When will the summer end? My house seems have a bit of a fruit fly problem, although it is of course nothing compared to the fruit fly problem I had from 2005-9. Last night, after the third D. melanogaster drowned in my Laphroaig, I decided to take action. I caught the two huge spiders that live outside my front door, and in an unorthodox move, released them inside my house. (I'll let you know when I end up with a horse.) Hopefully this will have the fringe benefit that I won't be walking into spiderwebs (like Gwen Stefani) when I leave the house every morning. Only after doing this did I remember that Japan is home to some venomous arachnids. I was simultaneously disturbed and amused to learn from Wikipedia that my new pets have the same neurotoxin as black widows in their fangs, but thankfully at a much lower dosage that shouldn't cause any problems for a mammal of my size.
You may have noticed that I've posted virtually nothing about what I've done in August. Well, it wasn't a particularly exciting month, but I've got a few blogworthy experiences to write about. I'll start with Hanagasa.
Festivals are a big deal in Japan, and most of them take place in summer. In the Tohoku region (i.e. the sparsely populated northern leg of the J-shaped main island) there are four Great Festivals. (The Japanese seem to like enumerating things - three views, seven fillings in ehou-maki, 100 places to see sakura, 1000 paper cranes for good luck, and "[May you live for] 10,000 years!" - Banzai!) One of these is Yamagata City's very own Hanagasa, or the flower hat dance festival. Because I missed it last year, I went along to check it out at the start of the month.
For three consecutive evenings in early August, approximately a kilometre of street in central Yamagata is closed to traffic and becomes the venue for a particularly linear dance. Locals I've talked to admit that there are really three Great Festivals plus Hanagasa; while the others have rich histories, apparently this one was contrived sometime in the last century, presumably in a desperate attempt to put Yamagata on the map. Though the festival may not have been that much of a spectacle to watch, I nevertheless found it an interesting insight into Japanese culture.
The dance itself consisted of a repeated loop of movements maybe 45 seconds long. The dancers came in big teams representing various organisations. Some of these were dance clubs, which ranged from the traditional, favoured mostly by aged women; to the contemporary, in the form of krews of street dancing youngsters. My favourite troupe were dressed (inexplicably) as pirates, and had beefed up the sedate dance with krumping and handsprings. In fact, street / hip-hop dancing seems to be bizarrely popular; it was like Step up 2: The streets at times. But less racist.
Another crowd-pleasing contemporary act was the belly dancing. My guide for the evening taught me the phrase hana shita nagakute naru (as memory serves), meaning "the upper lip [actually, they say under-nose] lengthens", describing the facial expression a man supposedly assumes when aroused. Thanks to watching anime I knew that a nosebleed signified the same, but this was a new one on me. Actually, this guy (the retired archeologist raconteur; I've mentioned him before) delights in telling me all the smuttier aspects of Japanese culture. Ever since he described wakamezake to me it's been something of an ambition of mine to try it.
Besides the dance groups, there were various commercial organisations jigging for publicity. The high rollers (Toyota, Panasonic, etc.) had floats packed with some combination of: cute children, taiko drummers, demure geisha-looking young women, and local head honchos of the company waving and smiling like they were the Pope. But less racist.
Smaller companies had to make do with teams of dancers. Cosmetics firms seemed to be out in force, and it was very noticeable that the all the young attractive employees were decked out in elaborate costumes and led the pack, while their ordinary-looking colleagues (that is, assuming the pretty ones weren't ringers) were left to bring up the rear in basic happi (loose coats worn to festivals). My companion was of the opinion that although dancing practice would probably have taken place outside of office hours, it would not have been a smart career move to skip it. Also noteworthy was a team of handsome men with very effeminate haircuts, who turned out to be representing a local host bar. That's right, paying to have awkward flirty conversations is apparently no longer the sole domain of men, at least if you live in the big city.
At the end they threw the street open to all comers, so naturally I procured a flower hat and joined in. I had done the dance before at last year's Bon-odori, but you trying remembering a dance from a year previously, particularly when you were drunk then and are drunk now. Ok, so I had been watching the dance for a couple of hours immediately prior to that, but every group had their own variations, so I wasn't sure what the canonical version was. I wasn't helped by the fact that the people around me appeared to be similarly clueless. Once I found some people who knew what they were doing and shadowed them, I fared slightly better.
The festival over, we retired to a Spanish-themed bar (excellent garlic mushrooms) and consequently I almost missed my train home. Thankfully I didn't, and on the train I befriended three happi-clad cosmetics ladies and one of their young sons. As happens whenever I talk to small children in Japanese, he took the piss out of my accent, the punk.