Travelmag Banner

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 and the smallest city in all of Japan.  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 through the 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 leafing 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 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 across 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. 

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Asia Pacific