Adventuring in Japan – Andon Matsuri – Numata’s Lantern Festival!

Five months into my Japanese experience!

Well I’ve just got into my apartment after watching a surprise fireworks show out in the street with my neighbours! I couldn’t tell you what it was for, or what it represented but it was definitely fun and beautiful to watch! That’s the thing about living in a foreign country where you don’t speak a lot of the language – often I don’t fully understand everything that is going on at a given time. It can be confusing and disorientating. However, it has also helped me realise that you don’t need to have a language in common with people to share experiences. Body language, feelings and making an effort goes a long way to bring people together.

I’m into my fifth month in Japan now and so much has happened! It’s surreal to even write that down – five months hey! Madness!

With that in mind, I thought I’d take the time this Sunday evening to write about some more of my experiences! I write a lot for my freelance clients in the UK, but it’s been a while since I’ve written for myself about my own experiences – well, now’s the time!

My most recent adventure took me 300km across Hokkaido to the small western town of Numata. I trekked across the northern prefecture of Hokkaido on a 4.5 hour solo road trip to go and watch the Andon Matsuri (Lantern Festival) in the small town. Invited by a fellow ALT, I was excited to go and witness one of the three big lantern festivals in Hokkaido.

Numata-cho, Hokkaido

Shari-cho, where I live and work, is actually another of the places which hosts another one of the big lantern festivals, known as Neputa. However, due to a tragic accident in Shiretoko (which Shari is the gateway town to) earlier this year, where all tourists aboard the vessel died or remain missing, the festival in Shari has been cancelled out of respect.

Numata’s andon festival involves the procession of a plethora of huge, intricately decorated floats, laden high with beautiful lanterns, down the streets of the small town (home to just over 3,000 people). The whole town came out in full force, as did many people in neighbouring towns, to make the festival what it was. And with this being the first Andon Matsuri allowed in two years because of Corona, people were in extra high spirits! It was time to party!

During the daylight hours, children from the local elementary, junior high and high schools gathered round individual floats and gave traditional musical recitals and performances. It was high energy stuff for impressive lengths of time for each number – they showed their fitness and strength! Well done!

Local school children performing traditional music and dance routines at the festival!

The parade reached its culmination in the collision of multiple of the lantern floats, which were pitted against each other in a dramatic battle until all were destroyed. Believed to drive away evil spirits and allow good fortune in, the festival was full of good cheer and excitement, with every member on each float (and of course everyone in the crowd) shouting YOI YASAH as the floats were pushed down the street, right into the final battles. YOI YASAH apparently is the Japanese version of HEAVE HO, so I was told by my fellow ALTs, who have witnessed many of these festivals in their time, and could translate the Japanese onomatopoeia for me!

The culmination of the festival – two of the large andon floats colliding together!

Stalls of food and drinks vendors lined all of the streets and young and old alike enjoyed the festival together. Cheering, talking, laughing, drinking, eating and enjoying the spectacle for the first time in two years!

It was so much fun and I very much felt like I was witnessing something special. During special moments of travel and exploration, I often have these flashes of recognition – seeing the experience from a zoom out perspective for a split second, realising how incredible it is that I am here and feeling gratitude for it, knowing I will remember it for a long time.

Travel is awesome and I feel so grateful to have landed here in this awesome country, with a rich culture and history, alongside friendly and hospitable people, and that I have this opportunity to really explore and have these special experiences.

The drive there and back was also super beautiful and incredible! It made me appreciate how vast Hokkaido is. It has a low population density and so you can drive for miles and miles without passing through a town.

I find it interesting to drive long distances here because of the shift in landscape and scenery, depending on where I drive. Sometimes the landscapes remind me of the dense, lush jungles I saw in south-east Asia, like Laos and Vietnam. Other times the scenery reminds me of British arable farming land. And sometimes it feels brand new, and doesn’t remind me of anywhere!

Everywhere I go, I learn, appreciate and reflect upon the places I see and the people I meet. With this mindset I hope to continue to learn new things and grow each day, and with each new experience.

I have so much more to share about my experiences, so stay tuned for more reflections and adventures soon!

Bye for now, or as the Japanese say matane (see you soon)!

Alison xxx

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