Located just 30 minutes away from central Tokyo by train, Kawagoe in Saitama prefecture is a city of rich history and delicious eel and sweet potato. Once one of the most prosperous suburbs of Tokyo (called Edo at the time and how the city earned it’s nickname Koedo or “Little Edo”), the city is taken over every third Saturday and Sunday of October by a musical battle of festival floats called Kawagoe Matsuri (Kawagoe Festival).
Kawagoe Festival dates back some 360 years and draws upon the city’s Edo roots in a manner that highlights the glory of the festivals of this time period. Roots of this festival date back to 1648 when Nobutsuna Matsudaira Izunokami, a daimyo of the early Edo period and reigning Kawagoe clan lord of the time, donated a mikoshi (miniature shrine) and shishigashira (lion headgear) to the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine for celebration purposes. This became known as the "Jinkosai" festival. A comparatively humble celebration, it quickly expanded and three years later included 10 additional floats that were carried throughout the neighborhoods of the Hikawa Shrine parishioners accompanied by costumed parades. Today, the festival boasts 19 floats (dashi) that are pulled all around the city and draw massive crowds each year.
Each of these 19 floats represents a different section of the city and are constructed in the traditional Edo style of having two stories and a doll on top that is capable of retracting and some floats are even capable of having platforms that can turn a full 360 degrees around. While each float is pulled around the city, hayashi performances (a traditional Japanese orchestra comprised of flutes, drums, handbells, and dancers dressed as mythical characters from Japanese mythology) entertain the crowds and when one float meets another at an intersection anywhere in the city they go into battle. The floats face one another and continue to play their unique musical accompaniment in hopes of throwing the other float’s performers off and, when this occurs, the losing float must allow the victor to pass. This is known as hikkawase and the real climax of the festival comes with the nighttime hikkawase when all 19 floats meet at the three different locations in the evening both days.
Other attractions at the festival include a haunted house and an assortment of festival games. One of the more popular, and traditional, of such games is the goldfish scooping (or kingyo-sukui in Japanese). In this game, the challenger is given a special scooper made with a plastic frame and handgrip with a fragile paper center (called a poi) to scoop goldfish into a bowl. Once the poi is completely broken, the game is over but you get to take come all the goldfish you scooped! Each play costs approximately 300 yen and Japanese love this game so much that there is even a national competition where the current record by a child of elementary school age is 30 fish in about 2 minutes. It isn’t just goldfish you can take home, however, as some stands offer the opportunity to scoop TURTLES into a bowl to take home.
Other “scooping” games involve being given a small fishing pole with a hook to try and snag a decorated water balloons on a string. Other still are scooping games where you try to scoop tiny toys, bouncy balls, or plastic gems into a bowl. At 500 yen a go, you better make sure that your one scoop gets your money’s worth!
Kawagoe festival also provides plenty of opportunities for festival goers to interact with performers and even help pull one of the floats around - as long as you ask first. In various locations nestled between all the food stands are stages with other stationary hayashi performances and one that tends to have a long line in front of it involves a performer wearing a shishigashira “biting” children’s head - usually to the dissatisfaction of said child complete with tears of terror. This gesture is actually a ritual used as a means to purify the child as the mythical creature eats all evil things surrounding the child including to potential for bad behavior by the child.
Kawagoe festival is so significant to the area’s history that there is even a museum dedicated it, so be sure to mark your calendars for next year and check it out for yourself!