(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Secret Ibaraki Festival Gems

Silk festivals, peach blossom festivals, chestnut festivals, art festivals… lantern battle festivals that end in flames??? Yep, I’ve attended them all, and all in Ibaraki!

Okay, I know what you are thinking. Karen, what? You can’t call this an “extracurricular activity!”

But let me explain. I only have three real extracurricular activities — Community Japanese class, as I mentioned last Tuesday, and two others that I will write about in the next two weeks. Well, I also practice kimono, but I’ve already written about kimono a few times now. So, I only have three *new* extracurriulars, but there are FOUR Tuesdays in February. Hence, I decided that attending local festivals counts as an extracurricular!

One of the things I love most about Japan is that everything deserves its own festival. A particular flower is blooming? Festival. There’s a local 10k race? Festival. This town is famous for something? Festival. It’s summer? Festival.

Of course, there are the really big festivals, like the Sapporo Snow Festival and the Akita Kanto Festival (both of which I went to in 2016). These festivals are famous for a reason — they are truly amazing! But I think there is also a lot to be said for smaller, more local festivals — these are the hidden gems, the ones that make you feel like less of a tourist and more of a local.

So here is a little write-up about two of the best Ibaraki festivals I’ve attended so far:

Koga’s Lantern Battle Festival (First Saturday in December)

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This is a strange little local festival that we only found out about because J’s coworker mentioned it a few days beforehand. It’s exciting, it’s crazy, and it’s strangely a bit violent. And apparently it’s been going on for over 150 years!

Koga’s Lantern Battle Festival consists of teams of local guys, crowded into a tiny little arena, raising up lanterns on long bamboo poles and crashing their team’s lantern into the other team’s lanterns. The goal is to be the last team whose lantern is still lit by the end.

Now, these lanterns are made of paper. And they are lit by real candles. And all of these fire-hazard lanterns are swinging about in the air and violently ramming into one another. So, as you can imagine, some of the lanterns CAUGHT FIRE. The unfortunate team whose lantern went up in flames would try desperately to get their burning lantern off to the side of the arena… however, the arena was so packed full of bodies and bamboo poles, that it was a real-life obstacle course. The crowd would, “Ohhhhh” whenever a lantern caught fire. The referees would yell, “危ないんです! 危ないんです!” (“Dangerous! Dangerous!”). And the flaming lantern would inevitably fall into the arena. No one was seriously hurt, luckily, but this happened repeatedly. It was a little crazy.

For those in the crowd, it was especially fun to drink a nice hot drink and chose a lantern to root for. At the beginning of each new round, my friends and I would each pick a winning lantern. Mine was usually knocked out early on in the competition, but one of the lanterns that I chose stuck around till it was one of the final three lanterns still lit! And then… THE BAMBOO POLE CRACKED IN HALF. Yes, that happened occasionally, too. Just to add some extra excitement! Clearly, though, that was the point of no return for that particular lantern.

Overall, the Koga Lantern Battle Festival was a fun, crazy Saturday night in December. It’ll never be as famous as some of the big festivals, but I rather liked that it was mostly local people, getting together to watch this violent clash of lanterns. A true gem.

Ibaraki’s KENPOKU Art Festival (September – November 2016)

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Last fall was, to my knowledge, the first Kenpoku Art Festival ever. It was a huge festival, spread out over six cities in Northern Ibaraki, featuring 85 artists (both local Ibarakians and international artists), and lasting for two months.

My friends and I spent a weekend road-tripping across the cities and exploring the artwork, and we still didn’t see all of it! There were two “routes” — the Mountain Course (which, logically, consisted of the inland cities) and the Sea Course (which, again logically, consisted of art exhibitions closer to the coast). The festival coordinators organized buses from the major train stations, so having your own car wasn’t necessary.

There were some extremely interesting art pieces scattered about Northern Ibaraki. One of my favorites from the Mountain Course was Blackfield by Zadok Ben-David, which is an internationally known exhibit. It features 27,000 tiny steel plants carefully placed on a vast stretch of white sand. It’s all about perspective!

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Another site along the Mountain Course was actually in an abandoned Jr. High School. The classrooms had all been turned into different exhibits, which was AWESOME. We jumped from classroom to classroom, exploring and commenting.

My favorite was by Yoichi Ochiai — a room whose walls were covered in black fabric so thick that no light penetrated inside the room. We were ushered in, stood huddled by the door that closed behind us and sent us into pitch-blackness, and then were amazed as a tiny lights started flashing and bubbles exploded from the ceiling of the classroom. The lights reflected and refracted off of the bubbles, so the whole scene, to my eyes, felt like the fluttering seconds of a film reel, or the snow falling at night in fast-forward, or the bubbles of a deep ocean mixed with the sparkling snap of champagne.

Obviously I have no pictures of that room, those bubbles. But I have the memories — a short mental film — and it was magical.

Another favorite was this unassuming little airplane, which, when you looked through it, showed a little movie that interacted with the features of the classroom. So you could move it around and the desks — then the blackboard — then the tree outside — were all part of the film.

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On Sunday, the four of us took the Sea Course. There were many highlights along this route, so I’ll only mention three:

This exhibit was entitled Crystal Palace:The Great Exhibitions of Works of Industry of All Nuclear Nations. As the title suggests, the chandeliers pictured (made of uranium glass) each represent a country that has nuclear power plants. The size of the country’s chandelier is in proportion to how much nuclear energy the country produces.

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Along the Sea Course, my absolute favorite exhibition was about hermit crab shells. Yes, you heard me correctly. Envisioned by Aki Inomata, the project is entitled, Why Not Hand Over a “Shelter” to Hermit Crabs? They were basically hermit crab shells with tiny, intricate cities or temples or castles built into the outer shell. It questioned the idea of “home” and “shelter” and it was absolutely stunning.

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And of course, I’ll finish with The Fallen Sky. This wasn’t necessarily one of my favorite artworks from the Sea Course, but it brought us to that beach where my friends and I spent a few hours walking and playing in the sand.

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KENPOKU Art Festival was organized pretty flawlessly. There was a ton of information online about the artists, the artworks themselves, and maps detailing routes to take. And all the exhibits had wonderful English translations, so we didn’t feel left out at any point.

One of my favorite parts about the KENPOKU Art Festival, though, was that it gave my friends and I an opportunity to explore Northern Ibaraki. We went to new cities and explored new places in our own prefecture — I’m not sure I would have ever visited them otherwise.  And of course, we were challenged and inspired by the artwork.

I don’t know if KENPOKU was meant to be a one-time-only Art Festival. We went on one of the last weekends, in November, so the sites were relatively well-attended, but I’m worried that the Festival didn’t draw the numbers of people that the organizers were hoping for. At any rate, I sincerely hope it becomes an annual event, because I’d go again this year if they decide to repeat it. Or perhaps they’ll move the festival to another region in Japan?

Whatever happens, those are two unique Ibaraki festivals that I’ve had the pleasure of attending recently. And in some ways, they are even more special than the famous festivals… because they are secret, because they are local.

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