Earth Celebration, Sado Island

It’s Halloween and from tomorrow everything will become Christmas-themed so I had better re-live the last of my summer. I was back in Japan at the beginning of August and had several weeks of summer vacation when I could take time off, so very last-minute, my friends and I organised a trip to the Earth Celebration on Sado Island, off the coast of Niigata, north of Ishikawa. The island has a historical reputation of remoteness and in the past, important people who fell out of favour, like emperors and monks were exiled here. It still feels very remote and rural, but the island’s population increases enormously for the festival weekend. The island is home to the famous taiko drumming group called Kodo, who practice here when they are not touring the world. The three-day festival consists of nightly concerts with both the Kodo group and international percussionists, daily workshops and fringe performances as well as a market. For that weekend the island becomes a hippie commune.

IMG_5364 (800x600)IMG_5370 (800x600)We took the train to Naoetsu in Niigata then took the beautifully modern ferry Akane to the island. Later we got to try out one of the traditional attractions of the island, taraibune, or tub boats, that are shallow barrels rowed by wiggling a single oar. They are rowed by older ladies dressed in traditional clothes around the harbour as a tourist attraction, though they used to be used for collecting seaweed and shellfish. There’s a special technique to the rowing that none of us could get the hang of when we tried. We relied on the shuttle buses to get around, which were fine until the day after the festival when they stopped and we were so lucky that a person at our campsite had ordered a taxi that was a minibus so that we could get in it too. We were not so lucky later at the port in Naoetsu when the last bus to the train station left before the arrival of the ferry. We waited at a taxi rank with other people who had seemingly already ordered taxis and one of them was kind enough to give a telephone number for a taxi company, but when we rang up to request a taxi, the man just laughed. So we had to walk for a long 20 minutes carrying all of our tents and belongings. If you can, I highly recommend going with your own transportation!

IMG_8587 (800x592)IMG_8590 (800x601)IMG_8606 (600x800)IMG_8611 (800x600)IMG_8612 (800x600)IMG_8634 (800x600)IMG_8623 (800x600)The festival was great, and so are Japanese hippies. They are more chilled and easy-going than their fellow countrymen in general, but still so organised, clean and tidy. There were many regular folks there too and it was nice to wander around the market, that had a great selection of international foods, and catch some impromptu performances.

IMG_8648 (800x600)IMG_8647 (800x600)IMG_8652 (800x599)IMG_8654 (600x800)The concert organisation was very Japanese with everyone bringing picnic mats and setting up respectfully beside each other. Most people stayed seated for the concerts, but at the sides there were standing areas where you could go to dance, but the performances had so much going on visually that it was amazing to watch these drummers banging away with all their might. When the concerts were done, there were some after-events with some traditional music and dance. One night there was dance along the street (similar, but on a smaller scale to the Hyakumangoku dance) where you could join in and pick up the steps while being accompanied by traditional music played on drums and flutes. On the last night in the market, there was another dance, this time taught by a beautiful lady with feathers in her hair, to the sound of a very haunting song.

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The Hyakumangoku festival is the biggest festival in Ishikawa, commemorating the entry of Lord Maeda Toshiie into Kanazawa Castle in 1593. Lord Maeda was one of the most powerful men in Japan back then and his domain which encompassed Ishikawa was one of the richest in the country despite its small size. The name Hyakumangoku refers to the amount of rice produced in the area; 1,000,000 goku or 150,000 tonnes of rice. It`s celebrated during the first weekend of June to avoid the start of the rainy season and consists of a lantern-floating ceremony on the Asano river on the Friday, a taiko drumming performance at the station on Saturday morning, a parade in 16th C costume with well-known Japanese actors playing the part of the Lord and his Lady in the afternoon, and to top it all off, in the evening there is a parade of people dressed in yukata (summer kimono) dancing down the main streets.


My Japanese teacher Yoko got me and my friends involved in the dancing parade so we met in the early afternoon at a ballet studio to be put into our yukata. The studio looked onto the parade route so while we were waiting for the ladies to tie us up we could look down onto the street and get a birds-eye view. It was a cool way to see the marching bands and baton twirlers because no one can keep in formation like the Japanese can. One of the dragons from the Tsubata Lion Dance festival put in an appearance too (I never got around to writing a post about that in September) and tried to scare the geisha that were sitting watching the parade on the opposite side.


Once we were in our yukata and had finished taking reels of photos, we went out on the street where the historic part of the parade had just started to go by. I didn`t understand much of the significance of the parade, but it was odd to see people dressed like they had just come out of an 18th C print, and the costumes were fabulous. When the parade was over we wandered around the festival food stalls, spotting other groups of people dressed in yukata, getting lost but then finding each other easily again.


We regrouped by Central park where we got ready to start our parade. Most of us didn`t know the dances and weren`t convinced by Yoko`s reassurances that we would pick it up. After a stumbling start though, it was actually fairly easy to pick up. Traditional Japanese tunes were pumped out through loudspeakers all across the centre of Kanazawa and we danced our way slowly past other colourfully dressed groups of dancers. There were thousands of people in the parade, stretching for several kilometers with everyone dressed similarly and moving together like a column of ants. It was made up of groups marching together to represent organizations like our international one, sports groups and community groups, and companies. The companies made up the largest groups, as an employee of a company might bring their entire family along to dance, and they would all be dressed in yukata marked with the company`s emblem.


Thanks to Sean for the following photos!

The atmosphere was amazing, with everyone shouting out words of encouragement and it looked beautiful with everyone moving in unison. Whatever complaints people might have about the lack of allowance for individual expression in Japanese society and culture, this is the positive aspect of that difference. There is definitely something to be said for that feeling of unity and closeness that these kinds of events give you.