Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Last Festival

Somehow the cotton-candy sound of the American pop band Hanson has found its way to Utashinai, a shabby town in the mountains of Hokkaido that is the smallest city in all of Japan and the place where I make my home. Mmmmm-bops and Oh Yeeeaahhs fill the narrow valley as festival workers set up karaoke equipment on a brightly lit stage next to booths offering grilled fish, draft beer and carnival games. It’s a rainy evening, cold for July, but the townspeople are already starting to arrive, unwrapping rice balls and propping umbrellas against their chairs.

Three slim girls in pale blue summer kimonos pick their way past shiny puddles, munching on corn dogs as Hanson blares through the smoky wet air hanging over the community center parking lot. The girls wear colorful sashes that accentuate the curves of their hips and clash mightily with their bright orange hair, frizzed, primped and fussed into radioactive bird nests. They move slowly, in part because the tight folds of the kimonos constrict movement, in part because they are unused to wearing traditional sandals, but mostly to let the construction workers and high school boys in the crowd get a good look at them tripping helplessly through the drizzling rain.

This is the last festival.


“The coal miners drank quite a bit in those days.”

Mr. Tanaka is leaving through a beautifully preserved photo album, thrilled that the museum he curates has attracted a visitor.

“The women would collect their husband’s paycheck every month, because if the men had a chance they would spend all the money in one night at the bars.”

He laughs.

“That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”

“People in Utashinai had to stay cheerful somehow. No one was from Hokkaido back then, so they were all far from home. The work was hard. There were accidents. The town supported the widows and children of dead miners. The festival was joyous because the people needed joy.”


The karaoke contest is about to start. Four community center employees hold a thin rope separating the crowd from the area in front of the stage. One of them is standing next to me. He is very drunk. The rope is looped over his shoulders.

“I forgot my umbrella,” he whines. “This thing is heavy.”

The man spots me standing next to him and grabs my hand, first enthusiastically and then for balance. Four tiny grandmothers grumble as the wet rope digs into their necks.

“Welcome,” says the drunk, still holding my hand, smiling glassily, his face streaked with rain.

“Welcome. Welcome to Utashinai. Welcome.”

He lets go of me and leans over, unsteady but deliberate. The rope dips down too, releasing the old women. He finds a plastic cup on the pavement by his feet and slowly lifts himself back up, the rope rising with him.

“Here,” he smiles, pushing the cup into my chest. The beer tastes warmer than the rain.

I lift my bottle to refill his cup, but he takes it from me and drinks the whole thing, the rope jerking with each swallow.


A 6th grader looks up at me shyly. “Hello,” I say. “How are you?”

“I’m fine thank you, and you?” Her voice is almost lost in the patter raindrops.

The rope jerks towards us, bringing the drunk with it. “Here,” he says, thrusting the empty bottle at the girl. “You. Go and put this in the non-burnable trash bin. The non-burnable, got it?”

She looks up to me, frightened, then runs back to her friends.

“Hell,” says the drunk. “Take this then will you?”

He stumbles off towards the concessions. I am holding the rope. It really is heavy. The four grandmothers give me little bows and apologetic smiles.

“Yoroshiku onegai-simasu,” they say. The phrase, ubiquitous in Japanese, does not translate well to English. American grandmothers might think along similar lines, but would not come out and say something to the effect of, “Please do your best and treat us well.”

Eight high school boys in homemade animal costumes take the stage and perform “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, but a microphone malfunctions and no one can hear the singer, so they go through the whole routine a second time.


“Wait,” I ask. Mr. Tanaka turns back to the previous page of the photo album and squints down at a black and white photograph of six rough looking men standing in front of a coal pile, hands on their hips, grinning broadly. Three of the faces are out of place.

“Soo desu nee,” he says contemplatively. “This was from the time of the Second World War. Americans were here. They worked in the coal mines.”

“How many?” I ask. “Where did they stay?”

“Phhhhh.” Mr. Tanaka sucks air through his front teeth.

“I really don’t know,” he says. “It was…it was…”

We have been speaking Japanese, but now he turns to English.

“It was friendly. Friendly na kanzi datta yo nee.”

“Are there any more pictures?”

“No, just this one.”

I stare hard at the faces of the POWs, trying to see past the smiles, to read something in the faint lines at the edges of their eyes.

“Here, take a look at this,” says Mr. Tanaka, moving to a nearby computer.

“You can play six different games.”

I sit down and examine the menu. The object of each game is to guide a digital boy through the trials of daily life in Utashinai, circa 1940.

Make people dance by banging the taiko drum!

Dodge globs of crow excrement while carrying water from the well to the kitchen!

Find father in the public bath!

Mr. Tanaka chuckles as I double click on the backs of hairy men in an animated steam room.

“It’s important for the children to know their history,” he says.


An electric charge fills the street as the taiko drums usher in a parade of dancers. Old men in shabby raincoats and floppy hats huddle along the sidewalks in the glow of red lanterns and strings of inexplicable tiny European flags.

“Yosakoi, soran, soran, soran, soran.”

The music echoes of the misty valley walls, sending chills down my scalp and through the small of my back. Dancers from all of the neighboring towns are there – even Sapporo has sent a delegation, thirty silk-robed beauties who fly through their routine with the grace and urgency of mating cranes. Each group of dancers is followed by a bull-necked man struggling to hold up a massive flag, taking little wavering steps that send him stumbling from one side of the street to the other as he strains against the rain-soaked banner, every muscle gritted and bone braced as the dancers swirl and the music pours on down.

