(this is a recap, of sorts, for when we visited Tokyo for DevCon 2006 in November, 2006)
After we completed our sessions to DevCon 2006 Japan attendees, we had a couple of days before returning to the US. Besides visiting our offices in Ikebukuro (mainly to catch up on various things and communicate SELECT Server XM Edition to our colleagues there), we were able to take in some of what Japan has to offer.
We tried dinner roulette one night. Dinner roulette is something that I made up the first time I traveled there over a decade ago. The basic premise is to go out to eat (preferably with a group) at a place that meets the following criteria:
When the server comes around to take your order, you point to something on the menu (if you are really daring, you can try to figure out where the starters and entrees are). When your meal gets to the table, you have to eat it -- with the one condition that it is not moving, and then it is your option. This is not limited to any one country... I have tried this around the world and, although it has been close at times, have always finished my meals. When traveling with others, it makes for a pretty enjoyable adventure.
In any case, this time was a little different than others -- we went to dinner with someone who used to work in our Tokyo office and even though she speaks/writes very well in English, she remained silent about our choices. The place we went to was an okonomiyaki restaurant -- another first for me, where we cooked our own dinner at the table. It is supposedly common around Hiroshima and Osaka (a two-hour Shinkansen train ride south of Tokyo) and ended being really good. One of the things that we picked ended up being a traditional pancake stuffed with cabbage, a little meat, sprouts, and some other stuff we could not figure out. The wait staff thought that was going to be a challenge to us to make (they even provided towels for us to use to cover our valuables, etc.), but when we were done with it, they were really impressed... at least I think they were.
Anyhow... enough about the food. While in Tokyo, we got caught up in a Japanese festival in one of the suburbs of Tokyo. My friend in Tokyo has some friends there who were involved in the festival, and she thought that we might like seeing it. The festival is generically referenced as matsuri. These are localized to towns or cities, and take place on the busy roads of those places (everyone seems to take it in stride, though... pretty typical in Japan). The part of the matsuri that we got in on is called a mikoshi.
Imagine, if you will, this scene. About 30 Japanese (men and women) carrying a contraption of 4"x4" timbers that make up a rack that is about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. On that rack is a shrine that is about 6 feet tall. The whole thing weighs about a ton (no kidding), and all the people in the group are chanting and dressed in simple costume... now multiply that by 12 (for the different teams in the parade...) and that gets close to what we saw. Now, insert me (at 6') and my colleague (at 6'3") and you have probably one of the funniest pictures that you have seen in a while. Oh, and the team that we got inserted into laughed when we were "drafted". They tried to get us to chant (close, but no cigar...) and lift the thing.
That was much harder to do than either of us expected, since the rack kept coming down on our shoulders as it was swaying to and fro... at least until this Sumo-looking gent came over and helped us not scrunch over too much.
I am fairly convinced that the whole thing was a simple excuse to eat and drink... every 15 minutes along the route, the teams would take a "break" by stopping, putting the mikoshi on blocks (no need to lock something like that up), and diving into food and beer/beverages for all involved. Now I know why the following Monday was a national holiday in Tokyo... for everyone to RECOVER from the festival. Take a look at my photo gallery for more pics (no cheating trying to figure out who the foreigners are). We were not sure about the shirts... we thought the writing on the back might have said something like "Kick Me" (we're pretty sure it did not say "Look at these goofy-looking guys"... as that was obvious enough). It is too bad there is no sound... the chanting and carrying on was more fun than the pictures. And these folks went from 8AM to 9PM (we only took in from about noon to about 3, we could not see how people could go the whole day... never mind the "breaks"). Oh, and yes, one of the people in the group photo does seem to be missing some apparel. That was actually part of the tradition. Believe it or not, men in these festivals do not wear pants (nor much of anything else below the waist, if you know what I mean...) Needless to say, we did not want to be THAT involved with the tradition -- in fact, my colleague and I spent quite a bit of time admiring the roofing on top of the buildings along the street (BTW, women, on the other hand, are required to wear clothing below the waist). There was another part of the tradition that we did not take part in... at the end of the evening, after everyone is gassed up, the parade usually finds a hill and cannonballs the rigs down them. Invariably, someone actually rides them on the way down (or at least tries to).
All kidding aside, the tradition is beautiful and we were very privileged to experience first-hand something pretty unique that was heaps of fun along the way.