A wonderful day yesterday. I woke up early and was walking through the park to the station before 8am. The bright sunlight held just the right amount of heat and the air contained just the right level of chill to set the mind to adventure. And it was an adventure today, I set off on the Odaku Line in the direction of Odawara for a festival at Matsuda. Yes I know festivals, festivals, festivals. A photographer I know, talking about where your photographic energies should be directed, said that I have a big box with festivals written on it in thick black marker. I think he meant i put too much energy there but I just like going to festivals. It may be the culture and tradition thing but I doubt it, I mean I love that stuff yes but I take it a lot less deeply than I should probably. If you ask me so do many Japanese also. No to me festivals are all about colour, noise and madness really.
And they don’t get much stranger than the Ashigara River festival.
Not that the festival is in itself that strange: it is quite a normal town festival actually; having the usual stalls selling foods and beers; local talents and the same celebrations of culture and identity. The Sakawa river that runs through the area also marks the line of the tectonic fault though and the festival is perhaps a prayer to the barely recognized gods of earthquakes who all local people know will one day turn up and fold their towns into the ground again. A massive earthquake is long overdue and this is perhaps why the festival is a recent addition to the area’s calender, starting just 3 years ago.
The festival starts near Shinjujibashi bridge and as start sites go it didn’t look promising. True a snow capped Mount Fuji filled the sky behind and the river ran fast and cold to the side yet as I got closer I wasn’t entirely sure it was the start because a mobile crane, a digger and a couple of trucks don’t look much like a festival to me. But the red and white striped cloth around the big box in the middle said that something special was here and after I could talk my way through “security” and go and meet the crane and truck drivers I was shown what the box contained: 15,000 rubber ducks!
The Kintaro Duck Race is the high-light of this festival and something just a little bit crazy in an otherwise quiet, unassuming town in rural Kanagawa. Borrowing the idea from the Great British Duck Race in the UK the local authorities use the festival, and especially the duck race, to raise money to help clean up the Sakawa River and Ashigara area. As was explained to me by, no one less than, Chosei Sawa, the Mayor of Minami Ashigara himself, each duck costs 500 yen and people can buy up to five ducks. Of course they don’t actually buy the ducks, they buy a ticket which corresponds to a number on the duck. The first hundred ducks to make it to the finishing line of the race, about a kilometre downstream, can win prizes. The first prize this year was a 5 day holiday in Hawaii and others ranged from TVs to bus tours and restaurant vouchers. The job of handing-out the prizes would be done by Kai Ato, a famous Japanese actor who was was born nearby in Odawara, and all in all it promised to be a good day so I hung around taking photos and because this was not the hard-nosed, money making endeavor of say the Onbashira I was made to feel pretty welcome.
After a little bit of a ceremony, at 2pm the crane fired up it diesel engines and lifted the red and white striped box out over the river. A countdown started and I watched as 15,000 rubber ducks splashed into the water and then floated down a river. It was quite a strange sight really. Shining bright yellow in the sun and moving pretty fast in the current and the whole vision was one of ridiculous irreverence and I can see why this idea started in the UK. I had work to do however and ran down the banks of the river following this yellow tide as it went under bridges (wonderfully uncrowded with spectators) and through rapids. Some ducks got caught in eddies or in reed beds along the banks and festival organizers were busy throwing them back into mid stream so that they could be caught and collected by nets at the finish line in Kenraku Fureai Hiroba.
It took a while to get to the finish, if you weren’t a duck or a mayor, I know this because I had to stop running and taking pictures when the river banks ran out and walk inland a few hundred metres to wait my turn on stepping stones that crossed a biggish tributary enroute. It took an age to cross that river as old women and children panicked, wobbled and even crawled their way falteringly across the steps and I ran back to the finish line worrying that I had missed the announcement of winner. Luckily this wouldn’t take place until 2pm and I could enjoy the festival sights and some food (and a beer) as I waited for number 2,139 to declared the winner.
The winner wasn’t there unfortunately but the kind festival organizers gave me a duck as a souvenir and I went home, sunburnt and happy. I very good day indeed.