Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Do You Seeeeee The (Blue) Light?!?

The brutal, four-hour Kashima Philharmonic rehearsal had ended, and I was in my BLUE RAV4 heading for home. I was only about a couple hundred meters from the turn-off I take to cross the Kitaura Great Bridge (photos of which Pandabonium often posts on his site) when my cell phone rang. Talking on a cell phone while driving is illegal in Japan (though many people do it anyway), so as always I ignored it. Or tried to, anyway. The thing just kept ringing and ringing and ringing, so I gave up, pulled into the parking lot of the SeicoMart convenience store on the corner, and answered it.

It was my wife, and she said, "Quick! Come to the Aso Civic Center! The kids are going to be dancing soon!"

Then it hit me. It was the day of the Aso Illumination Festival.

If you were reading my blog last December (or if you take the time to check out the archive right now), you may recall that I posted about Aso's Christmas light extravaganza at the civic center. It's actually a tradition that started three years ago, when Aso was still a town, and I attended and thoroughly enjoyed the first one. However, though I missed the festival itself last year, (the first since incorporation into Namegata City,) I drove by the center later to check out the light display and was less than amused by the ridiculous and even tacky electrical overindulgence, even though it mainly featured the color blue. Well, they did it again this year, and the traditional Japanese festival dance troupe my kids belong to was performing. I figured the festival would be another exercise in glimmery excess, so I wasn't sure I really cared about it, but I didn't want to disappoint my kids. Instead of heading home, I turned off and headed down into what used to be downtown Aso.

And immediately found the crowds. Every parking lot, every vacant lot, every alley, and every open patch of sidewalk within half a kilometer of the civic center was full of cars. It was fortunate that I managed to park over at my kids' former kindergarten, which was only about a ten minute walk away. I arrived at the festival square just as my kids' dance troupe was starting its second number.

Actually, "festival square" is kind of an ironic term. It's actually the parking lot for the civic center, but they block it off and turn it into a de facto town square. It really was, too. It was also a nice exhibition of local pride for the people of (former) Aso. There were booths all over the place, all of them run by local merchants and co-op groups. Many of them featured locally-made products. You'd think something like that wouldn't attract many people on a chilly evening in early December, particularly since this is hicksville in every sense of the term. That square was packed. People of all ages were coming and going constantly, and there was quite a spectrum of our (former) town's humanity.

It wasn't my kids' best performance with their dance troupe, but it was still fun for them and entertaining for us. After they finished, it was time for the politicians to have their (unfortunate) turn at the spotlight, but they surprised and delighted us by keeping their speeches to a bare minimum. Then they proceeded to performances by school groups. First we were entertained by a junior high handbell choir. Then the choir linked up with a joint percussion section put together by Aso's two junior high schools. Then the two schools' bands got onstage (well, onsidewalk, anyway) for a joint concert. It was all very sentimental, very "down home", and it was wonderful.

Unfortunately, it was also a bit short, and after that they proceeded to the obligatory BINGO game. My family took that opportunity to go to the food booth corner and grab a quick dinner of crab stew and yakisoba (fried buckwheat noodles with meat and vegetables). There were way too few tables and chairs available for the massive crowd, but after we'd stood nearby for only a few minutes someone came running up to us and said, "Here, you can have our table!"

You can't help but love it Rampant commercialism, tacky spectacle, and "urbanization" haven't killed off our area's rural hospitality yet, gritty though it may be. :-)

Finally it was time to light the lights. (Hmm...can one dark the darks? Never mind.) The entire, bloated crowd formed up into a sort of half-circle and stood at attention. Many of the people had party crackers (as in the kind that goes }BANG{) in hand. The mayor of Namegata City counted down. Just as he hit "two", some very impatient individuals started firing off their crackers prematurely, leading everyone else to shoot theirs off, as well. Perhaps it was better that way. When the mayor proceeded to zero the lights simply popped on. No bangs, no fuss, just a sudden cascade of (mostly blue and white) lights followed by a great big "Oooh!" from the crowd. Yes, there was a lot of lights, and it was all so much electrical bling-bling, but yet it didn't seem quite so tacky as last year. Maybe they put more effort into appearance than simple quantity. At any rate, standing there in that crowd surrounded by all of that colored light, it was hard not to be moved. Then they started the fireworks display.

It was hard to describe the feeling. Despite the growing chill of the evening, there was a sensation of warmth in the air. The way the crowd reacted to the fireworks wasn't the same as during a typical display during the summer. It seemed more muted, more heartfelt and sentimental instead of just a cheap thrill. Maybe it was the effect of all those Christmas lights. Maybe it was all those people huddling for warmth as they enjoyed one of the very few traditions left over from the town they loved and saw sucked into the storm of urban incorporation that swept the land under Prime Minister Koizumi. Maybe it was the Christmas songs playing over the PA.

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I know that the effect was shattered as soon as that damned "Last Christmas" came on...

The fireworks ended, the crowd went back into motion, and the festival went into its second half (with some repeat performances including my kids' dance troupe). Still, the atmosphere was quite different from the first half. Having all those lights all around you would tend to do that. In the end, it was a lot of fun. The kids were really happy and didn't mind the (cold) hike over to my car at all. My wife probably would have enjoyed it more if she hadn't gotten hit by a sudden, nasty case of the runs that kept her in the restroom for a long time and sent her home early. And she was the one with the camera. *tsk* Maybe it was that crab stew. I guess local treats do tend to carry certain risks...

Let's do our best to enjoy the winter festive season, shall we?


  • Oh.. you are so lucky... you got winter!!!

    White Christmas and those beautiful lights.... Ah.. I wish I could have a White Christmas....

    By Blogger Selba, at 10:12 PM  

  • Lights in the darkness are nearly always welcome.
    'Electrical bling-bling' - what a way to say it.
    We have our modest lights in the darkness in Geelong at present - though it is summer of course. Many houses these days - and they are often people who don't go to 'church' on Sundays - and not from the 'richer' suburbs, are decorated with lights and the whole Christmas paraphernalia - the nativity, Santa, etc. Some look lovely - others tacky.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 8:12 AM  

  • I like them lights.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 11:25 AM  

  • Wow! Hanukkah lights! Reminds of my youth in south California. A lot of my friends were Jewish and their roofs were strung with blue and white lights.

    Speaking of my favorite bridge - Kitaura - someone should light that thing up with colorful bulbs - uh, solar and wind powered of course.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 6:30 PM  

  • Fireworks with no bang? I'd like to have seen that. Why is it we celebrate things with lights? Xmas, Guy Fawkes' Night, July 4th, Diwali, birthday candles, Olympic torch...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 8:28 AM  

  • Lovely lights. I was at the Petronas Twin Towers KLCC (KL City Centre) mall last weekend and realised I didn't have my camera with me. Shucks! Christmas decorations are all up at every mall in town and plenty of photo opportunities.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 8:21 PM  

  • Hi! Thanks so very much for visiting my blog tonight!! I love visitors and my blog is fairly new.. So you're on Oregonian and an OSU Beaver too!! Go Beavs :) Well how is Japan? I certainly wish you Merry Christmas and hope your week is terrific. Please visit again and I shall do the same. I'm actually in Alabama wishing I was in Oregon. I graduated from there but am not from there. I hope to relocate there after I graduate from law school. What a special place it is. Thanks again. take care!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:04 PM  

  • crab stew? i can't imagine it. sometimes fish can do funny/horrible things to the digestive track! i hope your wife is feeling better.

    the lights are beautiful. the trees look so pretty and tall. glad you guys had a good time.

    By Blogger tooners, at 6:03 PM  

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