Princess Brides and Shrieking Eels!

Well, OK, so we didn't see any princesses, but we did see two brides, and while the eels weren't the giant shrieking variety of storybook/movie fame, the town we were in does offer smaller, tasty ones called "unagi", grilled over a charcoal fire and often served on rice. Unagi is actually a popular dish in many areas, but this place serves locally raised ones that are especially good, though I hear wild ones taste the best.

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Unagi - grilled shrieking eels. When served on skewers without rice, it is called kabayaki.

Having been somewhat disappointed on our attempt to view the iris blossoms last month (see "あやめまつり - Ayamematsuri") we headed back to Itako City where we had found lotus and irises in bloom, but had only been able to spend about an hour.

This time, we were not disappointed. Far more of the flowers were blooming. Itako City is a wonderful place to visit any time of year. Famous for its canals, irises, grilled eels, and boat brides (Hanayome fune), the city itself is part of the Suigo-Tsukuba Quasi-National park. Every weekend during Ayamematsuri (Iris Festival) they do their best to recreate an atmosphere of Edo period Japan or at least a nostalgic taste of it, and show off their one million iris plants of some 500 varieties.

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A couple in period costumes wandered through the gardens.

After finding a suitable, i.e. free, place to park, we walked over one of the many bridges crossing the Maekawa - the main canal which has been preserved and along the banks of which the town's gardens are planted. Local lore speaks of 12 bridges (Kato-shu Junibashi), but somehow it seems like there are more. There were far more flowers in bloom than before and the place was full of tourists - many of whom had come out from Tokyo on bus tours such as those offered by Hato. [By the way, if you ever visit Tokyo, K and I can recommend Hato tours. They have excellent English language tours of Tokyo and vicinity. And if you're touring this area, K is a licensed guide and interpreter.]

To give you an idea of Itako's popularity, when we went there in 2005, our visit was followed a few days later by the Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. See my post: The Princess and the Pee.

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In my last post about Itako, I have a picture (which I got from a travel website) of a bride on a boat - "Hanayome Fune". Would you believe we saw the very same bride? True. As we walked through the iris gardens, we saw that a bride and her parents were waiting to begin a procession across the garden to a waiting boat.

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Twice a bride in Itako? Hmmm.

We made our way to one of the bridges under which the bride boat would glide. The procession through the garden is slow, with the father leading the way, the bride following a few meters behind him, and the mother blocking any escape in trail.

After I had taken many pics and even a video clip, we learned that the bride was a model and the whole thing a performance put on for the tourists. (Actually, I think K suspected such all along). As they can't be sure of weddings every weekend, the city - supported by the tour companies - puts on a show for visitors. So that is why the bride pictured above looks exactly like the bride in the travel website picture. (For a minute there I thought she might be a black widow, going through one husband after another!) Though there was not a real wedding going on, I thought it was great to see.

Luckily for us, there was a real wedding that day and about twenty minutes later, the real bride began her journey. The tour groups went off to lunch as it was approaching noon, which thinned out the crowd by about 2/3 and made getting a good location on the bridge easier.

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The real bride walking through the iris to her boat.
(Sorry, but I can't help thinking of Tiny Tim singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips".) During this time, the groom is waiting at the place where the wedding will take place.

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The rest of the family rides in a second boat.

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This girl was much more animated than the "model" - smiling and waving as people applauded when she passed.

A group of her friends, dressed in kimono, were on the bridge with us and called to her. She looked up and smiled and waved. Naturally, I missed that shot. In the bow are gifts for the groom - rice, sake, etc. More pictures in the slide show and link at the end of this post.

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The building in the background is a restaurant. We've eaten there and enjoyed both the food and the view. Nice souvenir shop too.

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What a coincidence - all these ladies dressed alike.

After that, as the gardens were not so crowded, so we strolled around enjoying the irises and lotus blossoms. While taking some pictures of flowers I came upon a gathering of women in yukata (a summer cotton dress) with straw hats. Something was up. Soon, they dispersed throughout the garden in preparation for a Ayamedori - Iris dance. The "official" song of Itako played and the women began to dance along the paths.

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Ready to dance.

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The dance used movements like those seen at a Buddhist Bon Odori (a celebration dance)

It was almost 1 o'clock as we walked back across the Maekawa river and sought out the soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant that the Moody Minstrel wrote about last year. We had enjoyed a lunch there after reading Moody's post (thanks MM). The owner is an elderly man who was a student pilot flying float planes on nearby Lake Kasumigaura when WWII ended, and has much to tell about the history of Itako City. They also have an interesting collection of dolls, model canal boats, planes, and photos. (Read more about it in Moody's blog post: A Lunchtime View of a Dying Art) The soba there is hand made of course, and quite good. That's right, we didn't have shrieking eels that day. We ate cold soba with tempura instead. Yum.

