Numazu’s Port Festival…what can I say…sometimes festivals begin to roll into one big blur of familiarity. The endless stalls of over priced snacks; the mobile shrines atop shoulders as they bounce down the street to the tin and drum of traditional musical instruments; this is the norm for festivals in Japan. I find that after some time this monotony either sends you off to a pub for a beer or sharpens your eye in order to find something new.
The Numazu Port Festival and Kaijinsai was bursting with the same old, same old. However it was also splitting at the seams with a little something else – Seafood. Well not in the sense that people perused stalls of rotting fish, swollen and ready to erupt their putrid juices. What I mean is that when you have a festival to celebrate fish and the folk who provide them then there is bound to be a little something different.
As I was thanking Mr Beret, my wife had already grabbed me by the arm and dragged me towards a craft stall. The idea of doing craft at a festival, or anywhere in public for that matter, used to send me into a cold sweat. I used to justify this with my indignation that these sorts of things were only for kids (kids who probably have their lunch money stolen from them at school). How demeaning and humiliating would it be for me to publicly show my ignorance with a bunch of kids who would no doubt upstage me at every step while we make something I don’t really want.
Meanwhile, my wife fearlessly jumps at these activities, elbowing children out of the way and launching herself at her task with delight and laughter. I timidly follow suit self conscious of the onlookers and my, often, short stature competition． However， I have learnt to go with it because most of the time these activities turn out to be fun. If it wasn’t for my wife I would not have dipped my toes back into my childhood and rediscovered these delights.
This time I was being taken towards some tables with a colourful array of seaweed, a blank post card and a small tub of water. According to our friendly Numazu Port Festival guide, we were about to embark on the not too ancient art of seaweed arranging. It was only the night before that I had watched an Anthony Bourdain No Reservations TV episode where he was in Japan and participating in the art of ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. I was primed and ready to make a masterpiece． I cut and carefully arranged different pieces of seaweed onto my postcard, imagining myself in Bourdain’s shoes, albeit a smellier and slimier Bourdain. When I had finished I looked around at my competition and I felt I could really kick all the other kids butts with my artistic endeavor. No only were they going to get their lunch money stolen but they were getting it handed to them in the craft stall too. Take that, small humans.
With a spring in my step I wandered through the stalls. Slow boiled salmon heads sat on their ends, their delicious cheek flesh tempting passers by. Octopus curled up and rusty red cresting boxes. Dried bonito was being shaved into smokey little flakes packed with flavour and waiting to be taken home and accompany a dish. Giant slabs of fresh tuna look ready to be sliced into and eaten raw off the bone. And then there was the Karaoke competition.
Right in the heart of fabulous seafood was a stage, atop which, was a man droning on while some other gentlemen decided if his was the best drone of the day. The karaoke competition didn’t make sense with the rest of the festival but that just made it all the more an amusing reprieve from the activities of the day.
A twin mast yacht was sailing into port with pirate flag flapping a challenge. Eager passengers were waiting by the dock to be swashbuckled by the silver bearded captain. Other displays were also taking place on the water in the port． One I did manage to glimpse was a sea rescue demonstration that was very efficient and realistic (well my Japanese is not good enough to confirm that this was just a demonstration, but there was a crowd of eager relaxed onlookers so I gather it was.)
In the new fish market sheds, my wife had found a new activity. This time the goal was to stick your hand through a hole in a wooden box and try and fish out as many mini sachets of bonito flakes as you can. From what I could see, old ladies had managed to grow an extra finger just to get another dozen sachets for their hundred yen. After my wife got her fist full of bonito she was already of to see how many fresh baby clams (we call them pippies) she could grab from the nearby stall. The problem of how we were going to get these home before they went bad was solved a little later with the thanks of the chef from the Fishmarket Taproom.
After watching the seal from the local marine centre finish it billionth lap of the day in its tiny portable wading pool, I managed to fight my way through the crowd gathered around the marine display.
Warning. What I am about to explain to you is going to be a little different to what we are used to in the West. If you have strong feelings about the animals of the sea and don’t thing you can get beyond this with an appreciation of cultural differences then it might be best for you to come back in on the next bold type.
The marine display was particularly amazing. Resting on a beach of icecubes was a display of every imaginable sea animal that you accidentally scooped up in your drag net the night before. Coming from Australia it is a little disturbing to see all these dead sea creatures on ice purely for your viewing pleasure. However, for Japanese, where the sea is the most important and accessible forms of protein for their country, this is a respectful and important display reminding them of the origin of their seafood.
From tuna to shark to deep sea crab to sea cucumber, everything is eaten and generally done so from top to tail. If you contrast this to Australia’s consumer diet of choice cuts and excessive food waste, then perhaps we should be the ones recalibrating where our moral high ground should lie.
The port festival was different. It was the seafood that made it so, though it was also something else. Traditionally seafood was the lifeblood of Numazu and continues to strongly influence the city. Perhaps, on some level, it is the respect that the locals have of this industry that made this festival different. Maybe it is because this festival celebrates something tangible. Something people can see, smell, touch and taste. Is it about an education that is blended into activities and performances. I’m not sure． I know I had a good time and I know I came out of the festival feeling a stronger connection with my adopted city. Come along next year and find out for yourself
Junes issue of City Hall’s Numazu Newsletter has more details on the port area and its history. You can check it out here.