Funadama Festival Nagatoro

Funadama Matsuri 船玉祭り 長瀞 埼玉県

by Johannes Schonherr

Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.
Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture

When I went to explore Nagatoro in the Chichibu area of western Saitama Prefecture last summer, a poster in the tiny, vintage Nagatoro train station caught my attention.

The poster featured a boat at night, swimming on the Arakawa River, carrying hundreds of lit lanterns, shining yellow through paper screens, bright and colorful fireworks erupting in the background. "Nagatoro Funadama Matsuri" read the poster in both Japanese and English, August 15th was given as the date.

Photo inserts made clear that the festival would take place at the Iwadatami, the impressive rock terrace right on the Arakawa River. The Iwadatami (which translates as "rock tatami") is Nagatoro's most famous site: a 500m long and 80m wide, flat rock formation, forming, together with the steep rocks on the other side of the river, a sort of gorge through which the Arakawa flows. Surely a beautiful background for a river festival.

Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.
Funadama Festival poster, Nagatoro Station, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture

The Train

Come August 15th one year later and I was finally on the train heading for the festival. The Seibu Ikebukuro Line train to Hanno almost emptied out before even reaching its destination. The connecting train to Chichibu carried hardly any passengers. Did I get the date right? I wondered.

Though all Seibu trains are plastered with posters promoting Chichibu and Nagatoro, none of them make any mention of the festival. At Chichibu Station, I spotted the first poster for this year's Funadama festivities. The festival was on.

At nearby Ohanabatake Station of the Chichibu Railway, I finally joined the festival crowd - easily recognizable by the many girls in light summer kimonos (yukata). Ohanabatake Station is a tiny vintage wood structure. The Chichibu Railway doesn't accept Suica cards, the metro transit card covering virtually all public transport in Tokyo.

The train pulled in. A vintage train, probably built around the time of the first Tokyo Olympics. I was clearly about to enter a different, much older version of Japan. In easy reach from Tokyo, to be sure, but a different world altogether.

Predictably, the Nagatoro Station area was rather crowded. I had read that Nagatoro has about 8,000 inhabitants but that the Funadama festival draws about 70,000 people. Food stalls had been set up outside the train station, a man handed out the festival schedule to arriving passengers. But first things first: buying my return ticket. At the end of the festivities, small Nagatoro Station would be overwhelmed by the home-bound masses, I expected.

Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.
Mantosen lantern boats anchored at the entrance of the Iwadatami
Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.
Ayu fried fish stall at the entrance to the Iwadatami

Crowds on the Iwadatami

A large crowd moved through Iwadatami Dori, Nagatoro's main shopping street. Clusters of food stalls did brisk business in the side streets and on backyard parking lots.

Iwadatami Dori leads straight to the flat, sandy riverside right at the beginning of the Iwadatami. On regular days, that's the starting point of the Arakawa River cruises.

Today, the scenery was very different: two boats decorated with a multitude of yet unlit lanterns anchored where usually the tour boats are waiting. Those lantern boats are called Mantosen and they would be in the center of the festivities. More on them later. Towards them was a gate with signs spelling out "Donor Viewing Area".

To the right was the Iwadatami, lit up by lanterns and very crowded. Police wearing blinking gear directed the pedestrian stream into the Iwadatami. To the sharp right was another impromptu food stall street.

Funadama Matsuri, Nagatoro
Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.

The crowded Iwadatami; Mantosen lantern boat upriver, Funadama Festival, Nagatoro

Time to eat. On the Iwadatami itself no commercial business would take place. You have to buy your food and drinks here. Fittingly, the stall closest to the entrance of the Iwadatami sold Ayu Shio Yaki, grilled salted ayu on a stick. Ayu is a river fish, freshly grilled, it is very popular across all the mountainous Japanese countryside. The ayu served here had been fished right out of the Arakawa. What food could be closer to the spirit of the festival than fish taken from the river where it took place?

Grilled ayu sticks in hand, I entered the crowded Iwadatami. It was still early, so I walked quite far until the masses sitting on their blankets thinned out.

Sitting down at a smoker-friendly wooden pavilion (ashtrays provided), I bit into my ayu and got the flyer out that I had received upon arrival at Nagatoro Station. The whole back of the flyer was covered with the names of the sponsors and donors of the festival.

All of them local businesses and in some instances, private people. The size of the print type vaguely indicated the importance of the sponsor - and thus listed who was able to enter that prime viewing area right at the beginning of the Iwadatami. Company X might have donated X amount of yen and was thus able to get an X number of honored employees into the prime area. Likewise, a local family might have donated to secure their seats.

There was no way to buy tickets on the night of the festival, however. This was a festival by locals for locals. The ones supporting it long-term got the best seats but the Iwadatami was a free-for-all. There was no need to advertise the festival beyond Chichibu, the next biggest town, the Iwadatami was already crowded enough.

Funadama Matsuri, Nagatoro
Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.

Lit Mantosen lantern boats; Mantosen lantern boats at night, Nagatoro

Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.
Funadama Matsuri fireworks, Nagatoro

Festival History

The lantern boats, called Mantosen (Ten Thousand Lantern Boats), are the center piece of the festival. Despite their name, they carry only about 500 lanterns each but look impressive nonetheless, especially after the lanterns have been lit in the early evening twilight.