Trivia: Itako City has free local bus service.


Don Snabulus said...

Always a bride, never a bridesmaid ;).

ladybug said...

Wow, what an exciting post! I'm glad you were able to get in all the different cultural offerings during the Iris Festival!

Sometimes at Renaissance Fairs they do a "show" wedding, I wonder if the traditional costumes are as uncomfortable as corsets are....

BTW, in olden times, how would they have handled the horse manure and other such problems? I always wonder a little about the romantization of years gone by (esp. since the public execution square is conspiciously absent from a Ren Faire, for example)

Pandabonium said...

Snabby - LOL. When she gets older she can play the part of the mother.

Ladybug - thanks. It was a lot more than we had expected. Kimono, I am told, are no so much uncomfortable as restrictive of one's ability to move around.

In the old days there were not a lot of horses. The human population was only about 30 million or less in the whole country. Most people walked or rode in carriages that were ported by men. Only parts of the armies and messengers rode horses (for the most part). Another thing to remember is that most people didn't travel very far from home or farm in those days. Itako of course was all canals, so boat and foot were how one got around.

What manure there was, was composted along with weeds and cuttings from the fields (and human waste) and then returned to the soil.

In the US, horse manure became a big problem in cities around the turn of the century (1900) and was one of the factors for the acceptance of motor cars.

Today, horse transport on a wide scale would be impossible due to the human population being so large. There isn't enough farmland left (even in the US) to grow the food they would require, nor a way to handle the waste. Hey, I know a lot about HS!

Happysurfer said...

What an enjoyable post, PandaB. Thanks. Shrieking eels? Do they really? Shriek, I mean. I saw a document about food in China and they served live eels. Those poor things. The eels on skewers look yummy though.

A field of irises is so beautiful. They remind me of Vincent van Gogh's paintings.

How far is Itako city from Tokyo?

Pandabonium said...

Happy - Sorry, the shrieking part was meant as a joke and reference to the book and movie "The Princess Bride" in which the princess is almost eaten by giant shrieking eels - a fictional beast. These eels are rather tasty.

Itako is about 1 hour, ten minutes from Tokyo Station by express bus. Direct distance is perhaps 73 km or 45 miles.

bonnie said...

Shrieking eels and a black widow...your version is so much more fun!

Pandabonium said...

Bonnie - hey, life's an adventure! Watch out for those sturgeon-surgeon fish.

Martin J Frid said...

Wonderful post! I'd love to take a Hato bus trip one day. It would be fun to have both your version and K's as I'm sure you would compliment each other.

About horses, I thought they were more common, but I guess you are right. (There is "Gunma" prefecture with the kanji for horse in its name, and areas such as "Nerima" and "Takadanobaba" in Tokyo also have the kanji, just to mention a few places once famous for horses.)

Glad you explained the title of the post finally, I was really wondering what on earth you were talking about. Har har har...

Pandabonium said...

Martin - thank you. I wonder if K will ever write a post for me....

Well, there were certainly horses here, but I don't think enough of them to be a pollution problem. After all, the society was very rigid and most people were tied to their jobs and land. I think within the cities, people walked.

The Princess Bride is a favorite movie of K and I, and I perhaps should not have assumed everyone would get the reference. :D

Swinebread said...

Woah... I'm stunned... great shots

I was really into eel... then one day I couldn't eat it anymore

Pandabonium said...

Swinebread - thanks. I had good subjects to shoot and a new camera to do it with.

(Funny how that can happen with foods.)

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Great pictures and I have decided I must get a camera for myself. Peceli has one that sometimes works properly that he uses only to take pictures of guys I don't know and often just drinking kava.
Eels - I've only eaten them a couple of times, but I don't like the idea much. The Survivor Fiji has a food task, eating fish eyes and pig's snouts in a hurry. A bit gross because they were tough.

Pandabonium said...

Wendy - Thank you. I'm sure you'd enjoy having a camera of your own, and no doubt would take more artistic pics than just of folks drinking kava (though that might be interesting at times).

Eel is just another fish to me, but I don't think I could eat any part of pig unless my life depended on it. Eyes and snout? Eeeeoouuuu.

loloma said...

Beauuuuuutiful! :) Me misses Japan.
And I can't believe I stayed 7 years in Japan but never heard about this festival... looks like I need to go back.

Pandabonium said...

Loloma - you'll always be welcome back in Japan. I've been amazed by how much there is to see and do here - even within a short distance.

Lrong said...

Kabayaki... my all time favorite Japanese food...

Have never witnesses such scenes of the bride on boats... think I should suggest this to the city council here...

Pandabonium said...

Lrong - I like eel too. Apparently they have been over-fished, a fact I learned from Kurashi News soon after writing this post. Guess we're not the only ones who like them.

Bride boats of Takamatsu? Hmmm.