The dance team from Utashinai brings up the rear of the procession, led by a little girl barely out of kindergarten who doesn’t know the steps. The girl is followed by a teenager shrinking into her kimono and four heavily made-up old women, moving with more dignity than grace. The local flag-bearer is older than his fellows, but does not let his sodden burden touch the asphalt until all the dancers reach the end of the street and the music stops, leaving him slumped against the curb, chest heaving as community center volunteers roll up the banner and take it away out of the rain.


Mr. Tanaka opens the door to a modern sixty-seat movie theatre tucked away in a corner of the museum.

“Because you’ve come all this way,” he says, handing me a pair of 3D glasses and poking at a control panel.

The surround sound announces itself with a whoosh and the movie screen hums to life. A vaguely robotic looking owl swoops into view and announces himself as my guide, and then we are falling down a coal shaft at breakneck speed and emerging into a jungle of giant ferns and palm trees and WOW a long-necked dinosaur spooks the owl and sends us into another free fall in the opposite direction, far out into the atmosphere over rapidly shifting continental plates suddenly recognizable as the islands of Hokkaido and Sakhalin.

Then the owl and I are down in a mining shaft, amid the grunts and clanks of workers earning a living in the bowels of the earth. Those are real people, faces streaked with black dust, hunched over and hacking away at shiny rock walls. The owl moves on.

“Let’s drop in and have a peek at Utashinai today,” it says, and now I am looking at four Japanese girls dressed like Heidi of the German storybook playing Alpenhorns at the base of the town ski hill.


When the coalmines closed fifteen years ago Utashinai was awash with money. The stockmarket bubble was rising to its peak and the banks gave out loans like dancers throwing candy from a festival float. There was no need for coal mining in Japan’s booming high-tech economy, but that hardly seemed to matter. Utashinai would reinvent itself, using public money to transform its homely valley into a tourist attraction for the 21st century. This scruffy mining town would rub off the dust and become a quaint Swiss village.

Architects, city planners, designers, programmers, artists, movie producers and sculptors were hired. Two new lifts went up at the modest ski hill and a Tyrolean Lodge was constructed at its base. New manhole covers reading SWISS LAND UTASHINAI were commissioned and installed on every street, parking lot and drainage ditch. The trains stopped running when the mines closed, but not to worry, in no time a concrete bike path was put in over the old tracks. Visitors might need a rest while using the new path, so beautiful toilets modeled after Swiss chalets were built every kilometer along its length at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars each. The old public bath was torn down and replaced with a soaring Swiss chapel housing a modern hot spring resort named Tyrol. Funds were appropriated the construction of a gleaming new museum and community center. Finally, in order to cement the town’s transformation, the city elders commissioned a team of artists to come up with a mascot for Utashinai that would reflect its Swiss identity. Thus was Horn-kun born into this world.

Horn-kun is an anthropomorphic cartoon sheep with bushy eyebrows and red eyes who favors brown lederhosen, a red and yellow striped vest and a jaunty orange cap. Visitors first encounter Horn-kun on a prominent billboard at the entrance to town. The manic sheep is smiling broadly and raising a hand in greeting while holding a giant Alpenhorn in his other hoof. He looks like a reincarnation of Mark Twain in sheep form with steady access to large quantities of hallucinogenic happy pills. He is quite possibly the worst mascot in the entire world. Yet meetings had been held, a design committee funded and their vision approved. Today Horn-kun smiles gleefully from every street corner and is immortalized in statue form in a fountain in the town park, where no one ever goes.

Just about the time when the orange paint on Horn-kun’s hat was dry, the stockmarket bubble burst. Rose-colored glasses across Japan fell to the floor with a resounding clatter. Residents of Utashinai woke up and saw a bleak picture. They had toilets that played Austrian opera music but no jobs, a new hotel but no tourists, a promotional film but no audience and the ubiquitous presence of an addled sheep whose relentless cheerfulness seemed to mock the townspeople’s plight. Those who could packed their bags and moved to other towns. Before long Utashinai had a grand community center but no community. A city of 50,000 people became a decrepit shell of 5,000 pensioners, single mothers and community center employees.

Next year the highschool will close. Public employees took a 10 percent pay cut in April and there is no money left to maintain the toilets, which are scheduled for removal as soon as the town can afford the demolition fees. There is talk of Utashinai merging with neighboring towns. These days, even Horn-kun looks a little worn down. Tokyo lights will shine on and new skyscrapers are going up in Osaka, but in this part of Hokkaido, a town is breathing its last.


The rain has slowed to a drizzle and fires are lit at the corners of the parking lot. Fathers hoist little boys and girls onto their shoulders and old coalminers rise up on tiptoe to see over the crowd. Music comes through the speakers, plaintive high-pitched singing backed by the heavy beat of the taiko drums. The shrine procession enters the crowd from behind the stage and suddenly everything is pulsing, the people shouting and sparks from the fire shooting high into the night. The shrine bearers march in a circle, chanting, ten strong women straining under the weight of a wooden platform covered in white paper lanterns and red ribbon, at its center a shiny black lump of coal. Two more women balance on top of the platform, bouncing to the rhythm of the chants and waving white paper fans. The shrine makes three trips around the lot and then fireworks explode somewhere in the hills above the coal pits and everyone turns their faces up to the rain until the last crackling burst of light and puff of smoke fades into the dark night sky.

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