a time with big ropes, as they roll on massive and what sounded like very heavy, creaky, wooden wheels. Then the portable shrines are dramatically tipped by the traditionally-costumed bearers, held in place for a moment, and physically carried to the permanent shrine in a symbolic gesture that, I think, symbolises the spirit or spirits or the local god or gods returning home.






During all of these there were extremely random and sporadic fireworks being launched from the direction of the mountain and Hitsujiyama Park, adding to the sense of energy-charged chaos and to our suspicions that this whole thing hadn't been planned very well and couldn't handle this many people. It was pretty cool, though, the way all of the sights combined in those moments when three or four of them would pop colourfully with no warning and detract our attention for a minute.








A lot of the young women chanters (you can hear them in the video) were not only enthusiastic but very attractive, and I found it really interesting that their hairstyles and in a lot of cases their makeup looked straight out of the 80's or early 90's.




A lot of the men surging past were also jubilant, and oh yes, high fives were exchanged.










These men you see on the shrines themselves were tied or lashed in place with fabric sashes and waving around lanterns. I read that they do this to amuse the gods housed inside.






It was too dark to get good pictures of some of the elaborate paintings of mostly sea creatures on these floats, but you can probably hear me saying, "oh man check out that fucking octopus" in the video..


I think this is my favourite float picture. God, I took so damn many. And so much video.
So. Much. Video.


らっしゃい!








This one's pretty great, too, I thought.


Now, you might be wondering if I already talked about that aforementioned bump or negative point somewhere in this monster of a post, but actually, I guess there were two more after the crappy vegan place. 

At one point about halfway through the parade we were looking for a spot to stand, after we got used to the rhythm of the floats, and there was a little sort of concrete half-step against this building with some tarps and other stuff sitting on it. I started making a comment about people trying to hide this prime real estate with said tarps as I was nudging one aside with the toe of my sneaker, when the middle-aged man standing in front of me suddenly whipped around, yelled something like, "Don't do that," and smacked me in the arm/pushed me.

"Hey! What the fuck? You can't just hit people, man, fuck you!" I yelled directly at the back of his head. 
He never turned around again, and his wife apparently had no idea or didn't give a shit that he had just wheeled around and struck (not hard, but still) a stranger. NiQui and Rejon had been looking for their own little spots to stand and hadn't directly seen it, so I imitated it for them. We were all pretty shocked and didn't really know what to do next.
"Here," NiQui offered, "Here's a spot to put your bottle down-"
"I'll put it down on his fucking head if he touches me again." I snapped coldly.
A very tense and awkward silence descended while we waited for the float to come, our glares boring into the back of this random asshole's head. Middle-aged Japanese man are very nasty, rude, selfish, and straight up gross, and I have a huge amount of pent-up hostility toward them. I want their geriatric patriarchy to burn with them trapped inside it. The voice of reason in my head screamed over and over without pausing inbetween that I would go to jail and then get deported if I decked or bottled this guy, and I poured all my effort into avoiding blind rage.

These mentions of my bottle might make it seem like I was drunk, but I was still carrying around that cute Piano sparkling sake bottle from earlier (because why would you have trash cans at a festival), and the only drink any of us had that night. 
We lightened up again as the float came by, and Asshat McGee pulled out an iPad and stepped so far into the parade route that he was loudly told and forced to moved back multiple times. Earlier we (okay, mostly it was me) had been complaining about how stupid it looks and how it blocks other peoples' view when you use something that big to record, so I was like, "Of course he's that fucking guy". "Damn right he's that fucking guy," Rejon agreed.

But I couldn't be completely distracted; justice had to be done.
I remembered the water bottle in my bag. Earlier I'd actually had a Coke on our trek back to town for the sugary energy, which I almost never do, and regretted finishing it, because I had made my decision. As the crowd started to break up and disperse again Rejon helped cover me as I poured water all over the guy's stupid Pingu tarp, and then we slipped into the crowd and put as much distance as possible between us and the Jerkasaurus Rex.

NiQui hadn't fully realised what was happening and wasn't sure why we needed to move in that direction so fast, but Rejon assured her that what I did was exactly what needed to be done and that was exactly how we needed to move away from the scene, lol. #truefriends

Now, by the time 8 P.M. rolled around, we were pretty beat. We'd taken a longish train ride, gone up a small mountain, played like kids, ventured to the obscure gem of a museum in the middle of nowhere, and dealt with this massive crowd, not to mention a wide and colourful range of emotions.
But with the way the streets were blocked off and how all movement ceased once a float was slowly passing by, it was weirdly, extremely hard to leave. We tried to escape I think three or four times, and when we did finally make it to the back roads of the town, we hit a detour after having thought we were almost to the station via a clever shortcut. They were funneling everyone to the station, en masse, via one small street.


And this is what it looked like on the platform. Being the last stop on only one line, both trains were Ikebukuro-bound, but it was like rush hour in the city.

