January 14: Aizu Bange’s Tug-of-War Festival

Next Monday, the annual Tug-of-War Festival will be held in Aizu Bange Town, a small town just a short drive from Aizu-Wakamatsu City. I attended this festival last year and had lots of fun, so I wanted to share some information about the festival for people considering going this year!

Basic Information:

The festival’s name in Japanese is Takada Otawara-Hiki, which roughly translates as Tug-of-War Festival!

Date: January 14 2019 (Monday)
Time: 9:30-17:30 (The festival goes on all day but the main tug of war events happen around midday)
Location: Yanaizu Bange Main Street (outside the Town Hall)

The highlight of this festival is the giant hay bale tug-of-war.

In the late morning and early afternoon, groups of young boys and men have a tug-of-war with rope that connects at a huge hay bale. This hay bale is 4 m long, 2.5 m tall and weighs between 3 and 5 tons, depending on the year!

There are a few things to do in town as well as watching the big tug of war contest – there are festival food stalls, and taiko (Japanese drums) performances take place throughout the day.

The day ties up at 17:30 after the town’s public officers and local priests throw lucky beans, mandarins and other small items to locals from the roof of the town hall. These beans and other small gifts are thought to bring good luck to those who catch them.

People got very competitive when trying to grab these items – I didn’t manage to get any at all but my friend managed to catch a mikan! There was also a raffle at the end of the day, but once the best prize (a new bike) had been won, we left and started on the drive home.

Fun Fact: Mikan (mandarins) are associated with winter in Japan. People here often eat them while sat underneath the heated blanket attached to the main table in their lounges.

 

What’s different about this festival?

In one word: loincloths.

This festival takes place in snowy Aizu region in the middle of January when the weather is still very cold. Despite this, Tug-of-War participants take part clad in nothing but a fundoshi (traditional loin cloth)!

okaizu-yanaizu-visit-(105)

Like many traditional festivals in Japan centered around being basically nude, only men / boys dress in fundoshi to participate in the main tug-of-war part of the festival.

However women also attend to cheer them on and a small number also dressed in traditional festival gear and joined in with the tug-of-war competitions.

After the main competitions are finished, onlookers are also allowed to have a go at the tug-of-war though! I wasn’t very good though…

Fun Fact: Fundoshi used to be the main style of underwear worn by men before World War 2. After the war, Japan adopted American-style underwear and the fundoshi was banished from wardrobes, only used now in festivals and occasionally for swimming!

The festival will primarily be held on Aizu Bange Town’s main street, although many people wait on the road that connects the main street to the community center to watch the festival participants make the cold journey up to the main street.

When we went last year, some of the participants had loads of fun jumping in the snow outside the community center – which was fun to watch!

 

Why is this festival held?

This annual shinto festival dates back approximately 400 years, and used to be held as an opportunity to pray for an abundant harvest in the year to come.

aizu bange owara festival (16)

Nowadays, many local people take part in the festival in the hope that it will bring them good health and keep them safe from harm in the year to come.

aizu-bange-owara-festival-(20)

What makes this festival worth going to?

It’s a unique festival with a long history, and it is really, really fun to go and see. The atmosphere of the festival is incredible, as I hope you can see from my photos.

aizu-bange-owara-festival-(15)

It’s great to get close to the action during the tug-of-war, something which is a little more difficult to do at most other traditional festivals like fighting festivals or lantern festivals.

It’s also not that well-known as a festival, which means you really get an authentic experience of attending a festival as a local person would.

Also, you might win a free mikan.

aizu bange owara festival (2)

How to get there:

By Public Transport: Take the JR Tadami Line from Aizu-Wakamatsu and get off at Aizu Bange Station. The train takes 40 minutes. From the station, the main street where the festival is held is a 500 m walk.
By Car: You can reach Aizu Bange from central Aizu-Wakamatsu in 20 minutes. A number of small local roads inside the town are closed on festival day, so please be aware of this! See here for info on getting to Aizu-Wakamatsu

 

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