St Patrick’s Festivities

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St Patrick’s Day was a few weeks ago now, but hopefully not too late to read about. The past two years in Japan I just stayed in Kanazawa for St Patrick’s Day and went out for an expensive glass of Guinness with my compatriots. This year, however, I was inspired by my students to mark the occasion properly. In February and March my students were learning about Ireland in their textbook and they had to do a presentation about the country and its culture. It was interesting to see what the students researched; Irish sports like hurling and gaelic football, famous places like the cliffs of Moher and the Giant’s Causeway, foods like Irish stew and soda bread. Because Ireland doesn’t have a traditional costume like the Japanese kimono, some students talked about Irish dancing costumes and Aran jumpers. They were interested to know that Jonathan Swift was Irish because Gulliver’s Travels is a popular children’s book in Japan. I’m glad that they could find out more about Ireland than just our reputation for drinking.

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I’ve never been to the parade in Dublin city because you have to get there early to stake out a spot, transport is difficult and there are a lot of drunk people around. Most years though, I went to my hometown’s parade. Sports teams and various clubs and groups would walk/perform, local businesses would advertise and give out sweets to the kids watching, and vintage car/motorcycle/tractor enthusiasts would drive.

In March there are St Patrick’s Day events held in cities all over Japan, from Okinawa to Tokyo. On Saturday 15th there was a parade in Yokohama and one in Tokyo on the 16th, so I went to the Kansai area to visit both of them. The Irish Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald and the Irish Ambassador John Neary were in attendance.

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The Yokohama parade was held at 1 o’clock in Motomachi, just beside Chinatown. It went down a narrow street so as it went by, it felt like the spectators were part of the parade too. It was only a small parade, but I was very impressed with the groups in it. After the Irish pub sponsors came groups of traditional musicians and dancers, who would pause regularly to play or dance for the crowd. It was how I imagine seeing foreigners in kimono must seem to the Japanese at first – a little uncanny, but great to see people interested in your culture (especially if you don’t appreciate it as much as you should). Some of the musicians were really good, and the little girls doing step dancing were so cute in their outfits.

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There were also non-Irish-related groups in the parade such as a Chinese restaurant, and several marching bands, which added some international flavour, which suited the Yokohama setting. As well as the Chinatown, there’s a US military base and some international schools in the city.

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The biggest St Patrick’s Day parade is in Harajuku, Tokyo, where it has been running since 1992. Unfortunately I missed that parade because I was too busy enjoying the first ever ‘I Love Ireland’ festival in Yoyogi park, just a few minutes away. There was a stage where performers sang, danced or played music, food and drink stands, and stalls selling Irish products or promoting Irish businesses. A lot of people there were wearing green and there was a great atmosphere.

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Colcannon, fish and chips, and … nachos.

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Anamizu Oyster Festival

“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster” Jonathan Swift

Oysters have been eaten by people since prehistoric times, but I’ve always been wary of them.  I blame this on an episode of Mr Bean I saw when I was young, when he gets food poisoning from eating oysters and then has disturbing hallucinations.  As of yet, I’ve never eaten raw oysters, but now that I’ve been converted to the cooked variety, I’d be willing to give them a try.

Anamizu is a small town in the rural peninsula of Ishikawa prefecture, but it comes alive every January for its annual oyster festival.  I was surprised at how large the festival was.  All around the edge of the festival area were stalls selling festival food.  There were the usual suspects of ramen, yakisoba etc, though many of them involved oysters in some way.

huge soup pot

soba rolling

sausages and beer

flat dried fish

churro statueAt each end of the space were the stalls where you could buy your own oysters, ¥1000 for a plastic bag of 10 or 11.  In the centre were two long covered areas with grills where you could cook your oysters or whatever else you had.  One area was standing only and the other area had seats.  Groups of families or friends gathered around the grills, while festival helpers went around making sure that the fires kept burning.

standing oyster grills

seated oyster grill

oysters and fish

oyster boyWhen we had bought our bag of oysters, we were each given a plastic plate, a glove, chopsticks and a knife.  We found a free grill and surreptitiously tried to copy how the other people were grilling their oysters.  The oysters are still alive when you buy them so their shells are tightly closed, but they open when they’re cooked.  It can be a bit dangerous though, as some of the stubborn ones won’t open until finally they explode and you have to be careful not to get burned by oyster juice.  We had forgotten to bring any condiments, but that didn’t matter because the oysters were flavoured with sea salt.  Later we got some lemon and tabasco for our oysters which were delicious as well.

gloves chopsticks knife

opening oyster

oyster

Indecently delicious

Jan Steen ‘Girl Eating Oysters’

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

The Walrus and The Carpenter – Lewis Carroll

I had known that Guinness and oysters (or mussels) were a specialty of the West of Ireland, so I’ll have to try them the next time I’m over there.  The Galway Oyster Festival is held every September as well, and draws large crowds of restaurateurs and oyster connoisseurs from all over the world.