After a harrowing experience with a hangover earlier in the day, I was once again on the move, this time heading from Koriyama to Atami to see my good friend Koalako. (again, not a real name – please see my cast of characters list) Fortunately for me, Atami was having their amazing summer festival during my visit. I have not been to enough summer festivals in Japan to give an objective opinion, but Atami’s has to rank near the top of the list.
Atami is a resort town built on the side of a mountain beside a beach. It is well known for its hot springs and amazing fireworks. I also know it from its festivals, steep streets, and the time I had to sing Celine Dion for free beer. Unlike the rest of Japan, I don’t think anyone owns a bicycle in Atami. If they do, they are either the a fitness freak or or they spend most of their time walking the bike up hills regretting their purchase.
Koalako was waiting for me at the train station. After a big hug (a friendly one – I am married!) we ditched my heavy backpack in a locker and started the long, steep, curving descent through the streets of Atami. Koalako had not used English for some time, so we started by alternating in my shoddy Japanese and her rusty English. Years of not using our second languages had created a bit of a language barrier, but we soon were talking like old friends again.
About half way down we saw a street vendor selling “Atami beer”, a local brew in time for the summer festival. Koalako walked over and got us each a bottle. Yes, drinking in public in Japan is perfectly legal. Even though it was okay, I couldn’t overcome my instinct to hide the bottle every time we saw other people. Fortunately beer is a reliable instinct killer (especially cold, delicious beer), so by the bottom of the hill I was feeling much more relaxed about public consumption. We came to the main street in Atami which was lined on both sides with throngs of people and street vendors. After walking for a bit, we stopped on the corner of the main street and a major side street. The police blocked off the side street which gave us a chance to get front and center for the festival.
In Atami, all of the neighbourhoods and nearby towns all create floats to pull / drive down the main street. Most of the floats have two levels full of lights, drummers, and people in costumes making a lot of noise. In front there is a long rope so the float can be pulled through the streets. Most of the floats are motorized so the giant pull rope in front is for decoration. The floats are all competing against each other, so each one has unique designs, features and music. The effect is a loud, bright spectacle that you would not expect from a usually reserved society. One of the highlights for me was when two floats are passing in opposite directions, like in this video that I took.
The float from Koalako’s area of Atami was easily the best of the festival. In previous years I had helped pull this float through the street, but this time I was able to be a spectator and enjoy the show. In addition to being the biggest and loudest, the float was equipped to shoot a shower of sparks into the air, resembling a large wooden dragon. Well, a wooden dragon covered in people with drums anyway. As usual, Koalako’s father was involved the float. We walked over to say hi and I was greeted with a huge smile and a firm handshake – very friendly and very un-Japanese. He made sure that his friend following behind hooked me up with a can of beer. Koalako’s father has always been a fun and friendly guy and around him the beer rarely stopped.
After about 90 minutes of noise and standing in the heat, we decided to go to an izakaya so we could sit and chat. This involved a long, steep, hot, humid, terrible walk back up the side of the mountain. I am not sure who decided to build a city on the side of a mountain, but they HATED prairie people.
At the izakaya we ordered the coldest drinks on the menu – frozen draft beer. The beer itself wasn’t frozen, but the head on top was frozen slush. This was an impressive gimmick, but made the beer difficult to drink. In the past, hanging out with Koalako would involve way too much bar food, too much beer and inevitably karaoke. This time was very subdued. We had too much bar food, just enough beer and no time for karaoke. Karaoke with Koalako is great both because she is a classicly trained singer with a beautiful voice, and more importantly she doesn’t complain about how awful and off key I sound.
Summer in Japan is uncomfortably hot and humid. The only redeeming feature is summer festivals like the one in Atami. Make sure you dress cool, drink a cold one while walking through the streets, and always leave time for karaoke after.