Journey in Japan Part 53: In the Land of Spuds and Money

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Today I overslept. It is 4 pm when I finally crawl from my bed. Having missed most of the day, and without a plan, I decide to head to Asakusa to find something to do.

When I get to Asakusa, I instantly hear the sound of banging drums. Following the music, I find that there is a festival taking place, the Hirosaki Neputa Festival. Usually a summer festival, the participants come to the more commercial area of Asakusa to raise attention for their event. Neputa floats are dragged on wheels across the floor. A samurai, and a golden dragon.

These floats up until last year were carried in the air, but sadly, at an event last year in Hirosaki, a man was crushed to death when one of the floats collapsed; so for safety reasons the floats are no longer floating.

The parade includes people carrying lanterns, hitting drums, and music from a chorus of flutes. It also includes more people carrying red traffic controlling light sticks than I’ve previously seen in one place. I continue to follow the procession through Asakusa, until it passes Sensō-ji; at this point I decide I have seen enough, so instead head off for something to drink.

I head to a nearby bar for a chat with some of the locals. I meet a man who hasn’t had a day off work for over a year, and works an average of fourteen hours a day. A man celebrating his birthday comes into the bar in a full Santa Claus outfit. Quite an odd sight to see in mid-November. He orders a bottle of champagne and pours everyone a glass. A few of the customers tell me about an event this evening that starts at exactly midnight. I decide to go and think that waking up at 4 pm wasn’t such as waste of a day after all.

After a while of drinking, I had outside to discover that the department store Rox are putting up their Christmas decorations. These aren’t the only decorations outside though, loads of little yellow paper lanterns mark the route leading to the shrine for the festival. I follow the yellow lit road and eventually arrive at the entrance to Otori Shrine.

Tonight, an event known as Tori-no-Ichi is taking place. Held every November on each day of the rooster, over thirty Otori Shrines across Japan host this strange festival. Today is Tori-no-Ichi part one of three, the second instalment will be held twelve days from now. The main focus of the festival is rakes. A special rake known as a ‘kumade’ harnesses the power of a god and brings with it good financial fortune and prosperity in business.

People here are holding last years kumade, here to return them and replace them with a slightly larger rake. They don’t get a refund for the rake they bought last year; I am not even sure what happens to them; presumably, they are resold in twelve days time. These decorated rakes start from the smallest versions, costing around ¥1000 each, with the largest rakes, usually reserved for huge companies, costing around ¥800 million.

I find it somewhat ironic that the more you spend on a kumade, the more wealth you are said to acquire. I will take a small ¥1000 rake and keep my money, thanks. Every time a kumade is sold, a ritual of hand clapping known as ‘tejime’ is performed by the stallholder, and just about everyone else in the vicinity. After walking through a huge market of shops all selling the same thing, I no longer feel as though I am inside the grounds of a shrine. It feels like I am lost in a city of market stalls that stretch infinitely and indefinitely.

Pulled along by a wave of shuffling crowds, my route is decided for me, and I somehow end up at the front of the main shrine. I throw in a ¥100 coin (more expense), ring one of the huge bells, bow twice, clap twice, bow again, before praying, for nothing at all. After praying I am pushed out of the shrine toward one of the side exits. People leave happy with their now blessed kumade, the only thing left for them to do is carry their massive rakes home.

The shrine exits into yet another market.

The market smells incredible and is mostly stalls selling foods and beverages. For the third time today I am reminded of Christmas. I wander up to one stall selling decorated bananas. Once again etiquette dictates that I have to buy a souvenir, and I can’t think of a better gift than a chocolate coated banana. After handing over ¥300 to the stallholder, he makes a fist with his hand. “One, two, three, rock,” he says. I hold out my hand flat. “Ah, paper, you win!” Brilliant, for the second time this week I win a banana.

Next, a stall selling something that gives off the best smell I have ever experienced. I have to queue a while, perhaps fifteen minutes, all the while salivating as I watch more and more of the delicious looking hot cakes baked before my eyes.

Eventually, I reach the front of the queue. I excitedly hand over ¥300 and purchase a bag of twelve delicious hot kasutera. This sponge cake is made from milk, honey, eggs, sugar, and flour, and is now my favourite snack. I will come to Tori-no-Ichi part two, if not just to buy more of this delightful treat.

I head to a shop selling yakisoba; a type of Japanese fried noodle served with vegetables. The stallholder here says that because my eyes are the bluest he has ever seen, he will give me a special, larger serving. I sit on a bench and devour my yakisoba, surrounded by the sights and smells of this huge market.

On my way home I continue my walk through the stalls and see a shop selling ¥400 baked potatoes. Still slightly hungry, I decide to make one final stop. It turns out the stallholder here doesn’t know how to haggle. I ask for one potato, but he says that I can have four for ¥300 instead. A discount of 25% for four times the potato I asked for. I can’t argue with his wild logic.

With my free banana, free potatoes, and an empty bag of kasutera, I realise that for me, the prosperity promised by this festival has instantly started to pay off.

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