Thursday, November 1, 2007

A Fire Festival?

I suppose when the travel book states that you will be packed into a train car like grains of rice then one should listen and heed the warning. We often turn to our trusted travel guide when exploring the area around us. We use it to find beautiful temples, good restaurants, shopping, and exciting events. We even have an entire guidebook dedicated to the city of Kyoto. This book combined with a compass, that always points north, except when riding on an electric train that is essentially a giant electro-magnet, has been instrumental in finding our way around this magnificent city. We read in our book about a fire festival in a town just to the north of Kyoto. The book stated something along the lines of, “If you are able to go this in one of the most spectacular events in the Kyoto area.” We decided that we would try and make it to this festival.

We plotted our route. Found the train lines. Created an itinerary and figured out the timeline. I snuck out of work a few minutes early so we could make it to the train as early as possible. We packed up our backpack with a picnic supper and headed out the door. We made it to the train station in record time and managed to get on a train that left soon after we made it to the station. We were on our way to the tiny town of Kuruma to see a marvelous fire festival where half dressed men would be carrying burning torches measuring five to six meters and weighing hundreds of pounds down the main street of the town. We made it to Kyoto Station changed trains and rode down one station where we changed trains again. We transferred to the subway and rode to the north of the city where we transferred to another line. This is where the surprises began. The trip had been uneventful to this point but it all changed at this time. We got off the subway and were confronted with a line to purchase tickets. To be honest we did not know what the line was for when we first saw it. The ticket machine was on the street level and we had to head up the stairs. We noticed there was a line of people winding up the escalator and there were guards stationed directing traffic. We walked up the stairs to and were confronted with the line of people waiting to get on the train. We had a short huddle to decide how we should proceed. We figured that we had come this far and it would be our only chance in this lifetime to see this particular festival. We figured that we should go ahead and attend. We bought our tickets and walked back down the stairs to get in the line for the train. We strolled down the stairs as briskly as we could and promptly rode the escalator back up as a part of the line for the train. It was like waiting in line for a ride at an amusement park. There were ropes that cordoned off the lobby forming a maze that the line meandered through. A train arrived and the crowd began to move toward the turnstiles. The closer we got to the front of the line the more I began to hope that we would actually have to wait for the next train. The line had seemed long when we joined the end; and now all those people were on the train. I hoped that we would have to wait for the next train in hopes that rather than being the last on the train and having to stand the entire ride we would be the first on and possibly get to sit for the forty minute journey. This was a vain hope however as we were not even to be some of the last people on the train. We clambered onto what seemed to be a very full train at the time. Jenny and Logan were very luck in that someone offered their seat to them. Jenny and Logan were able to sit for the journey. I had to stand. I was not even lucky enough to stand near their seat. As more and more people got onto the train I was pushed farther and farther away from them. The train ride itself was uneventful. We stayed on one train from the beginning of the line to the end, which is good because we could not have made it off the train before the last stop if we had wanted to.

The train made it the town of Kuruma. We made it off the train with the rest of the crush. We had little idea of where to go to find this particular festival. Our motto of “when in doubt, follow the crowd” did not let us down this time either. Of course everyone on the train was here for the same reason we were. So finding the festival was going to be of little difficulty. We followed the crowd down a path and onto a street that we thought would lead to the festival. Or at least that is what we thought. Apparently that street was the festival. One narrow street, half of it roped off with police tape was where the festival would be taking place. What seemed to be thousands of people began to walk and push along a very narrow pathway about the width of a sidewalk. On one side was the police tape and police officers keeping the street clear of people on the other side of the path were houses. We were pushed along the path, not even being given an opportunity to see what, if anything, might be happening.

We found a parking lot that had been taken over by people needing a moment of respite from the madness. We set down our tarp and used the area to have a bit of supper. Well at least Jenny and Logan did. While they ate I tried to see what might be going on. I managed to see nothing more than a glimpse of some small children dressed in traditional clothing marching down the street carrying a very large torch accompanied by their parents. After trying unsuccessfully to get a good vantage point to witness the spectacle I joined Jenny and Logan for a spot of dinner. We sat watching the crowd move along the path as we ate our curry-pan and rice balls. After our dinner we joined the fray. There were times in that crowd where we were able to walk along, most of the time however was spent being pushed and shoved. We soon ducked onto the front porch of a house to escape the crowd. Here we were able to see a portion of what we came to witness. Grown men wearing little more than sleeves and a loincloth carrying giant torches down the street. It was not long before the police asked the small group of people; us included, to vacate the porch. We were forced, once again, back into the crush of people moving steadily down the street.

The whole experience soon began to overwhelm us and we grew frustrated with being pushed along. We felt as if every minute were a fight to see something that we would probably not going to have the opportunity to see. First we attempted to go backward through the crowd, but we were warned that that was a bad idea, and that the line formed a circle leading back to the train station. We forced our way through the crowd and pushed our way to the station where we were once again confronted with a line. We would have to wait to ride the train back to Kyoto. Luckily for us the line was not too long and we were able to find a nice corner to stand in for the long train ride back to Kyoto. Again this train grew more and more crowded. It became so full that I did not think that there would be enough room to squeeze any more people on board, but they did, about five more people squished their way into the car. Then the train began the trip back to Kyoto.

This trip was rather disappointing. We knew that there would be a lot of people to confront, but we hoped that we would be able to see more than furtive glimpses of an age-old ceremony. All the pushing had overwhelmed us and prodding and we had not really seen what it was that we had gone to witness. The guidebook had recommended this festival and we took a chance to see it, but so did every other reader of the guidebook. Crowds are a way of life here in Japan and sometimes they make for fun. This night however they made time a nightmare. The crowds of people made it difficult for us to enjoy and even see the festivities. I am glad we took the opportunity but the experience that I expected to have was not the one we were able to live. I had figured on seeing a fire festival that evening, but ended up with an experiential opportunity to find out just how big a crowd can get here in Japan. The difference between expectations and reality are great. The opportunity to learn and experience life however does not change it you keep you mind and eyes open to different possibilities.

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