Jul 12, 2019
Early summer in Japan is a slog because of the rainy season. I told you about how I cope with the weather related challenges, and others have said the best way to thrive during this period is to enjoy the outdoors. So I took this advice in the first week of July to enjoy a day trip to Narita City and to take in the pilgrim town atmosphere and catch the elaborate Narita Gion Festival.
Early in the day I had inklings of the celebration. I spotted a festival participant on the train in full garb, and on stepping out of Narita Station, there was a festival float crew preparing and posing right there.
I strolled over to Narita Omotesando (not to be confused with the Omotesando that leads to Meiji Shrine in Tokyo), and saw the yatai food stall vendors setting up. This was the morning of the first day of the three day pageant, so there weren’t many people yet, but I could just feel a buzz of festivity. I’m not big on crowds, but I enjoyed the mounting tension before the throng arrived. Besides the food stalls, the antiques, kimono, senbei and souvenir shops were all open. There are some fun shops to see here, including a taiko drum specialist and a craft shop that sells handmade baskets.
Narita City is notable not just for the quaint Omotesando leading to the temple, but also grilled freshwater eel served at restaurants there. The most popular, and perhaps the most atmospheric, is Kawatoyo.
This restaurant has been serving eel since the late Meiji Period. This time, I managed to get a table on the second floor overlooking Omotesando. It can get very busy, but if you go on a weekday, the wait isn’t too long.
The eel is very fresh. In fact, the chefs prepare them on a long table at the front of the restaurant. If you’re squeamish, don’t look. Then the eel is boiled, grilled, and finally served with Kawatoyo’s original sauce. I had jo-unaju, the premium eel served in a beautiful lacquered box with lid. The sides were crisp picked daikon radish and cucumber, and a light soup with liver of eel and some greens. Lunch was delicious. I’ve never had such flavorful and tender eel before. It’s a bit expensive, with lunch starting at ¥2500, but it’s an experience and the eel is the best I’ve ever had.
After lunch, I walked a short distance to Shinshoji, the massive Shingon Buddhist temple complex that has been a stop on pilgrimage routes for centuries. In the plaza in front of the main temple, the dozen or so festival floats were mustered, and a lengthy and solemn ritual began. The priests did a blessing, accompanied by drums and a conch shell salute.
And then the rally began. It was deafening to hear the companies perform simultaneously, and astounding to see each elaborate carved wooden float. The floats have big companies - some with dancers to proceed the float, musicians perched on the float playing drums and bamboo flutes, and a crew of strong people to pull the float. Dancers straddle the roof, too. Each float is unique for its woodwork and hardware - one even rotates on its chassis- and each company has their own coordinating costumes, dance moves and chants.
The float companies followed their leaders’ shouts for about 10 minutes, building up enthusiasm, before each float approached the monks, bowed, and proceeded to the street parade. The floats tower over the crowd as many of them near effigies of deities. On Omotesando, you have to stand back under the eaves of the shops because the street is so narrow it can only accommodate one vehicle at a time. To get under pedestrian bridges, the effigies are retracted into the float. See there are three heads leaning close, one massive?
I didn’t stay for the evening festivities. The procession goes on after dusk, and the floats are lighted with lanterns. Perhaps next year I’ll budget time to stay longer. On the way home, I payed my respects at Shinshoji temple, and meditated for a moment at the giant mandala to Fudomyo in the big pagoda.