First Market Festival
Every January, cities and towns all over Japan host Hatsu Ichi festivals. These First Market festivals celebrate all the myriad ways one can buy some good fortune, which helps support the town’s temples and shrines. Utsunomiya City holds its festival on the eleventh of every year. This year, the eleventh happened to be a national holiday instead of the usual working day, so I wandered down to the festival to take a look around, and, maybe, buy a little bit of good fortune.
Utsunomiya’s Hatsu Ichi is always set up on Ue-Kawahara Dori, the bypass street running from Odori to Shirasawa Kaido. Ue-Kawahara Dori is blocked to traffic and market stalls are set up along both sides of the street. Another bunch of stalls are set up back to back in the middle of the street forming two narrow aisles. The stalls are usually manned from about ten in the morning to around eight in the evening so you have a fairly generous time frame in which to get your shopping done.
As befits a “first market festival,” there is a lot of shopping to be done at Hatsu Ichi. Food, trinkets, good luck charms, goldfish, (and did I mention food?) are all available for sale. But the big ticket items are the handsome, stout fellows known as Daruma.
These round, hollow dolls are symbols of good luck and good fortune. Traditionally painted red, recent years have seen a veritable rainbow of differently colored Daruma available for sale. Each color is designed to bring a bit of good luck to different aspects of your life. Yellow for wealth, green for health, blue for good fortune at work, and pink for romance. Some are small enough to fit into your palm, others might take up a good portion of your entryway. The price goes up with their size, so prep your wallet accordingly!
Once you have your Daruma, think about what you are hoping for and wish accordingly. Then paint in one eye and wait. When, over the course of the year, your good fortune comes, paint in the other eye.
Beyond the Valley of the Daruma Dolls
As I mentioned above, there is a lot of food available at these festivals. The standards are yakisoba (buckwheat noodles), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), and that most delectable of treats, grilled squid. Of course no self-respecting festival would be without its fair share of fried things, and you’ll find all the usual culprits here, too: fried potatoes, fried cheese, fried chicken, and fried donuts.
Beyond the traditional and the fried, though, you’ll find the auspicious, the foreign, and the unusual. You might find the chocolate vendors who bring massive slabs of milk, dark, and white chocolate, which they then smash with a hammer and bag according to weight. Or you might see Thai curry, American hamburgers, or Mexican tacos. Then again, you might find a stall selling all manner of fried and roasted insects. If you do, I recommend the crickets.
And then there are the good fortune goodies. Japan has a long list of things that bring, make, or reinforce good fortune - orange trees and other houseplants, kamidana (miniature household alters), spices, and blessed fans - and they are all available, with explanations, instructions for care, and a smile from the vendors.
I contemplated an orange tree, and though I liked the idea, the reality of getting it home and caring for it made me think twice. And the charms and fortunes are interesting, but I don’t need anything else attached to my keys or my cell phone. No, in the end, I decided on a large gold (for success!) Daruma. I don’t know how effective it’ll be, but it looks pretty cool in the entryway and maybe that’s good fortune enough.