Saturday, July 9, 2011

Up A Lazy River

at the Itako City "Ayame Matsuri" - Iris Festival -
Iris Festival "Abassadors" greet guests

Long ago, the Tonegawa river flowed through Tokyo and into Tokyo Bay. It's course was never steady and every big storm brought floods and course changes to the river. So, about 400 years ago, Ieyasu Tokugawa (the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate) began a project called the “Eastward Transfer of the Tonegawa river”, which changed the river's course eastward to the Pacific Ocean just south of what is now Kashima City. The project helped to protect Edo from floods and aided the development of agriculture in this area. It was also designed to offer protection against invasion from the north.

Itako grows one million iris plants with five hundred different varieties

This also resulted in a waterway that allowed fish and rice from what is now Ibaraki Prefecture to be shipped by boat to markets in Edo. The lakes, canals, and rivers were the major means of transportation. Itako city, located where lakes Kitaura and Kasumigaura empty into the Tonegawa river, became a transportation hub, in turn creating a tourist trade.

Map from this great travel site: Let's Travel Around Japan!

One can take a ride up the Maekawa on a robune (oar powered skiff).

Today, transportation is primarily by rail and truck, but the days of poling and sculling boats through the canals and rivers are not forgotten. They are celebrated especially during Itako City's Ayame Matsuri - Iris Festival - during which people come by the busload to take a step back in time, enjoy viewing a million iris flowers along the Maekawa, listen to ancient music, watch dancers, and take rides in traditional "robune" - boats powered by a single sculling oar mounted on the stern. The oar, called a "ro" is common to Japan and China and consists of a curved handle connected at a pivot point to a horizontal oar blade.

Our oarsman learned to do this at age six and has carried on for seventy years since then. He said that it takes a few months to learn to use the oar effectively, but poling with a bamboo pole is more difficult and may require three years or more to master. The volunteers who do this during the festival agree to make ten trips a day with eight people in the boat.


The tour boat businesses have long since switched from using bamboo poles, to small outboards as the primary source of power (though poles are still kept on board). This was in part due to the dredging of the Maekawa which made part of it too deep for poling. Many of the women who run these boats have been doing so for over 50 years.

Happily, there are younger people ready to carry on the traditions.

Women in traditional yukata with woven hats and baskets tend to the iris plants.

The iris festival dancers wind their way through the iris beds. The dance uses gestures from ancient times common to local festivals and Japanese Buddhist Bon dances which take place in August.

At lunch we had a view of the Hitachi Tonegawa river which connects lake Kasumigaura with the Tonegawa river.

Unagi - broiled eels served on rice - is a very popular treat throughout Japan.


The eels hatch in waters off the Philippines and swim up rivers in Japan.

After lunch, it was time for a wedding...


At an Itako style wedding, the bride and her parents form a proccession through the iris gardens, and board a specially prepared robune which contains a hope chest of sorts as well as symbolic gifts of rice and sake for the groom. The groom waits downstream as the bride and her parents float past friends, relatives, and other well wishers. Watching this has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right, so the city and tour companies provide actors to play the roles on days when there is no actual wedding scheduled. This day, we saw the saw the real thing.



These days, the great waters of the Tonegawa river system are used primarily to provide drinking water to large parts of Tokyo and the Kanto Plain, as well as flood control and recreational boating. But who knows? As the global energy crisis continues to emerge, perhaps these rivers and canals will find their past role as transportation "highways" revived. In the meantime, festivals such as the Ayame Matsuri give us a glimpse of the past in a fun and beautiful way.

Until next, sweet sailing.


Zen said...

Thanks, interesting.

O Docker said...

Cool post.

Sailing footnote: I think the Pardeys convinced themselves they could sail around the world without an engine in their cruising boat after learning how to use a sculling oar by watching Asian boatmen.

Apparently, the short line is critical in guiding the oar through an effective sculling stroke.

Pandabonium said...

Zen - thank you!

O Docker - thank you too. And thanks for pointing out the line that guides the oar. In the clip of the bride's boat, you can see the stroke used and how the line keeps the oar on a in line.

Charley Best said...

Love this Post, it brought back some great memories of my trips to Japan. I especially remember the Cherry Blossom Festivals, sitting among the blossoms and sharing picnic lunches with my friends, and Sake too. Hope all is well after that latest rumble from the NE Coast.


Pandabonium said...

Charley - glad you like the post. Festivals in Japan are special times - this country really knows how to celebrate on many levels at once.

The earthquake went unnoticed by us until we learned of it later. Happily, no major consequences.

kehlwok said...

(Blogger ate my post...trying again)

I visited Moody in Itako in the early 90s. It was the dead of winter, so there were no irises and probably little water traffic.

It is nice to see what the warm weather brings.

Pandabonium said...

kehlwok - blogger can be so rude.

Itako is a nice town all year round, but the iris really bring out the best.