Chestnuts and Fireworks

Last weekend was the annual Tsuchuria Fireworks Festival — one of the top three fireworks competitions in Japan, held right here in Ibaraki! It’s an opportunity for fireworks companies to show off their best and their brightest, so the hype and the proximity to Tokyo draws about 70,000 people to sit in rice paddies and watch fireworks for two and a half hours.

Which is exactly what I did last Saturday. I sat on the edge of a rice paddy with a number of other Ibaraki JETs and we watched fireworks for two and a half hours.

All in all, it was a fantastic evening. I was highly amused by the people who brought beach chairs and actually sat in the middle of the flooded rice paddies. The fireworks were lovely, but not overwhelming — there would be a minute-long pauses of dark, empty skies as companies took turns shooting off their fireworks . And of course, there was delicious festival food to be enjoyed as well (like baked potatoes topped with butter, corn, and kimchi. It sounds weird, I know, but it was actually a great dinner).

The nightmare began, though, when I realized at 8:28p.m. that the last series of trains I could take to get home left Tsuchuria at 9:17. Thirty seconds later, the firework competition ended, and 70,000 people all packed up their beach chairs and started booking it back to the train station (a half-hour’s walk away).

Understandably panicked, I ran, dodging hundreds of tired festival-goers on the streets, trying desperately to make my 9:17 train.

And I would have made it. Really, I would have. Because I arrived at the station at 9:08…

Only to find about 5,000 people also waiting at the train station. Nobody was moving. Mobs of people were crowded around the four staircases that lead up to Tsuchuria Station, and police officers were blocking all of the entrances. Every so often, one staircase would receive the green light and for a few minutes, the mob around it would be sucked into the station, but then there would be a lot of police whistles and the standstill would recommence.

It took me a solid 80 minutes of waiting in the crowds (in spitting distance of the station!!) to be finally allowed up one of the staircases and onto the platform. In that time, I witnessed two fights (Japanese 20-something punks who were throwing punches) and was actually concerned about being trampled when the police opened the staircase I was waiting for (the mob’s excitement at the chance to enter the station led to some pushing and shoving). It was the most un-Japanese experience I’ve had here, though I guess it was still pretty calm compared to what it might’ve been in America. And of course, it was all for nothing because I missed all possible ways of getting home for the night. Luckily, I caught a north-bound train and crashed with S, who kindly offered me a futon and a toothbrush at her place.

In the end, it was pretty lucky that I stayed with S. It turned out that her little town (Iwama) was having a Chestnut Festival on Sunday, so the two of us met up with 3 other Ibaraki JETs and attended, if only to see what a Chestnut Festival would be like.

Chestnut everything. That was the festival.

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The five of us ate chestnut cakes, chestnut ice cream, chestnut rice, chestnut and chocolate shaved ice…. We enjoyed skewers of  hot-off-the-grill pork (which was featured because the pigs were fed chestnuts with the idea that their meat would be sweeter — I got a real kick out of this. Not sure if it was true, but the pork skewers really were delicious).

We walked around, listening to the live band and eating all things chestnut. We watched children decorating chestnuts. We watched people try their hand GOLFING with chestnuts (which turned out to be highly amusing, since chestnuts are not perfectly round and therefore do not roll in the direction you intend them to go).

Basically, it was the best Sunday ever.

So lessons learned for next time: leave the Tsuchuria Fireworks Festival at least 20 minutes before the end so you can beat the mobs and actually make it home. But… if you don’t learn from your mistakes…. crash on someone’s couch and enjoy the Chestnut Festival. Because who doesn’t love a day of chestnut fun?

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