Karatsu Kunchi: Feasting and House-hopping

Food and alcohol are undeniably an important part of Karatsu Kunchi. Locals open their houses to family, neighbors, friends, and even strangers to come and spend a little time eating and drinking. Most of the women and some of the men in the family will work tirelessly to prepare a variety and large quantities of food. Every year ALTs are invited to the homes of co-workers and friends. One house we visit always has an elaborate spread of local food.

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This giant delicious fish was the centerpiece of the entire meal! Photo courtesy of Jess 2014

The centerpiece of the feast is a large fish called Ara あら, or seabream in English. Families save up money all year-round for this massive fish. One fish can cost several hundred to a couple thousands of dollars. No corners are cut when it comes to a Karatsu Kunchi feast.

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Japanese Seabream in the centerpiece of a Kunchi Feast

People never stay too long as they will probably visit many houses during the festival and there are many mouths to feed. The alcohol is always flowing and I usually bring a decent sized bottle of sake to the houses I know I’m visiting as a gift to help replenish supplies. Beer is always on hand as families tend to stock up on crates of beer.

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A beautiful presentation of sashimi

Sometimes you get spontaneous invitations from friends going to other houses or running into people you know. Last year I ended up in the house of a firefighter who was friends with one of my teachers. There we got a front row seat to the hikiyama parading through the neighborhood.

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For Americans and Canadians, think of Kunchi as a Thanksgiving of sorts. Everyone is celebrating the good fortune of the year and show their appreciation by sharing food with not only family but the community and strangers as well. After pulling the floats, the men hop between houses in their home neighborhoods and those of their friends. Children and teenagers visit their friend’s houses or hang out at the food stalls downtown.

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Kunchi house fair is usually made up of raw and cooked fish, shellfish, rice balls,  hamburger steaks, sushi, tempura, bread, fruits, and cooked vegetables. This year I was fortunate enough to be invited to a very important house. The husband was a leader for one of the floats and he knew one of my teachers. We spent a good time chatting and eating delicious food. As we were leaving we thanked the wife and other women for the food.To my surprise, she gave each of us a hand embroidered dish towel and cute squid shaped sweet called youkan. It’s like a firm jelly and it pairs well with strong green tea.

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Yuzu flavored youkan, a traditional Japanese sweet, in the shape of a Yobuko squid.

Karatsu Kunchi is my favorite festival in Japan. I love the food and hospitality that is given to old friends and strangers alike. As an ALT, Kunchi is the time I really feel like I am a part of the community. For foreigners wanting to experience Kunchi for themselves, I don’t recommend just popping into any old house. Enjoy the parades and the delicious stall food. But if you get an invitation, I recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and take the chance to experience a true Karatsu Kunchi.

Ochi Ajisai Matsuri 2017

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I apologize for the lack of posts this month. I caught a bad bug earlier this month and was out of commission for about a week and then I had to play catch up at work. On top of that, we are preparing for the arrival of our new JET ALTs in Saga! It’s an exciting time for new JETs as everyone is finding out their placements. So will out further ado – ON WITH THE POST!

I am excited to present the Ouchi Ajisai Matsuri!

Ouchi is a small town on the outskirts of Karatsu City. Driving through it doesn’t look like much it holds one of my favorite spots in Karatsu, the Mikaeri Falls. The Mikaeri Falls are accessible year-round but the most popular time to go is throughout June to view all the Hydrangea. It’s so beautiful that the folks in Ouchi have made a festival out of it. In Japanese ajisai means hydrangea, and they are popular flowers after sakura and wisteria.

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Japanese hydrangea typically blooms during the rainy season. In Kyushu, hydrangea reaches its peak in June. Ouchi runs the Ajisai Matsuri for almost the entire month of June. Unfortunately, like many places around the world, Kyushu has been hot and dry. On the weekend my friends and I went, well into June, it had yet to rain. It was a hot and sunny day and lots of kids played in the river, but the flowers were suffering. We did our best on a tight schedule and a hot day.

 

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Friends nerding out over the genetics of a hydrangea bush with multiple colors. You know, normal stuff.

