Traditional Events, 2005 Photo Gallery
Photos of three traditional winter events celebrated in the Yamanashi region.
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The most religious of commonly-celebrated Japanese holidays is New Year's Eve. Rather than the parties common in the US, it is usually a much quieter and more solemn occasion; Buddhist temples ring their huge bells at midnight, and many people go to temples to pray for good fortune in the new year. It is, to a degree, closer to the way Christmas is celebrated in the US.
These are a few photos of Minobu-san, a large Buddhist temple in rural Yamanashi Prefecture (southeast of Tokyo and one of two prefectures bordering Mt. Fuji). They were taken on a visit shortly after New Year's 2005, when the New Year's crowd was still relatively thick.
Many areas have a tradition of a winter festival some time around New Year's in which religious decorations, good-luck charms, bamboo from Tanabata decorations, and other items too meaningful to just throw away are burned. It's not unlike some European festivals, though the US has nothing equivalent.
This particular one is called "Don-don Yaki" (meaning roughly "thump thump burning" because of the drums played when the pyre is lit); there's a table with mikan oranges and sake, and people also roast mochi (rice dough) balls over the coals (the balls are used as a sort of decoration by some people prior to roasting). Every neighborhood in the area has its own pyre; this one, unlike most nearby, is done in the hills, rather than in the open area along the large Fuji river nearby.
Given that it's extremely dry in winter, and if you note the hill full of brown foliage in the background, it's a miracle that it hasn't started a forest fire yet. The fire department is always present, of course, but there's not going to be much they can do when the luck runs out.
Firefighter Ladder Display
Speaking of fire departments, I don't know how widespread it is, but at least in Yamanashi there's a tradition among fire departments where they travel to spots around town to demonstrate their ladder climbing prowess. The group of firemen set up a bamboo ladder, and have their most athletic (and/or craziest) members climb up, tie themselves in place, and take various poses demonstrating their strength and bravery. Given how rickety the ladder looks and that it's entirely supported by other firemen, it's quite impressive, although the number of people willing and/or able to do it is apparently dwindling.