Bunkasai!

Over the last weekend of September – 27th & 28th – the combined junior high/high school I work at had their annual 文化祭 (bunkasai). This is the annual cultural festival held at all schools in Japan. Every festival is a little (or a lot!) different. Our students put a huge amount of effort into our event. For them, it’s the most exciting time of the year! It’s great to see the school and community come together to celebrate the students – all 1,600 of them! School festivals are open to the public, and prospective parents as well as current parents are encouraged to visit the school to see what the kids have been up to. This year, over 10,000 people visited our school over the 2 days!

Homerooms

Every homeroom works together to put together something special in their classrooms or in the school grounds. Right after the summer vacation, the students get in full swing designing, planning and making decorations. And especially in the week leading up to the festival, the school hallways are a minefield of paint, cardboard, paper, scissors, and pens! Spirits are high as the students buzz around trying to finish everything on time!

Clubs

Clubs are a huge part of school life in Japan. At our school, there are over 30 clubs for lots of different sports, cultural activities, music, sciences, etc. Almost all students participate in 1 or more club until they are in their final year of high school. There are so many talented kids at our school and the pictures below are just a snapshot of a few I enjoyed watching on the weekend.

Art displays

I was SO impressed with the art put on show at this year’s festival!! In their regular art class, the 2nd-year junior high school students (14y.o.) had a project where they had to design a Google logo. I believe these were actually submitted to Google for a competition or something like that. It’s so awesome to see the different talents my students have in other areas (i.e. outside of English communication class) which I would otherwise not know about! I was also extremely impressive with the Art Club’s display – they had a special exhibition showcasing pictures using unusual techniques. It was the first time I’ve ever seen a picture made out of uncooked, flat pasta! I was blown away!

Closing party

The final event on the final day is a massive after-party on the sports field! All the students look forward to relaxing on the grass, chatting with their friends, while different bands and dance groups give their last performances. This year, we were treated with a hilarious dance performance by three staff members. The whole school got behind them, cheering them on! It was a great way to end a fun but busy weekend!

Summer Festivals: Fuji Rock

Try to picture this: you are up in the mountains, 40 minutes from the nearest train station, in a ski resort-come-festival grounds; surrounded by forest and low-lying clouds; music beating from every direction (200 different performers over 3 days); 11 stages spread out through the valley connected by paths that lead through forests and over shallow rivers; disco balls raised above the paths which bounce pieces of light off into the dark forest at night; camping grounds full of colourful tents; and 100,000 happy festival goers enjoying this amazing event.

Fuji Rock festival was on July 25, 26, 27. My friend and I went just for the final day/night. Tickets are fairly expensive – for a one-day pass plus camping, we paid about $200 each! But it was so worth it. If the lineup is good next year, I definitely want to go again, and probably for the whole weekend – one day isn’t enough to soak it all up!

The first ever festival, back in 1997, was at the base of Mt Fuji, which is where its name comes from. Although it featured some pretty big names – Green Day, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine – it wasn’t very successful due to bad weather. The next year they tried a venue in Tokyo, and the following year they eventually moved to its current location up in Niigata prefecture at Naeba Ski Resort.

I’ve been to a few music festivals in my life. Usually it’s a one-day event with a bunch of stages, a couple of big tents, some side show alley type entertainment and a lot of greasy food. Fuji Rock takes festivals to a whole other level!

Fuji Rock

A very colourful, magical, fun, and well thought out concept!

Unexpectedly, there were lots of young families. I guess there’s no reason kids should miss out! For the little ones, there was even a designated ‘Kids Land’. It reminded me a bit of Pocahontas-land! Super fun and cute.

Some of the different stages on the east side. It was a fair hike from the main stages on the west side!

John Butler Trio! An Australian rock/reggae band who play a lot near my hometown actually. They are really popular in Oz. John Butler is the lead/singer/guitarist (on the left) – his guitar skills are pretty insane. The newest member is Grant Gerathy on the drums. Loved how he was smiling for the whole gig. And on the right is Byron Luiters, who played the bass, keyboard and cello, and even sang a little!

Lorde! An amazingly talented 17 year old electropop/rock singer from New Zealand. She talked to the crowd about how grateful she was to be there, as did all the acts we saw, but she just seemed really honest and mature beyond her years. I love love loved her! The climax at the end of her show with the streamers bursting out still gives me goosebumps!

Possibly the biggest crowd drawer for the night – OutKast! If you’ve been under a rock for the past couple of decades, they’re a hip hop group from the U.S. The duo, André 3000 and Big Boi, were probably most well known back in the early 2000s, and this year are doing their ’20th anniversary world tour’. It was so cool to hear songs like ‘Hey Ya’ and ‘Ms Jackson’ which everyone knows, and André was pretty funny – at one point he jumped up and sat on the speakers, but couldn’t get down because it was raining and the stage was slippery! Someone had to get him a towel to land on. That’ll teach him!

Can’t wait for next year!!

Summer Festivals: Kagurazaka Awa Odori

This festival should really be called the ‘cute kids festival’. Little elementary school children packed the main street stretching between Iidabashi Station and Kagurazaka Station. Awa Odori is a dance festival, originally from Tokushima prefecture, with groups of traditional dancers and musicians. This year’s Kagurazaka Awa Odori was held over four days: July 23, 24, 25, and 26.

