Lanterns, Revisited

Lanterns in Nagasaki
Lanterns in Nagasaki

[Note: I wrote this up almost a month ago, but somehow never got around to posting it. Apologies for the delay!]

It’s amazing to think that a little over a year ago I embarked on my first solo trip. It feels like ages ago. A few weeks ago it was once again the lunar new year, celebrated in Vietnam as “Tet” and other parts of Asia as “Chinese New Year.” Japan, like much of the rest of Asia, sees the New Year as one of the most important holidays, but moved the date in line with the Gregorian calendar in the 1800s. But while China, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan use the same calendar these days as well, the lunar calendar is still used for holidays and religious celebrations (just like in Judaism, though they do disagree on when the new year is).

While Japan as a whole doesn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year anymore (though they do have holidays that still work on a lunar calendar) there is one part of the country that does: Nagasaki. The port city of Nagasaki was the country’s most prominent center of trade, and was in fact the only city that remained open to outsiders during Japan’s period of isolation. Because of its proximity to the rest of East Asia, and its status as a gateway to the outside world, it has long catered to outside influences in a way the rest of Japan still often resists. The population of foreigners and people of foreign descent is also much higher in Nagasaki than other areas. And it’s for this reason that they hold a Chinese New Year Lantern Festival every year.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

When my friends told me about the festival I pretty much decided on the spot that I would go. I loved the feeling of Tet and Chinese New Year in other parts of the world, and missed that atmosphere living in Japan. I also heard good things about the lanterns themselves, which turned out to be really beautiful. In fact, they were very similar to those that the Missouri Botanical Gardens used during their own lantern festival.

In any case, I booked a hotel back in November (Japan is not a great place for last minute travel decisions, especially if there’s an event) and invited my neighbor. When the date of the festival got closer, my neighbor said she couldn’t go, but luckily the festival is a popular event, and it wasn’t hard to convince other friends to go.

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Lanterns in Nagasaki

So on Thursday, February 11 I drove up to Nagasaki with my friends Mei and Eddy. We had the Thursday off for a national holiday and decided to take the Friday as well and make it a long weekend. Nagasaki is around a four or five hour drive from where I live, but to hear my coworkers talk you’d think it was more like 10 or 12. I’ve learned that Americans tend to think a lot less of long car trips, since our country is massive and we can basically drive across the whole thing (and many of us do). I mean, Nagasaki is about as far from Miyakonojo as Kansas City is from St. Louis, and I’d barely consider that a road trip. But Japan, being a series of not-so-big islands, really isn’t as on board with the road trip idea in general. Also, speed limits are waaaaay lower in Japan than in the US, and highways are almost all toll roads, which all serves as a bit of a barrier for travel. Regardless, we were determined to make it work.

After a full morning of driving, with a necessary gas/ice cream stop or two along the way, we made it to our hostel in Nagasaki. If you’re a traveler of the hostel-going variety and find yourself in Nagasaki, I’d definitely recommend AKARI, which was right on the edge of Chinatown, walking distance from all of the excitement. We unloaded and chatted with the very friendly staff before setting out to see the lanterns for ourselves.

Small lanterns lined the streets and shopping arcades, and larger lantern installations sat on street corners and along the river that ran on the outskirts of Chinatown. We made our way through the crowds and happened upon a parade. There were dragon dancers and children playing instruments, and we decided to follow them. They led us to a stage, where we learned there would be Lion Dancing. We settled in and watched a really fun show.

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If you’ve never seen Chinese Lion Dancing before, it’s pretty amazing. Each “lion” is made up of two people, wearing a joined costume. One person mans the head and front legs, while the other plays the back legs and tail. This may sound like the old joke of a two-person donkey costume, but there’s really no comparison. The two dancers move together to give the illusion that the lion is one animal, and they dance, jump, and run round the stage and through the crowd. The costume has puppet components as well, and the lions bat their eyes, waggle their tails and sometimes “eat” gifts thrown in their mouths by audience members. Below is a short clip of a professional lion dance, which is definitely a step above what I saw, but you’ll get the idea.

After the dance we ate a bit of street food and continued to wander and take pictures. Somehow in our wandering we realized it was late, and most of the restaurants were closing. We couldn’t make up our minds about what to eat, so we ended up with a conbini meal. Not ideal, but also not the worst thing in the world. We decided that the next day we would plan out our meals better, and went to bed.

Day two was mostly driving around the outskirts of the city. My friend Mei had developed an interest in kimono, so we spent the day in second hand stores looking for kimonos and the various accessories that go with them. She even convinced me to buy one or two things, which I have no idea when or where I’ll ever use, but they’re really beautiful. I’ve given some thought to taking up sewing, because used kimono are so cheap, and the fabrics used are just gorgeous…. Every time I see one in a shop I can’t help but picture how it’d look as a skirt, or a dress…. but I haven’t worked up the motivation to really pursue this interest.

In any case, after a full day of shopping we found ourselves in Sasebo, a town north of Nagasaki near a US military base. While military bases are often controversial, they do have one uncontested positive point – the plethora of restaurants that pop up around them. We ate an amazing Mexican dinner, and I remembered exactly why I missed cheese so much.

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On our third day in Nagasaki we decided to walk around the city. Nagasaki has a fair amount of tourist attractions if you’re historically or religiously minded, but my friends had been there before and already done most of them. They insisted that they’d go again if I wanted, but they didn’t sound like the idea was super appealing. Instead we wandered the streets and found cool shops, snacks and art, which is pretty much my idea of a good day anyway. We also stopped outside of Dejima, the island where the Dutch were confined to during Japan’s period of isolation. It was tiny, and honestly not much to look at. The ramen shop we found down the street was much more interesting, but it’s hard to compete with a bone marrow and chicken skin broth.

In the evening we drove to the neighboring prefecture, Saga, to check out a lantern festival. Saga is known for its ceramics and massive kilns. In fact, when we showed up we realized that it was a ceramic lantern festival, and the lanterns lined a path up the hill around a very large walk-in kiln. They had set up a cafe inside the kiln just for the festival, so we went on in and drank some coffee. It was an interesting experience, but once we went back outside it had started to rain, so the festival was a bit of a bust.

On our way back to Nagasaki for the night Eddy’s friend contacted him and invited us to dinner back in Sasebo, this time for Thai. We made our way over and had yet another fantastic meal, at a restaurant I was sort of glad we went to at night, since it sat right on a cliff. I’m sure it was a gorgeous view, but I didn’t mind not seeing the drop.

The next day it was time to leave. We packed up and checked out, then made our way to our final destination for the weekend, a massive field of plum trees. February is when the plum blossoms bloom in Japan, and while they are planted in parks and gardens all over, this place was actually a plum farm. There were thousands of trees in various stages of bloom, mostly with white flowers but with a few pink and red throughout. The really lovely thing about plum blossoms, called “ume” in Japanese, is their smell. They have a lovely cinnamon scent, which a friend described to me as “exactly like big red gum.” Standing in a whole grove of them was fabulous.

After snapping some photos and breathing in the cinnamon smell, we left the farm and headed for home. Looking back, I’m glad I made the somewhat impulsive decision to go for this trip. It was a lot of fun, and a great chance to see a unique part of Japan.

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