This week in Japan — a new emperor, a new era, an earthquake, and Golden Week. When I scheduled my visit to Fukuoka, Japan several months ago, I didn’t know it would be at such an auspicious time. Or that I would arrive on the weekend of the city’s Dontaku Festival. It was a great way to start my visit to Japan!
The Dontaku Festival is an astonishing 800 years old. It was originally the city’s way of celebrating the region’s high lords. Today, it is a celebration of everyone. The three-day festival includes a number of parades and dozens of music performances at venues all over the city. Locals dress up in costumes, and set up “yatai” (street food stands) wherever there might be mouths to feed, which is everywhere.
But Fukuoka….It’s a port on Japan’s west coast and the largest city on the island of Kyushu. It has historically been an important center of trade and has had strong cultural and economic ties to Korea because it’s a lot closer to the Korean peninsula than to Tokyo or Kyoto. Although you can find bits and pieces of history here, the city is mostly very modern and very corporate. It is Japan’s center of tech start-ups. The malls are huge and everywhere. And if Seoul — with 11 million people — feels smaller than it is, then Fukuoka — with 2 million people — is the opposite. It feels like a shorter Manhattan.
The city does have its non-commercial charms, including several shrines and temples.
And the region around Fukuoka is famous for ceramics. I was lucky to be here for the annual Ceramics Fair in Arita, about an hour’s train ride through the countryside. On Sunday, the streets were packed with tourists (almost all Japanese and Korean I think) checking out all kinds of pottery — some cheap, some pieces of art, and everything in between. And the fair was all about the pottery. Nothing to buy, hear, do or eat except ceramics, and what was offered at street food stands. As usual in Japan, not a scrap of trash anywhere, even though I never did find a trash can.
And then there was this…whether metaphorical or random, it was a special moment for me at the Ceramics Fair.