At 6pm, the festivities kicked off. The children, in different ‘teams’, chanted and danced (wildly waving their arms in the air) as they made their way up the congested street.

As night drew near, the ‘professionals’ showed us all how it’s done. The Awa Odori dance is quite unique and eye-catching. The girls twist their body, knees high, arms out. Those sandals can’t be easy to dance in!

Up Next: Fuji Rock music festival

Summer Festivals: Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri

The Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri takes over the streets of downtown Shinjuku for a day every summer – this year it was on Saturday July 26.

I was actually on my way to meet a couple of friends for lunch when I stumbled across this festival. Well, I guess I can’t say I ‘stumbled’ across it when the drums could be heard blocks away! Shinjuku is always buzzing with activity. There are ALWAYS a lot of people. Something’s always going on. You kind of just get used to it and pass things by without a second glance. But on this day, the beating drums and excited crowds drew me in! After realising it was the Eisa Matsuri, I straight away remembered I’d actually stumbled across the same festival 3 years ago when I was visiting Tokyo with friends. I still have a fan I’d received there (pic below)! The 3.11 Earthquake was fresh in everyone’s minds and I remember the festival really emphasising the ‘togetherness’ of Japan, the importance of everyone coming together during such a hard time.

This year’s festival was just as vibrant as 2011. The summer sun was blaring and hand-held fans could be seen waving furiously among the crowd. The performers did a great job considering! Eisa is actually a Bon dance originating from Okinawa. Bon, or Obon, is a Buddhist custom that keeps the memory of ancestors alive. People get together and dance and sing and play taiko (drums) and flutes and shamisen (like a banjo). I think the original meaning has been lost a little over the years and these days it’s just a fun celebration! This year, there were 25 teams of performers, each from different universities, schools, companies, and clubs.

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri

Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri

Up Next: Kagurazaka Awa Odori

Summer Festivals: Adachi Fireworks

It’s that time of the year again: FESTIVAL SEASON! Nothing says summer in Japan more than fireworks displays, colourful yukata, beer gardens, awa dances, Obon and Tanabata!! It’s the party season, i.e. the best time to get out with your friends and enjoy life!

Kicking off my new “summer festivals” series is a fireworks festival by the name of Adachi no Hanabi.

The Adachi Fireworks is Tokyo’s first major summer fireworks festival of the year. It takes place on the Arakawa River for an audience of roughly 610,000. This year, it was on Saturday July 19.

I got together with two friends, all of us excited to be wearing our yukata (summer kimono), and headed out to Kitasenju in northern Tokyo. Just as our train pulled up at the station, the worst possible thing happened: it started to rain. I was afraid it would be a repeat of the Sumidagawa Fireworks last year, which got cancelled because of a storm. With our fingers crossed, we decided to brave the wind and rain and make a dash for the riverbank. However, Mother Nature had other plans, and the rain got stronger and stronger. We got about half way and were forced to take refuge in a bicycle parking lot. There was still 20 minutes left until the fireworks were to start, and we were just praying the rain would stop. It eventually died down enough for us to keep going. No matter what, we were going to get to that river!

By the time we got to the site, the rain was pouring again and we were drenched. It was almost funny. We had been so excited for this night, and just like that, it looked like it would be all over before it even started. The view of the riverbank was a pretty sad sight! The rain had sent everyone running for cover under a big bridge, and left the area almost deserted.

7:30pm came, and astonishingly, the first fireworks was shot up in the air. Forgetting about the cold rain, people excitedly rushed out from under the bridge. I almost wanted to cheer out loud! And what was even more awesome, about 15 minutes in, the rain stopped completely and it turned out to be a great fireworks display! What a tease, Mother Nature!

Up next: Shinjuku Eisa Festival

One for the Gals

There are loads of holidays in Japan that celebrate everything from the Emperor to sports to the ocean! There’s a day for the oldies, called keiro no hi; a day for the lads, called Kodomo no hi; and a day for the gals, called Hinamatsuri. Strangely, there’s no “parents’ day” and mothers’ day and fathers’ day are not really recognized.

If you hadn’t guessed already, it just so happens that today is Girls’ Day (also known as Doll’s Day)! **Cue music: Beyoncé “Who run the world? Girls!”** Every year on March 3, girls are given a special day to thank them for being the most amazing, wonderful creatures! (just kidding). No, the day is actually to pray for the growth and well-being of young girls. The main feature of the celebration is a doll display. There are lots of different sizes of displays, but all have the Emperor and Empress on the top tier. Below them, you can see the court ladies, musicians, ministers, lots of sake and sweets, and at the very bottom is furniture belonging to the royal family. When a girl is born in Japan, it is tradition for the grandparents to give the family a doll display, which will be put up in their home every year. It gets set up some time in February, and MUST be taken down on March 3 otherwise it is bad luck, and consequently the daughters will get married late!

It’s a very sweet tradition, and over the years has become more and more commercialized. These days you can even see bakeries with hinamatsuri cakes. They are so delicious! The hina dolls have been reproduced through Hello Kitty, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and many other popular characters, too!

Here are some photos I’ve taken in the past few years, at friends’ houses and at public venues.