Karatsu Autumn Festival

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One of my best and most traditional experiences in Japan! Chi, a Japanese friend invited us to a traditional festival in Karatsu Japan on Kyushu Island. Of course we said yes and my sister and I were picked up on a raining morning with another American friend and Chi to hit the road. We were zipping along in seconds and I feel like in Japan the towns are so close but because the speed limit is always so slow and the roads are so narrow and the roads zig and zag it is always hard to get to where you are going quickly.

Karatsu is a town close to Saga and holds the biggest Autumn festival of Kyushu island every year. Karatsu is composed of 14 cho’s (neighborhoods) which each have a giant float made of plastic and lacquer. Each year someone in the cho is chosen to ride on top of the float and a big group of the young men and women and children pull the floats through the city with long ropes while they beat drums and play music. It was amazing!

Floats of Karatsu

Floats of Karatsu

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Before the parade started we went to a traditional Japanese house for dinner. During the festival which lasts the whole week, there is much food prepared to celebrate. A large fish is cooked under hot coals for 3 days time and there are just platters of everything. We came inside the house, removed our shoes, and were ushered to sit down at a low table laden with food. We were then given small bowls and dishes to try the food to our hearts content. One of the men even let us try on his silk robe that was embroidered with war fighters! He had already drank a bit too much sake. haha.

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When we left that house the guy in the silk robe followed us out and insisted that we come across the street to his home. We tried our hardest to politely decline but he wasn’t having it so off we went, up to his house, to the surprise of his family. They were very nice and passed around a soup for us to try with mushrooms, greens, and rice cakes. We didn’t stay long since our group had about 9 people and we had yet another place to get to.

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We headed back into the town and got a cab ride to a restaurant that one of the Japanese people knew the owner and it turns out we were ushered into the closed restaurant to be served personally by the chef. The chef’s wife also asked me to help interview her son in English for a class project. Of course I accepted.

By the time we tried all of the delicious foods he had prepared for us, I was completely stuffed. At this time the rain had started to pick up outside pitter-pattering down the roof tops. They allowed us to borrow umbrellas and then we were off walking towards the center of town for the parade.

The streets were a sight to be hold! Every cho was dressed in their silk robes representing their neighborhood and we lined up in the streets with everyone else as one of the floats rounded the corner. It was magnificent. Apparently they hold the parade for hours but because of the rain they were bringing the floats to the center of the town and getting them inside out of the weather so they wouldn’t get ruined. What a great festival and parade!

I ended the day at a stand buying a banana dipped in chocolate on a stick. We were kindly given a ride back to our car and hit the road for home. Chi had stayed behind with her friends so it was just the American crew on the way back. We got lost about 8 different times which is the usual over here. haha.

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This is one of my most favorite Japanese experiences so far!

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[OBON] Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.-George Eliot

Obon. What is Obon? Obon is a Japanese holiday in which they celebrate the spirits of the ancestors whom have died. They believe that during this week of festivities their ancestors come back to celebrate their lives with the living family members and they remember and rejoice for the dead. In doing so they carry flowers and set them on piles, light incense with a Buddhist monk, throw fire crackers, wheel floats around with pictures of their ancestors on them, and make lighted lanterns to set in the water. I arrived in Japan on a Sunday and Obon was being held that very next Wednesday. Since I didn’t get my uniforms till Wednesday afternoon it made it very hard to meet people since I couldn’t even be seen at my job. All of the girls I was sharing a room with were gone at schools and I was spending the past few days alone. This left plenty of time for me to explore Sasebo and find out what Obon was all about.

On Wednesday I was still recovering from the jet lag but I set out on foot leaving the naval base behind me as I joined the crowds celebrating Obon. I didn’t know exactly where they were headed ┬ábut all of the Japanese people marched to a baseball field where they brought straw mats wrapped with flowers and floats with pictures of their deceased loved ones. As I was walking down the street I turned a corner and almost screamed because people were throwing firecrackers around a float and it scared the crap out of me! I decided to follow them because they seemed to be the life of the party. I think they became suspicious because they kept looking back at me, but I didn’t mind. I just smiled and nodded.

Then we got to the baseball field and there was already a large pile of flowers and straw mats with floats in the middle. It was a somber atmosphere and once you placed your flowers onto the pile you walked over to the monks and burned some incense and prayed. As I found out, it is very somber during the day, and as the night and celebrations press on, the drunk people start livening up the night singing and dancing. A guy from my ship showed me a video from last year of a Japanese guy who was really drunk, standing on tons of floats and lighting firecrackers off. I missed all that. After I left the baseball field I went and found a small diner that was making rice and noodles and had some dinner then walked back to the barge.

Preparing a mini Pire for the dead.

Watching floats walk towards the event on the streets while they throw firecrackers on the ground.

On Friday some of the girls from my ship were having a little get together to say goodbye to another girl who was heading back to America. They invited me along. It was awesome! We went to this place that the American’s call the Beer Garden and its on the top of this building that has a supermarket beneath it. I tried to take a taxi there but it failed miserably. The taxi driver dropped me off and I started walking and I called one of the girls for help and in the end I walked all the way back to where I got picked up in the first place. It was the most pitiful taxi ride I’ve ever had and it cost me 500 Yen.

Once I finally got there, I found out that you pay one fee and its all you can eat and drink. The food was okay but as far as the drinking goes I had my first experience with Chuhi’s [chew-high’s]. Chuhi’s are these flavored drinks made of Sochu which is a lil like sake but not quite, a dab of flavored fruit syrup, and some seltzer water served with a lime. I started drinking my first one (a peach flavored one) and was like, O come on this is so not even alcoholic at all. I mean not even a small hint. Then I had a second one (a lime flavored one) and when I finished that and went to stand up I realized that things were starting to swim around in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. I quit drinking them right then because I was walking back to the base and I didn’t want to get lost so I had no form of communication. They are so delicious!

The beer garden closed at 9 unfortunately but that didn’t stop these crazy americans, so about 15 of us walked down the street to the next bar which was called the Westerner and it was a sight to behold. All of these older Japanese women dress up like Westerner’s and they serve beer out of boot glasses. I had heard of it and seen pictures of it from other people who have been to Sasebo but there’s nothing like living it. We karoke’d and one of the guys in our group even sang a Japanese song. it was pretty outrageous.

Japanese salt shaker.

On Sunday I decided to go to the Goto Islands, but you’ll have to wait for the next post for that!