We managed to get a seat (Japanese train platforms have virtually no seats on them even though the ones in Tokyo are always crowded and some trains are 9 or more minutes apart), and considered squishing ourselves onto one of the departing trains that was already pretty full, but said screw it. 
We watched a woman try to help her toddler with his winter garments, apparently oblivious to the fact that he wasn't being fussy, but just didn't want her to put him down on the cold ground because he was barefoot for some ungodly reason. He probably ended up with pneumonia. We talked about how clueless and irresponsible parents are in general, and how in Japan, adults are always overdressed (full wool or down coats, huge scarves, etc. even when it's in the 70's out) and their kids are almost chronically underdressed, wearing little skirts or shorts even when it's snowing.
It was a few minutes later, when the train in front of us still wasn't leaving, that we realised something was wrong.

Everyone on the platform started to realise it too, and started to talk about it, check their phones, and wonder aloud what was going on. The one train was now something like ten minutes late in departing, and an announcement that all of them were not running at that time was made. The station master and employees were running up and down the platform somewhat frantically to communicate with the drivers and make harried phone calls.

People debated smushing themselves into the trains, because at this point no one knew what was going on and how long it would take to get home. Some did, some decided against it. The official announcement literally said, with characteristically unhelpful Japanese vagueness, that "an occurrence had occurred". 


The fireworks were still periodically going off in the background, and we kept thinking it was the grand finale, but those don't usually last for an hour with frequent pauses, right?


All of the people in this photo clearly don't think so, but that was part of what made the combination so comical.

Whenever the train people are this reluctant to tell you what kind of delay it is, it's always safe to assume it's a jumper. As it turned out, though we didn't know it until after we eventually made it home, this was an extremely inconsiderate jumper at Tokorozawa who I hope had no idea that thousands of people were trapped at the very end of the line because of him or her. If it was intentional, well, then fuck you too, friend.

It had taken us so long to escape the parade itself, and we ended up waiting about an hour from we originally got to the platform to the time we were finally on a departing train. It was cold, and Rejon had clearly hit a wall, gotten to that point where she just needed to go to bed. A lot of other people were there, too, and we were all trying to maintain order when a functioning train finally pulled up and was getting ready to open its doors. 
We felt pretty good about our chances of getting a seat, but then witnessed something none of us had ever seen (and NiQui has lived in Japan for almost a decade): people bolting full-speed, sprinting, for seats on the train, and diving into them. I saw a man literally smash into/get splayed against the window behind the seats when he had to catch himself instead of throwing himself onto a woman who had rapidly and cunningly snatched his intended seat from under his nose. Some other people laughed incredulously with us, and we were all like, "Hooooly shit."

We thought our ordeal was more or less over even though the prospect of standing in a crowd for about 80 more minutes was something deeply unappealing by then, but of course, it was not. It was far more than 80 minutes. The entire line was a complete clusterfuck because of the jumper and the huge numbers of festivalgoers, and the train dragged itself along through the fathomless blackness of the countryside (once the still-popping fireworks were finally out of sight) for what felt like an eternity. If those floats made you think of Spirited Away, then think of this as the incredibly long, sleepy train ride scene.

The worst part wasn't the fact that we were so deep into Saitama that there were literally no lights at all around or visible on the horizon for a while, but that the train halted, opened its doors, and waited for 5 - 10 minutes at Buttfuck Nowhere Stations 1 - 11, the driver letting in cold air and trying to quell mutinous impulses with equally cold and ambivalent messages about the ongoing delays each time, so that we had no idea how long we'd be waiting at each of the 15 or 20 stations we had to stop at, because neither did he.

We hung on the plastic rings like meat in a butcher's shop window or like kids especially hesitant to come in after recess. Our feet hurt and while I slowly lost my tenuous grip on what sanity remained to me, NiQui entered some Zen-like self-preservation state and Rejon seriously debated stealthily sitting on a sleeping person by applying just a little bit of her weight at a time so that they might not notice. She gently leaned into a woman sitting in front of her to test it, and the woman woke up and shifted. "God, damn it, fuck!" she breathed exhaustedly. 

I promised that Rejon could sit on my lap if I managed to snatch a seat, and then it happened:



She cited this completely bizarre, but, as always, totally on-point meme as the only way to describe her gratitude:



I changed trains at Shakujiikoen, which should not have looked anything like this near the end of the train schedule, even on a Saturday night. Rejon and NiQui continued on to Ikebukuro, hoping they wouldn't have to pay too much for taxis to actually make it home.

We were all glad, of course, that we hadn't gotten completely stranded in Chichibu, because that just wouldn't have worked at all. Too cold to sleep outside, nowhere to actually stay. 

I sent this to our group chat when I got home (it's supposed to be glühwein bath salt) and then apologised upon realising I was the first one home by a pretty wide margin, but Rejon said it was #goals as opposed to "too soon". Hannes had been out with his guy friends and had heard about the jumper in passing, so I managed to mutter just a few slurred words on my way to the hot bath, but he seemed to understand.

Despite the genuinely arduous trek home, the almost total lack of any kind of transportation to Mitsumine shrine, and The Mysterious Slapper, it was a truly good and epic day. 
The highlights for me were absolutely looking up into and listening to the soothing rustle of the tall trees at the playground, meeting the wonderful woman at the hall of curious stones, and having those succulent stuffed pancakes and baked potatoes. I highly recommend this festival and the various natural sights around Chichibu. Something I've learned in our nearly two years in Tokyo is that making time to get out of it is one of the most important aspects of living in it, and this is a UNESCO-approved way to do just that. 

I hope we get to do at least one more of these day trips before Hannes and I move, because I love you guys.