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The Bon-Bon Festival – Matsumoto

Sat 3 Aug – day 84  After a good night’s sleep I opened the curtains and had a good view across the city to the mountains.  When I had checked in yesterday the receptionist had given two breakfast tickets to cover my stay at the hotel and these were valid in the adjacent diner.  And so it was that for the first time since I had left home all those weeks ago I was able to have a Full English – Japanese style; sausage, two eggs and bacon with fruit juice, toast, butter and strawberry jam plus as much coffee as you could drink.  That set me up very nicely for the day.

My first stop today was the Tourist Information at the station and the staff were as usual very helpful and attentive.  While at the station I bought a copy of the Japan Times (the country’s English language newspaper) and inside was an article about the monks at Tōdai-ji in Nara giving the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) its annual clean and there were pictures of the monks on ropes with scrubbing brushes making sure that it was spotless.

Near the station was an advert that I certainly did not expect to see in Japan.

It was then on to Matsumoto-jö, Japan’s oldest wooden castle and one of the four castles designated National Treasures, the others were Hikone, Himeji and Inuyama.

While I was walking through the streets I noticed lots of people erecting stalls and so when I reached the castle I asked the English speaking guides what was happening.  They told me that on the first Saturday in August every year the city holds the Bon-Bon festival.  When I asked what the festival was celebrating a lady said “Nothing, it is just an excuse to have a good time”.  From 16:30 until 22:00hrs 25000 people (20% of the local population) would dance their way around town while being watched by another 25000 people.  So that my night’s entertainment sorted out then.

Unusually the castle was not build on a hill or a man-made mound, but was situated in the centre of the plain between the Japanese Alps to the west and some steep hills to the east; it was surrounded by a moat.  At the northern and southern ends of the plain the mountains and hills converged so that the passes where less than a mile wide.  The castle would have controlled all the traffic moving across the plain and from the top floor the soldiers would have been able to see anything moving for miles.  It was also a rare example of a Japanese castle that was not a 20th century concrete reconstruction.

The moat was being suction dredged (not today as it was the weekend) to remove the mud that had accumulated over the years and at the same time all the water was being filtered to remove any impurities.  This looked like a huge task, but I was told that it would make the water clearer and a lot more pleasant to see as it had become very murky over the years.

Just inside the entrance to the castle grounds was a sign about an adjacent azalea that had been grown from seeds taken into space by the first Japanese female astronaut.


The grounds in front of the castle were in immaculate condition and I passed the usual ornaments on the way to the castle entrance.  The building was known locally as Karasu-jö, Crow Castle, because of its colouring.





On the lower floors were displays of armour and weapons.  It took some time to get between each floor as the stairs were extremely steep (to make attacks very difficult) and there were lots of people visiting today.  Although five levels were visible from the outside, between the second and third floors was a hidden floor that had no external windows and the guide said that this was where the soldiers lived if the castle was under siege.

Although the castle was built primarily of wood on a rock and boulder foundations, all the roofs were clad in clay tiles so that they would not burn.

A later addition to the castle was the tsukimi yagura (moon viewing pavilion) were guests could see the sky while enjoying a cup (or two) of sake.

The views from the upper floors the views from the windows showed just how far the original occupants could have seen, even though the modern concrete city had been built around this ancient structure.





At the exit from the castle a portion of the base structure had been exposed so that you could see how it was constructed.  All the boulders would have been moved by hand just like all the ancient structures across the world.


In the shade of the trees an English language class was in progress and the guide told us that the students who were predominately ladies (and all dressed in cotton kimonos) were learning, or improving their knowledge of the language so that they could become guides.

This was yet another scorching hot day and so having left the castle I bought myself an ice-cream and went and stay on a bench under some trees so that I could be out of the direct sunlight.  It was a pleasant spot looking across the moat towards the castle and while I was there some middle aged and elderly Japanese couples asked if they could speak with me.  They were always extremely polite and would start by bowing before speaking; they all wanted to know why I was in Matsumoto and what I did I think of their city.

I had nothing but praise for what I had seen of the city and they were all amazed at my travels.

Having finished my ice-cream and watching the huge carp in the moat (that will be easier once the water is clearer) I wandered back towards the city centre.  From a sign near the castle entrance and the Lonely Planet guidebook it was evident that many events were held in the castle grounds; this would be a superb backdrop to any concert.

The Metoba-gawa flows through one of the oldest sections of the city and on a bridge over this small river lanterns had been hung ready for the night’s festivities.  On both banks the city council had helped proprietors renovated the old(ish) buildings so that they could continue to be used.  As always owners of the city’s facilities had installed wonderfully designed manhole covers.




A little way downstream was the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum and a large pendulum clock, supposedly the largest in Japan, was above the entrance.  On the way back to the hotel I was passed by a British export; then there was the strangely named food van set up ready for the evening.





Having taken off my rather sweaty clothes and had a shower I did the laundry before having a snooze as it was going to be a long night.  I slept for longer than I intended and was awoken by the sound of music from the street below and when I looked out of the window I saw that the festival had already started.  So I quickly dressed and having packed all my cameras into my day sac went down in the lift to join the festivities.




Directly outside the hotel was a large group of youngsters (from a school?) and they were just one of the very many different groups that were dancing and singing their way around the streets in time to the music that was being broadcast over the loudspeakers.The groups were of all ages from the very young to the elderly, as well as groups that represented various organisations; the International Language School was British run.





Along either side of the main streets were water features and flower beds and these greatly enhanced the urban environment.





At the rear of each group people pushed trolleys that contained refreshments and every 15 minutes there would be an announcement over the loudspeakers; the parade would come to a halt while all the performers had a drink, then 5 minutes later there would be another announcement and the parade would restart.

People were selling food and drink outside their shops (I had ribs, fries and a beer) and others had brought a picnic and set up a table in the street.


It was a fantastic night, but of all the groups, the one I liked the best as I thought that they embodied the spirit of modern Japan, were the ladies beautifully attired in their kimonos.