 

Be warned, going on the weekend means traffic. There is only one road leading to the festival so it’s busy. Police direct traffic efficiently so the wait isn’t too long. After parking, we decided to grab lunch at a house advertising soba noodles. This house is right next to the road and surrounded by recently planted rice fields. The family runs a small lunch spot in the front tatami rooms of the house. All of us order the soba lunch set. The coolest thing about this lunch set is that it’s two servings of noodles cooked on a stone roof tile.

After waiting in traffic and enjoying an extended lunch, we realized we didn’t have a lot of time left before we needed to return for David to catch the train. So, we took our time with the front half of the festival and vowed to come back after it rained.

 

Stay tuned for Day 2 of the Ajisai Festival, where I return after the rain and get some gorgeous pictures of te hydrangea around the waterfall!

Check out it here!

Wisteria Hysteria: Golden Week

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Title courtesy of David

After the Sakura finish blooming in early March, you don’t have to wait long for another famous flower to bloom. Early May (AKA Golden Week), is the best time to see blooming Wisteria. Since I was traveling a lot during Golden Week I was able to see various places from Karatsu to Kyoto covered in curtains of purple.

For those of you unfamiliar with wisteria, it is a woody vine that is native to Japan. Its flowers hang in long tendrils of purple or white. I didn’t really notice it last year because I was in Hokkaido for Golden Week. But, this year I realized that you can find wisteria pretty much everywhere. It is a wild plant that will climb anything in reach. Many roadside trees sport splashes of purple in spring. It is also can live a long time. Some are over 100 years old!

I missed the wisteria bloom last year much to my mother’s display. So this year she sent me on a mission to send her pictures of wisteria from Karatsu Castle. Luckily, with the help of David, I went above and beyond my original assignment.

Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Nara

During Golden Week, David and I decided to pop over to Nara to do some sightseeing together. We both had been to Nara before but never together. We spent the day looking for things we had yet to see. I finally explored the back stretch of the park, and we after visiting Toudaiji we stumbled on a special hall which I will be posting about soon, but I had the honor of introducing the Kasuga Taisha Shrine to David.

I visited last year and I was keen to show David it’s famous hallways of lamps, but to my surprise, it is also famous for its wisteria. Mind blown. This is why you have to travel during different seasons. Who knows what gems you might find? Some of the wisteria is well tended and other vines are allowed to roam free in the trees.

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A well-kept wisteria in Kasuga Taisha

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It has taken over this giant tree

 

Keep an eye out of my Golden Week posts, I will post the rest of my Kasuga Shrine pictures soon

Various Shrines in Shiga Prefecture

Nara wasn’t the only place celebrating the blooming wisteria. Many of the shrines across Japan hold viewing events that help raise money for shrines or thelocal community.

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Karatsu Castle, Karatsu (duh.)

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Karatsu Castle’s Wisteria is over 100 hundred years old and is a designated natural monument to the city. The boughs cover a wide veranda at the top of the stairs. For most of the year, the tree provides a leafy shade from the sun. But that changes in spring when the curtains of purple Wisteria provide a beautiful welcome to Karatsu’s “dancing crane” castle.

 

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Almost at the top (of the main stairway)

 

 

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The base of a 100-year-old vine is bound to be gnarly

 

 

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Wisteria flowers can grow to over one meter in length!

 

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You can find a brand new white wisteria further into the courtyard.

Zo Many Zakura

 

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Big thanks to David for thinking of this title while we enjoyed the zakura.

 

Last week I posted about the Karatsu Hanami on Kagamiyama. This post is all the other Sakura pictures I took during the season – and by that I mean one or two weeks.

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So pretty but so fleeting

Cherry Blossom season is very special to Japan. Sakura or cherry blossoms are the unofficial national flower, it welcomes spring, and reminds us that life is beautiful if not short. The short blooming season makes sakura a unique experience and plays well into Japan’s seasonal marketing. Japan might is king of seasonal goods. Throughout the year you find snacks of incredible taste and variety but only for the short period. Many things are sold in limited quantities as well so you have to be quick. Sakura season is no different.

 

One of the most popular places to view cherry blossoms in Karatsu is at Karatsu Castle. Whether it’s during the day or enjoying a lantern lit night viewing it provides an experience bursting with pink and a great view of the city, too.