The Arakawa River is, despite a few rapids on the way, navigable all the way from Nagatoro to Tokyo Bay. Thus, from ancient times on, transporting goods from the Chichibu area to the markets of Edo and later Tokyo was big business for the Nagatoro boatmen.

Celebrations to pacify the gods of the river and thus ensuring safe passage have a long history in the area though the Funadama Festival in its current form dates back only to the Taisho era (1912 - 1926).

The Funadama combines two very different traditions. On the one hand, it relates to the gods of the river through the celebrations involving the mantosen boats, thus praying for safe passage on the water.

The festival is held however on August 15th, the traditional Buddhist O-Bon holiday, the day on which the souls of the departed are believed to return home. It is an old Japanese tradition to float lanterns down river on that day to honor family / local community members who died in the previous year.

All this would be combined with a great fireworks display.

Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.
Funadama Matsuri fireworks, Nagatoro

The Festivities

At 5pm, it was still daylight. Taiko drumming and cheers erupted in the distance. The two Mantosen lantern boats sailed upriver and did a turn just about where I was sitting - on the steep edge of the Iwadatami right above the Arakawa River. Their lanterns were not lit yet, school-age girls in traditional local garb performed a dance in the bow of the boats.

Once dusk set in, two rowboats came up the river and anchored close to where I was. The boats carried heavy loads: hundreds and hundreds of lanterns stacked on top of each other. Those were the Toro Nagashi lanterns, to be floated down the river in honor of the recently deceased on the occasion of the O-Bon holiday.

The men on the boats took their time, slowly lighting lantern after lantern and floating them down the river, passing by the Mantosen anchored at the entrance of the Iwadatami, then slowly drifting out of sight from the festival crowd.

A voice read out all the names of the people the Toro Nagashi lanterns were dedicated to. It was beautiful for the casual visitor to see the lanterns floating down the river, it must have been a very powerful image to the locals who had a lantern floating by representing the soul of one of their dearly departed family members.

When darkness set in, the lights of Mantosen were lit and the first barrages of fireworks were shot into the air on the opposite side of the river. Giant fireballs exploded above the dark woods growing on top of the rocks on the other side of the river while the floating lanterns slowly drifted down the river.

The lit Mantosen made another short river cruise, more fireworks followed. Families and groups of friends partied under the lanterns, looking up at the fireworks while drinking canned beer and sharing bottles of shochu.

As much as I enjoyed sitting in a relaxed place, for the final minutes of the festival I wanted to be in the center of the action.

This would at be the entrance to the Iwadatami. Among the dense crowd here, I found a tiny rock step to stand on. The Mantosen were brightly lit to my left, the river in front, the colorful firework explosions right above.

By now, everyone here was waiting for the ultimate attraction - and sure enough, it soon materialized. The Niagara fireworks, fireworks raining down from the rocks on the opposite site of the river like a giant burning waterfall, falling straight into the dark waters of the Arakawa, producing bright and vivid, beautifully distorted mirror images on the floating surface of the water.

The Niagara marks the climax as well as the end of the Funadama festival. Once the fire fountains of the Niagara dry up, the crowds start moving towards Nagatoro Station. Fortunately, the station staff was up to the task.

Additional trains ran in the direction of Hanyu / Kumagaya. This wasn't the case towards Chichibu but a few stations on, the crowds on the my train thinned out. Only a few people made the transfer at Ohanabatake to the Hanno train. On the train from Hanno to Tokyo, virtually no festival visitors were in sight.

As colorful and crowded as the Funadama Matsuri is, it is still a somewhat hidden, very local event.

The Funadama Matsuri always takes place on August 15th (weather permitting), it starts at 5pm and ends at 9pm.

Festival information telephone: 0494 66 3311 (in Japanese)

Funadama Matsuri, Nagatoro
Funadama Festival, Nagatoro, Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture.

Niagara fireworks, Funadama Matsuri, Nagatoro

Access - Getting to Nagatoro

Train

From Ikebukuro Station (quickest connection): Seibu Red Arrow Express (reservation required) to Seibu Chichibu, walk to Ohanabatake Station (5 mins), take the Chichibu Railway in the direction of Hanyu or Kumagaya to Nagatoro Station (about 110 minutes in total).

From Ikebukuro Station (slower, cheaper connection on non-reserved train): Seibu Ikebukuro Line to Hanno, change to the Seibu Chichibu local train to Seibu Chichibu Station, walk to Ohanabatake Station (5 mins), take the Chichibu Railway in the direction of Hanyu or Kumagaya to Nagatoro Station.

Ikebukuro Station (alternative): Tobu Tojo Line to Yorii, Chichibu Railway in the direction of Mitsumineguchi to Nagatoro (about 110 minutes total).

From Ueno Station: Takasaki Line to Kumagaya, Chichibu Railway in the direction of Mitsumineguchi to Nagatoro (about 120 minutes total).

Please note that the Chichibu Railway does not accept PASMO / SUICA cards.

Car

Kanetsu Expressway to Hanazono Exit, Route 140 to Nagatoro. Please note that parking for the Funadama Matsuri is very limited and that traffic jams on local roads are very likely after the end of the festival.

Very informative English-language Nagatoro tourism website: www.nagatoro.gr.jp/en/events/index.html

Nagatoro Station, Chichibu.
Nagatoro Station

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