Chichibu Yomatsuri: One of the Oldest and Most Explosive Festivals in the Winter
There are essentially two reasons throngs of people go to the Chichibu Yomatsuri (Night Festival):
1. The grand floats
It is one of the 32 Japanese festivals included in UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The six grand floats paraded in the festival have been designated significant tangible folk cultural assets by the government. Chichibu Shrine, the host of this famous night festival, has a history of more than 2,000 years, while the festival itself has a history of more than 300 years. The Chichibu Night Festival is considered one of Japan's top three festivals featuring floats as main attractions, the other two being Kyoto's Gion Matsuri and the Takayama Matsuri in Hida, Gifu.
The elaborate festival floats decorated with lit up lanterns and gilded wood carvings weigh from 10 to 20 tons each. These are are pulled through the streets of Chichibu by some 100 volunteers, accompanied by taiko drums and flute music. Then, they all gather at the city hall's plaza.
2. The fireworks
There is a two and a half hour long fireworks display, a rare treat in the winter. It is not a continuous exhibition. Rather, there are short bursts of fireworks followed by a few minutes of silence. But what makes this different than any other display is that it is a competition of sorts and the fireworks are not all launched from the same place as is done in almost any fireworks display. From around the country, cities are represented here by the arial displays they can put up in the sky. Each show lasts maybe five minutes and it showcases what you might expect to see if you were in that city witnessing their fireworks display.
The first time we went, we could hear the loud booms as we pulled into Chichibu Station. First-timers, like us, rushed to look out the train windows thinking the show was almost over. But veterans knew better and sauntered down the platform to the stairs to exit to the surging crowds. And then there was silence. “Had we missed it?” “Was that it?” Nope, in ten minutes another show started and this time from a different location. I found this is one of the appealing points of this festival. As you move along the streets visiting food stalls and stopping to eat, you never really have the “perfect” view, which is not a bad thing. As soon as the sky lights up, people stop and look up where they are and see what they can see. And most often it is more than enough to satisfy one's desire for eye candy.
Not in most people's agenda but visitors will be surprised by what looks like hundreds upon hundreds of food stalls. It will quickly be the third reason why one must visit the Chichbu Yomatsuri. If you are willing to wade through a sea of festival goers, you will be rewarded with a wide variety of offerings. Of course there is the usual assortment of sugar concoctions on a stick and bananas dipped in a variety of different colors (the flavors hardly make an appearance which is why they do not warrant a mention). And what festival would not be complete without yakisoba, grilled fish, butter on potatoes, fried squid, and okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pancakes – butter and syrup not recommended). Bring lots of small change for quicker transactions and it's also a good idea to share with someone so you can try more things. We loved the chicken skin gyoza -- it's gyoza or dumplings but instead of flour, the outer covering is made of chicken skin. The skin is crispy but the inside meat filling is moist and tasty. Festival food is meant to be decadent so splurge a little and enjoy.
Some important things to note:
Of the two festival days, December 2 feels like a dress rehearsal while December 3 is the big night. Some people prefer to go on December 2 to avoid the big crowds and have a chance to see the floats up close. The fireworks are shorter on this night. December 3rd is the main event, with the climax at 19:00 when the floats are drawn through town. Festival time is from 17:00 - 10:00. Fireworks are from 19:30-10:00
If you wish to see Chichibu Shrine, make sure to go before 17:30, afterwhich entry will be restricted.
There are very limited accommodations in Chichibu and the few ones you might find have been already booked a year in advance during the festival days. Festivities end at 10 p.m. which gives you plenty of time to get back to Tokyo. The nearest place you might be able to get accommodations is Hanno or Higashi Hanno, which is the midway station between Chichibu and Tokyo.
Held in early December, it can be bitterly cold when the wind blows so dress in layers. During the long train ride to and from Chichibu, the train car can get hot and stuffy, especially with so many other people going. Being able to take of some layers will work to your advantage.
Bring your own hot thermos. While there are plenty of food stalls, finding hot drinks is at a premium.
Two years ago, festival organizers had set up portable toilets in several locations but last year, we didn't see any and there were long lines to the lone portable toilet we saw near the station. Make sure to use the toilet before you head out here. If you see a free toilet or a short line, go and use it even if you don't have to go urgently.
The Chichibu Night Festival is always held on December 2 and 3, regardless of whether these dates fall on a weekday or weekend. From Ikebukuro, take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line all the way to Hanno and change to the Seibu Chichibu Line and take this all the way to the end (about 2 hours). If you don't mind spending extra on transportation, you can take the Red Arrow which skips several stations in between Ikebukuro and Chichibu, cutting the travel time by 30 minutes. The festivities start right outside the station, and you can even view the fireworks from the platform, but if the shrine is your primary agenda, head left after exiting the station.