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It’s too bad that the weather was poor this year. The fog was beautiful though. I’m glad the rain held off so we could enjoy a full bloom. Many of the streets in Karatsu are line with Sakura. You can check my sakura post from last year here.

 

Sakura in the Fog

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One of the best things about living in Japan is being able to experience Hanami 花見 or cherry blossom viewing. Newspapers print when and where the sakura will be in full bloom. It’s important to plan ahead especially if you want to travel, and many local venues with fill up quickly with viewing parties if the weather is good.

This year in Karatsu spring was quite chilly and the blooming was delayed. Full bloom or mankai 満開 lasts about a week. This year full bloom was pushed back to the first full week of April.

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This year I wanted to check out the park and observatory on top of Kagamiyama or Mt. Kagami. I had been there a few months before to finally check it out. Since this post is about Sakura and I will save it for another post. Anyways when I was there I realized that many of the trees surrounding the fields and parks were Sakura trees. Thus, I decided that this year’s Karatsu ALT Hanami would be at Kagamiyama.

This year we were plagued with cold weather and rain. Luckily the rain was light and most of the blossoms stayed on the trees for the weekend. On the Saturday of the party, the morning was free of rain and actually had a bit of sun. Excited that the weather had turned in our favor we packed up our cars and took the winding drive up the mountain. I regret not having pictures of the drive up. The sakura trees were big, beautiful and in full bloom creating a pink tunnel around the road.

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By the end of the party, we couldn’t see this bridge!

Once at the top, we parked and started to unload. Many people were still skeptical of the weather so there was plenty of space to park and find a perfect viewing spot. But we hadn’t realized that while the weather below the mountain was partially clear and sunny, on top of the mountain the fog was still hanging around.

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A stone table all to ourselves

 

I didn’t mind the fog. It made the park mysterious and oddly beautiful. We nabbed a viewing spot near a stone table with a past peak tree hanging overhead that dropped pink blossom onto our picnic. In an odd way, it was sort of perfect.

 

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Look at al those cherry blossoms falling!

 

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Remember to take your shoes off!
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Hanami commenced and the snack-age begins.

We got about 2 hours of good cherry blossom viewing, snacking, drinking (what’s hanami without alcohol?), and party games, before the fog thickened and started to rain. While it was a short hanami it was fun and special. It’s not often you get to see sakura bloom in the fog.

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Karatsu Kunchi: Day 2 – The Sand Pull

That’s right I said sand pull. It’s the only way I can describe what you are about to see

 

The second day of Karatsu Kunchi begins mid-morning at a large sand lot between an elementary school and a major road. The road has been blocked to make way for the floats and hundreds of spectators who watch the 1-ton structures dash into the loose sand. It doesn’t take long to get stuck. Each team tries to pull their hikiyama as far in as possible. After the initial “pull” the ropes are reversed and the hikiyama is pulled to the far edge to line up with the others. This is a true test of strength

 

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Taiyama – one of the most popular floats. It is also one of two floats the swing to and fro.

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Shuten Doji on samurai Yorimitsu Minamoto’s Helmet (wow that’s a mouthful!) preparing to dash onto the sand.

 

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My friends and I were lucky to find an open spot across the street to view the event. The sidewalks were packed with people and those in our group brave enough to venture off found it difficult to move. It took some of us more than 30 minutes to reach our main group. We took turns climbing on a concrete ledge with a fence to get a better view. Most of my pictures were taken this way with someone bracing my legs so I wouldn’t fall over.

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It takes a lot of muscle to move the floats through the sand.

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After the floats are lined up spectators are allowed to walk onto the field, take pictures with their favorite floats, and find participating family members.

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So there you have it! But wait that’s not the end of Day 2! Stay tuned for Karatsu Kunchi Day 2 Part 2 – Feasting and House-Hopping Kunchi-style!

See you next time

 

 

 

Kyushu Festivals: Karatsu Kunchi – Day One

If you ever find yourself in Japan at the beginning of November, I implore you to make your way down south to the island of Kyushu to a city called Karatsu. It’s nestled on the west coast of Kyushu and quite easy to reach from Fukuoka.

