Saturday, November 24, 2012

Kurama Fire Festival

October 22 is a good day to be in Kyoto. Aside from the famous Jidai Festival, there is another interesting festival held on the same day - the Kurama Fire Festival (Kurama Hi Matsuri). While the Jidai Festival is held during the day, Kurama Fire Festival happens in the evening, so you get a full day of activities!

The Fire Festival however, is held in the village of Kurama, 30-45 min away from Kyoto by train. The village itself, is a delightful "traditional wooden houses" village, and makes for a good visit on its own. The festival is a ritual where huge pine torches are used to guide spirits between the realm of the living and the dead. It begins at 6pm where the houses in the village would light up with watch fires at their entrances. Then the local residents would get their young children to bear small pine torches and conduct a procession ceremony through the village chanting "Sai rei ya, Sai ryou" (which means "festival, good festival!"). Subsequently, the men (in traditional costume of loincloth and a strange half-shirt) would do similar, with huge pine torches, some weighing 100kg! Two portable shrines are then paraded through the streets and eventually, enshrined at a place called "Otabisho". On October 23, another ceremony takes place where these portable shrines are then taken down and enshrined at the Yuki jinja shrine.

Festival start off with young children bearing small pine torches
The adults carry a much bigger torch!!
It's heavier than it looks! And note the interesting attire they are wearing
Starting procession with portable shrines

A few notes and information to people (esp photographers) making a trip to see the festival.
- Aside from the fires, there are very little other lighting. So generally, there will be big differences in lighting in your scenes.
- Due to the crowds, the whole site is heavily policed with very restricted lanes for tourists to move in. You will be literally herded in a "path" designated for tourists.
- This festival is a traditional local festival - it is not something designed for tourists. So bear that in mind. While you may want to capture a promising frame, respect the people and festival, and not interfere/interrupt the procession. Moreover, it's very chaotic, smoky, and fires burning everywhere, so safety is important.
- A tripod is not practical for this festival (esp the limited space) though a monopod may be useful.
- There will be ALOT of waiting. Right from the start at Kyoto. At Demachiyanagi station on the Eizan Railway in Kyoto, I arrived at 5pm. The queue was spilling out of the station, and I waited till 6.45pm before I could board the tiny local train to Kurama. The festival runs till 12 midnight, and after 8pm, the frequency of trains back to Kyoto was also reduced. So similarly, I had to wait more than an hour for the train back, boarding my train at 10+pm.
- Due to the crowds and the limited space in the village and the designated tourist "lanes", sometimes you could get stuck in the "queues" for 10-20 minutes without moving!

So, if you are very adverse to crowds in smoky environment, or have little patience for waiting, then perhaps you have to think twice about this festival. Other than that, the Kumara Fire Festival is certainly one of the more interesting festivals in Japan!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Oirase Stream, Tohoku Japan

When I was researching my autumn trip to Japan, one of the places that was really popular was Oirase Stream in Tohoku. So I decided to head over to take a look.

Autumn foliage over pretty mountain stream

Oirase Stream is a mountain stream in Aomori prefecture, with water flowing from Lake Towada. There is a hiking trail running almost parallel to the stream, but unfortunately, a vehicular road also runs almost beside the hiking trail!! This is also the access road where the major cities of Hachinohe and Aomori connects to Lake Towada, so it can get busy. However, it is still well worth an outing, especially if you are a photographer who loves "flowing water among foliage" photos!

As it turns out, the foliage in most parts are actually quite thick, such that when you look at the pictures, it's hard to imagine that a road is just 5 metres behind you! Moreover, with the thick foliage, you could get beautiful sunlight streaming through the trees, and in most cases, provide enough cover so that you could slow down your shutter speed to achieve the silky smooth flowing water effect of the streams and waterfalls.

Some parts of the hiking trail unfortunately "spill" over to the road
Hard to tell that these scenes are just beside a busy road!
Besides hikers, there are many artists as well!

My main gripe as a solo backpacker is the access. Unless you have a vehicle, you will be at the mercy of the public bus schedules. There are buses from Aomori and Hachinohe that goes to Yasumiya (the access town of Lake Towada) that passes through the road beside the trail. There are a number of bus-stops along the way, and hence you can opt to only do partial parts of the trail or all (the whole trail is 9km long). Unfortunately, the last bus back to the city was like 4pm which I felt was way too early. Also, the bus fare is ridiculously expensive - a 1-way fare from Hachinohe to the extreme end of the trail (Nenokuchi) is 2000yen (~us$25)!

Nevertheless, the place is very pictureque! (hopefully evident in the photos :p) The best parts of the trail (with flowing water over rocks and foliage) is probably at Ishigedo. For those with enough budget, there is also a hotel at Yakeyama, which is the other end of the hiking trail, so you could have the hiking trail for yourself at later parts in the day (yes, it gets really crowded!). If you drive, you also also base yourself at Lake Towada (Yasumiya).

All in all, well worth a trip!

Beautiful light, beautiful waterfall