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.

Food Platter

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.

Top of Food Platter

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.

After the Rain – Ouchi Ajisai Matsuri

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Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for the rain to come. In the week after my first trip to the Ouchi Hydrangea Festival, it rained. By Friday, the rain had stopped and I dashed over to Ouchi after work to enjoy the refreshed flowers in the evening light. Along the way, I picked up Jess and Jhanice and the three of us went up the trail.

The thing about going to see the hydrangea on a weekday after work is that nothing is open and almost no one is there. On the weekend, there are a small 200 yen (about $2) to enter the festival and that fee goes towards helping the community. However, since the road to the falls is public and people live on that road it’s open all the time. The downside is that all of the food, craft, and plant stalls are packed up. On the weekend we had seen the stalls so we weren’t too disappointed to find them closed.

We began the walk up the road. Along the why we passed the hills, river, and gazebos surrounded by the blues, purples, whites, and pinks of the hydrangeas. Many of the plants had started to bloom since the rain. The flowers looked much more lively. When the festival is open there is a bus that takes people directly to the waterfall.

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There is a small parking lot at the waterfall but I didn’t want to miss any of the flowers. Instead, the three of us took to the road on foot. We passed a few houses and a restaurant. At some point up the road, you can choose to follow the road or take the hiking path. The hiking path is pretty. It takes you across the river and up the mountain. It’s about a 500meter walk either way. We decided to stick to the road as the ground would be slick from the rain, the sun was beginning to set, and we didn’t want to brave any of the giant spider webs.

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Even the climb up the road is steep so if you plan to walk up to the waterfall then make sure to walking shoes. Once at the top we took a few minutes to rest in front of the waterfall.

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While Jess and Jhanice continued to rest I made my way up the stairs to check out the small shrines and Buddha statues that lined the steep stairway. It was my last stop before heading home. I love the waterfall but love exploring small shrines and finding secret sacred spots. The last time I had visited was winter when nothing was in bloom and I was asked by an old grandma to help carry jugs of water to the shrine at the top of the staircase. Every time I visit the waterfall I make sure to stop by the shrine.

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And that begins my excursion to the Ouchi Hydrangea Festival to an end. I’m glad I was able to return after the rain. Almost all of the hydrangeas were blooming and I enjoyed all the colors. It’s amazing that there are so many flowers in the area. The bushes at the bottom were obviously planted on the hill but the bushes at the waterfall are wild and overgrown. It was a beautiful sight. If you ever find yourself in Kyushu in June please make your way to the small town of Ouchi, you won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it.

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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.

 

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

 

 

 

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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Blooming Mondays: After the Kumamoto Quake

I must apologize for the delay in blog posts. Karatsu is near enough to Kumamoto to experience small quakes and aftershocks so posting and flower arranging haven’t been a priority. The tremors don’t appear to be stopping any time soon, too. I woke up to a level 2 the other night. It was pretty scary in the beginning as I have never been through an big earthquake before. So now my arrangements sit on the floor of my kitchen. I don’t want to break my only vase nor do I want to accidentally kill my fish.

 

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Wait!? I am a DR!?

Wait!- I'm a DR!

Avery is a 2nd year ALT from The Land of 10,000 Frozen Lakes A.K.A. Minnesota, USA.

When not puttering around Karatsu in her infamous car Romeo Blue she can be found playing Pokémon Shuffle, writing her blog, and practicing kendo and ikebana. She loves trying new things, dancing in her kitchen, and long conversations over tea and coffee at her favorite Karatsu haunts.

Above is my introduction as a new District Representative (DR) on the Saga JET Website. At the Saga Winter Conference I decided to run for one of two DR positions in the Tomatsu District of Saga Prefecture – and low and behold I got votes! I along with my new partner in crime Ashlyn are the new DRs for the year.

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My profile picture

This means that we are in charge of host and organizing events in and around Tomatsu/Karatsu, help out with the new ALT orientation in July, and assist all the Tomatsu ALTs with questions, comments, and concerns regarding daily life in Japan.

Here are a few things we are currently working on:

  1. Karatsu Pub Night aka Trivia Night
  2. Mongolian Restaurant Trip
  3. JET Leavers Party
  4. Revamping the Orientation Packets (mostly we are adding garbage disposal info)

And finally, along with becoming a DR I have volunteered to help out with the Saga Jet website. The site helped me get ready for JET/Japan and has continued to be helpful during my first year. I look forward to maintaining and improving it along with the other volunteer ALTs.

If you are a prospective JET and have questions or concerns regarding  the JET Program and daily life in Japan feel free to leave a comment below!

 

 

 

Blooming Mondays: Valentines

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I was so excited for the warm weekend weather in Kyushu. It felt like spring! Then Monday rolled around and the weather dropped – typical. I hope everyone had a good Valentines Day/Singles Awareness Day. Here is my “after” valentines arrangement that reminds me of the coming spring.

Flowers

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So this week I used: pink cherry blossom (sakura) branches, blue iris, hypericum perforatum (i.e. St. John’s Wort), pine, and a branch of yellow-orange berries.

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First Attempt

This was the first time using large sakura branches. The teacher came around and showed me how cut the first branches and where I might put them. She showed me how to make sharp angular cuts to groups of long leaves (featured on the right side of the arrangement). I still have trouble making those types of cuts.

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My biggest trouble was balancing the back of the front of the arrangement. I wasn’t sure get more weight to the back. I ended up placing another sakura branch on the side, but gave up on filling the back.

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I did get some praise from the teacher before she made her changes. 1. I had the right idea for the arrangement but it stood up too straight. 2. I placed the pine well along the bottom to block the view of the kenzan. 3. Though odd it was okay for my to place the irises closer together as it gave the sense of one big iris. 4. I made a decent cut on the leaning sakura branch.

I should have followed me gut and place the last sakura branch in the back of the arrangement.

Teacher’s Lesson

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