November is the busiest time of the year for Karatsu. For three days people from all over Japan and the world come to eat, drink and watch great floats be pulled throughout the city.

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Since moving to Japan two years ago I have seen a lot of festivals and hands down Karatsu Kunchi is my favorite (I might be a little biased). There is something about Kunchi that makes even an outsider feel welcome. It’s a festival that brings everyone together.

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So let’s talk about the first day …. well night actually. The always kicks off the night of November 2nd. The city spends an entire week setting up food and game stalls along parade routes and the downtown area, concentrated around Karatsu Shrine (唐津神社). Once the sunsets thousands of people line the streets and wait to hear the call of “En-Ya! En-Ya! En-Ya!” and the flutes and drums of musicians sitting at the base of every float.

file_006The road to Karatsu Shrine is lined with stalls. At the end of the night, the 14 floats (HIkiyama) pulled down this road to the shrine.

file_004Karatsu Shrine the first night of Kunchi

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The float pullers are made up of people from the old neighborhood where the float is from. Each float has a different color and designed Happi (発表 はっぴ), a traditional workman’s coat. Young boys and girls can help pull but young girls can only pull the floats until their first year of high school. Boys and girls as young as 5 years old help pull though the youngest participants are at the front of the ropes while the older and stronger men pull near the base of the 1-ton floats. They help pull, turn, and stop the floats.

The Night Pull finishes when all the Hikiyamas are pulled down to Karatsu Shrine through the all of the stalls. They are lined up in an empty lot in front of the shrine and covered with plastic sheets for the night.

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Stay tuned for Karatsu Kunchi: Day 2 The Sand Pull!

 

 

 

 

 

A World in Pink: Sakura in Kyushu

It’s finally spring in Kyushu! I am excited to spend my first spring in Japan. I was lucky enough to snap a few pictures of the famous cherry blossoms before a rain storm washed them away.

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I was surprised to learn that there is night Hanami or night flower watching. Some of the pictures below were taken at Karatsu Castle at night. Many people were there having a nighttime picnic.

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Yobuko Squid Festival

 Yobuko’s famous いかまつり・Ika Matsuri!

It’s a Squid Fest!

IMG_3291♦ This is Yobuko ♦

This tiny port town is actually a part of Karatsu City. It sits 30-40 minutes outside of Karatsu proper and is a beautiful drive through the mountains to reach the only main road running along the coast.

Every September the tiny town is flooded with tourists from around Saga to sample fresh seafood and grill it themselves, watch singers and comedy routines, and pick up an order of fresh squid.

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We arrived around 10 am just as everything was starting. We were smart to park on the other side of town at a pier and take a free shuttle to the festival.

The Yobuko ALT later told me that traffic was backed up the entire day which made it near impossible to drive through town.

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Megan and I were invited by our boss/friend who has acted like a second mother since my arrival. Her and her son were kind enough to treat us to wonderful food and cook it for us as well (left picture). We ate fresh squid, shumai, sushi, and fish donuts! (right picture)

IMG_3245Children got the chance to catch fish with with their bare hands! The contest was complete chaos as children shrieked and dashed about the pool to catch as many fish in 3 minutes. Each fish was brought to their parents holding plastic bags ready to cart the days catch home. One girl was a seasoned veteran catching over 5 large Saba and breaking through 2 plastic bags.

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Driving through town you can fresh squid drying in the sun in front of the fishing boats and flying around on the a squid “merry-go-round”.

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In the afternoon we drove to a neighboring Tashima island to visit the Tajima Shinto Shrine.

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The shrine sits atop a hill on the coast with stairs leading from the water up to entrance. After washing our hands in purified water we made the trek up the stairs.

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In the main area there were two shrines. The main shrine is shown above and below is a small but more colorful shrine that sat off to the left before ascending the stairs. We gave an offering of 10 yen (roughly 10 cents) at each shrine to pay our support and respect.

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It was the perfect end to a great day. I wish my car could make the drive because the drive is beautiful and I would love to explore more places like Yobuko and Tashima Island. Next year I plan to try out the fresh sea snail at the festival!