Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


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Let’s enjoy travelling!

The stress of leaving is over and I have started my solo travels of Japan!  My last few days in Aomori were spent getting burnt and having fun on the beach, furiously cleaning and gutting my apartment, meeting the new guy taking over my job and helping him sort out his phone and bank account, trying to sort my own bank account out to send money home, chilling at Lauren’s and trying to savour the time I had left with my friends.

I went to Goshogawara on Saturday to see Tachineputa, and couldn’t really believe it had been two years exactly since I arrived in Aomori and got the train by myself to see it.  The highlight was seeing my favourite student, who graduated to senior high school in April, dancing with his classmates in the parade.  We were on the same train from Goshogawara the day before, and he told me he was going to be in it, and I said I’d keep a look out for him!  During the parade we saw each other and waved like mad, and he kept waving whenever he turned around, then danced away with a huge smile on his face.  Another highlight was seeing Lauren and some other ALTs who were taking part, playing the hand cymbals and getting the crowd hyped up.

My last night in Aomori was spent watching the biggest most spectacular fireworks I’ve ever seen, as in to the point where the fireworks turn into multi-coloured hearts.  I got ready with Yuka at her place, and we wore our yukatas which were maybe a bit louder than most designs, but we thought fireworks were an appropriate occasion to look flashy!

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Yuka took me to Shin-Aomori station the next morning, and it was only when we were saying goodbye that I started crying.  I thought I’d cry when I said goodbyes to my other friends, but having them so spread out made it feel less final, until I was actually leaving.  I got on the train all teary-eyed, but then a nice-looking Japanese couple sat in front of me and smiled when we made eye contact.  A few minutes later they turned around and struck up a conversation and it turned out they were visiting from Tokyo to see Nebuta.  The man was from Kanazawa and recommended me his favourite take-out sushi place, and we exchanged emails.  I felt a bit better then.

This is the rough route I’m doing over twelve days with my rail pass until I go to Summer Sonic in Tokyo, then fly home on the 22nd. (Kanazawa – Kobe – Takamatsu – Okayama – Hiroshima – Hamamatsu – Kawasaki – Chiba)

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I’m in my hostel in Kanazawa now, and the (foreign!) guy sitting opposite me is eating cup ramen, but kind of quietly lapping the noodles up with his tongue rather than slurping them up in one go and it’s driving me nuts.  Have I turned Japanese?


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Aomori Nebuta Matsuri

Festival season ended a month ago, but I’m finally getting round to writing this post about the best festival in Japan… Aomori Nebuta!  Recently I read that Aomori is the number one prefecture for festivals in Japan, followed by Kyoto. I haven’t been to any other major festivals in Japan, but I wouldn’t be disappointed if Aomori’s were the only ones I’d get to see.

The word ‘nebuta’ refers to the floats, which are pulled along the streets at night, occasionally being turned around on the spot to show off their beautiful designs.  Legend has it that a shogun in Mutsu province used taiko and flutes to attract the attention of his enemies during a battle, which is one explanation for their accompaniment in the parade, although they’re more likely to have evolved from Shinto ceremonial traditions.  (…I try not to let the truth ruin my beautiful image of Japanese shogun warriors using music to brutally kill each other.)

Depending on which city you go to, the shape and concept of the floats, as well as the festival vibe, are completely different.  There are over 30 villages in the prefecture that hold their own festivals, but the three biggest ones are in Hirosaki, Goshogawara and Aomori City.  In Hirosaki, floats shaped like fans, which depict large (and often gruesome) pictures on the front and an image of a beautiful woman on the back, signify the triumphant return from battle. The slow accompanying music and dancing make it the calmest festival of the three.

Goshogawara’s ‘Tachineputa’ floats (tachi meaning ‘standing) are an astonishing seven storeys high, displaying designs based on Japanese legends and mythical tales.  Paraders with hand cymbals spur the watching crowds on, by dancing alongside them down the street and chanting“yatte-mare yatte-mare”. Tachineputa is much livelier than Hirosaki Nebuta, and probably my favourite because the floats are seriously cool.  Unfortunately I couldn’t actually take any photos of the festival because I was lucky enough to play taiko in it with a local group of festival musicians!  This was the same festival I went to last year, the second day after I arrived in Aomori as a new JET. The familiar music and smells coming from the food stands took me right back to when everything was new and exciting and I had no idea what I was doing. I remember standing among the crowds of spectators, eating my yakisoba in a happy daze even though I was by myself and couldn’t find any other JETs.

The main event however is Aomori Nebuta itself, held in the middle of the city. In my opinion the floats aren’t as spectacular as in Goshogawara mainly because they’re smaller, but it’s the colourful designs inspired by Kabuki theatre, Japanese and Chinese mythology, and sometimes popular modern characters that steal the show.  Watching people jumping along in the parade is so much fun, and you can join in yourself if you’re wearing the right costume!  (This is to stop naughty people trying to ruin the parade.)  Below is a short video of me and my friend Yukako jumping in the parade.  It was the first time she’d been to the festival in about 15 years, so we were both having an absolute blast.  Definitely rent a costume and give it a go if you ever come up to see it!