The cost of entry is 1000 yen, and individuals of all backgrounds, ages and experience are welcome to take part. One does not have to be a professional tea brewer to win the competition; a bit of luck and skill can pave the road to victory. At the end of competition a raffle is held and participants have the opportunity to win various prizes from local wines and sweets to the highly prized top grade Gyokuro tea.
As the dolls are designed to mimic actors on a stage, each one is operated by a crew of 18 people situated below and to the side of the stage, in the wings. The dolls themselves are string-less, and are instead controlled by a series of rods and pulleys under the stage that are affixed to the base of the doll. When pulled in concert by a team they allow the automaton to achieve a vast range of movements and expressions. Altogether, a single performance takes a crew of 100 volunteers and countless hours of practice, but it all comes together on the night, as musicians, puppeteers and singers unite to create something truly special.
The stage itself is a 8 meters tall and 14 meters wide, and is assembled entirely by hand on site at Fukushima without the use of a single screw or nail! The structure consists of three tiers: the second tier is the main stage, with the first and third levels are used by the musicians and puppeteers. The performance has all the trapping of traditional Kabuki theatre, including instant background and costume changes as well as numerous other effects, and is a showcase for the range of traditional arts and crafts still alive today in Yame.
The Toro Ningyo festival is a theatre festival that takes place on the grounds of Fukushima Hachimangu Shrine for three days over the Autumnal Equinox every year. This festival has continued for some 250 years since its conception 1744, and has been designated an Intangible Folk and Cultural Asset by the Japanese government. This festival is unique in that the “actors” performing on stage are all karakuri mechanical dolls, and perform pieces of classical Japanese theatre fully accompanied by a quartet of musicians playing Japanese instruments, such as taiko drums, shake flutes and shamisen (traditional three stringed guitars).
As well as this time-honored ritual, there is much more to see- musical performances by local schools and community groups both modern and traditional; displays of arts, both fine and marital; and everything else from artisan crafts fairs to food stalls, vendors and hawkers. Sit back and stretch out in the shade of millions of blossoms and enjoy traditional delights such as dago jiro and piping hot imo manju; or just relax under the azure canopy and listen to the drone of bumblebees and laughing voices as the scent of charcoal barbecue mingles with perfumed flowers. Whatever you do, we guarantee you won’t find this kind of atmosphere anywhere else.
The old lives on across Yame, and you’ll find no better example than the stately Wisteria tree that lives on in the heart of Kurogi city. Designated as a national treasure, for six centuries this venerable old giant has draped its branches across a trellis some 3000m²! As a result, the area around it has been sanctified as a shrine in honor of its tremendous vitality and growth. For the last 600 years, its blossoms form a ceiling of luscious blues and purples over the shrine and its surrounding grounds every April.
The inhabitants of Kurogi continue this celebration in honor of the cities oldest resident; both in testament to the struggles both the city and tree have born testament to, and in thanks for the continued vitality and beauty the Wisteria brings to the city. At the start of the festival, sacred sake is poured on the roots of the tree to thank the spirits dwelling inside for their continued protection and blessing, and to beseech them for another year of good fortune.
Of course, the blossoms aren’t just for show; the ripened plums as well as other local fruits such as strawberries and kiwis are used to make Yame fruit wine- make sure to sample some for free, or even pick up one or two bottles as a souvenir! Especially for the event, one of the larger wine cellars is transformed into something truly special by students from the surrounding schools. The interior of this tunnel is illuminated entirely by candles, each one painstakingly set in carved bamboo shoots that line the walls running the length of the hillside. The effect is simply bewitching, as the students work tirelessly for months to create stills and images that flicker and glow, extending for tens of meters into the tunnel. Furthermore, every years display is wholly unique, making each exhibition a truly once in a lifetime event.
As the cold months of winter begin to thaw, the blossoming of the plum trees heralds the arrival of spring in Japan; and with over three thousand plum trees, Tachibana city puts out one heck of a welcome mat! To celebrate this, locals hold a festival when the blossoms are at their peak in February, right in the center of Tachibana city, on one of the larger hillsides. As well as all the trappings one can expect from any Japanese festival, there are several delicacies unique to Tachibana area, which can be found in the bazaar set up especially for the occasion. Of these, the honey-filled hotaru imo are an absolute must. These melt in the mouth dumplings are perfect for munching on as you stroll through the hillocks or enjoy a concert or recital from members of the local community.
Firework displays are an intrinsic part of a Japanese summer, a tradition much loved across the nation. Firework festivals are a whirlwind of color and emotion- either get swept up in the excitement and tension that surges through the crowd right moments before the spectacle begins, or just cool off on a nearby riverbank and watch the spectacle from afar; either way, it’s a great way to spend an evening. The fireworks themselves won’t fail to impress- from their introduction to Japan in Tokyo some 200 years ago right up until the present day, fireworks manufacturers have always fiercely competed to see who could truly wow the crowd.
The biggest display in Yame takes place Miyano Park, about twenty minutes walk from town hall. The goal of this event is “to create a fusion of music and light” as organizers attempt to sync the two. Expect a sizeable crowd- the event draws nearly 20,000 spectators. Sit back, grab a beer at the nearby beer garden set up especially for the event, and get swept up in the evening!
For something a little more intimate, why not drive up to the village of Yabe? Despite launching over 600 fireworks every year, the event usually only draws in around a thousand people or so, making it far more intimate than other events. Furthermore, the noise from the explosions reverberates and echoes across the surrounding mountains, making it a truly unforgettable experience.
The highlight of this festival is a parade through the center of the old city center held on March 1st, led by a newlywed couple wearing traditional dress. The bride’s kimono is without a doubt the centerpiece of the event: this master-crafted item consists of 21 layers, each woven entirely by hand. The bride and groom tour around the old city in rickshaws, accompanied by an retinue of young children in traditional dress. The event provides a rare opportunity for visitors to experience a little of what life in Japan was like centuries ago. The bride and grooms kimonos are on display throughout the rest of the year in the Yame Cultural and Traditional Crafts Museum.
Every March households across Japan put out displays to mark the Hina Doll festival. Yame city has a reputation nationwide for doll craftsmanship, which means that the city goes to extra-ordinary lengths to commemorate the occasion. Come March, almost every windowsill in Yame city plays host to a miniature royal couple; city officials mark the most extravagant displays with pink paper lanterns that light up the evening.
Throughout the three day period, the streets around Yame city center are illuminated by several thousand handmade paper lanterns, each one using exactly the same techniques and technology used four hundred years ago. On the final day, giant lanterns made by local middle- and high- schools are paraded around the city center. Each of these takes months of effort to complete, with a panel of judges deciding the best overall. Community, craftsmanship and tradition- few events bring together all three like Akari-to-cha Pon Pon.
First conceived of in 1978, and formalized in 1996, the Yame lantern festival occurs at the same time as the Toro Ningyo festival. As with the Toro Ningyo, this event commemorates Yame’s cultural legacy by lining the streets with hundreds of handmade paper lanterns. This festival truly brings Yame together, as the lanterns are made by members from every section of the local community, from kindergartens and elementary schools, to local businesses, public servants and high schools.
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