Tagajo is a small town next to Sendai. It only takes ¥240 and less than 30 minutes for a one way ride from Sendai to Tagajo via JR railways Senseki line. Normally it is just a sleepy town despite the few tourist attractions here and there. However when summer comes, Tagajo transforms into a lively place for a change. It is when Ayame Matsuri (lit. means ‘festival of the iris flower’) held in the iris garden not far from Kokufu-Tagajo station (国府多賀城 in Japanese). This year’s festival was held from June 18 until July 2, 2016.
I was fortunate enough that my friend Annisa told me about Ayame Matsuri, because otherwise I have already planned to go somewhere else alone and would have missed this festival. So I decided to tag along her and two more friends instead to Tagajo — and boy I was really glad I did so. Tagajo happens to be a ‘best-kept secret’ kind of place!
Traveling ahead of my friends and alighting at the town station, I was welcomed with row of festival banners around the station and the pathway leading to the event ground. Aside from this festival, Tagajo is home to Tohoku History museum located at the back entrance of the station, which although is pretty tempting, regrettably I did not have the chance to visit this time.
The matsuri ground itself was located in Tagajo-Ato Iris Garden, which was built in a corner of Tagajo Castle remains. Surely when I came I was quite early as the bazaar has just started to open and staffs were still preparing the main stage. Nevertheless I could enjoy the view without many obstructions, so I used the chance to quickly capture the vacate moments.
I met up with my friends just when the matsuri officially started. People had just began flocking into the area. After some necessary narcissistic photo sessions (*wink*), we walked through the iris garden. Annisa decided to try the traditional tea ceremony held in a small tent near the garden. Since I was fasting at that time, I could not participate. But just seeing the ceremony procession was good enough for me.
After paying ¥300, visitors will be served super sweet wagashi or Japanese traditional confectionery. Then the matcha tea was prepared carefully using a bamboo whisk until frothy, before it was served in a bowl to awaiting customers by a lady clad in a garb that looks extremely Chinese-style instead of the usual Japanese-style. Not only her, every other festival staffs wore the same clothing style — which caught my curiosity immediately, but more on that later.
Walking around the main stage the speakers were blasting the festival jingle song, which was annoyingly catchy. I came across some interesting encounters: a flag-pole performance done by a group of healthy-looking lads, and three unusual figures — Kodai-Ninja and Taga-Ranger accompanied by the sweet Ayame-chan. I swear that Japanese sometimes do very, very weird things and this is one of those times. I like it though :)
It was quite unlucky that we chose to come a bit too late, since the flowers already showed signs of wilting. Apparently they were at the peak of bloom just a week before. Be that as it may, the matsuri still offered a lot of entertainments. Of course those devilishly delicious food stalls in bazaar area were out of the question for my fasting self, so instead I tried my hands on one of the stalls in the experience corner. I decided to try making a magatama, a Japanese comma-shaped bead from soft rocks. The hands on kit only cost me ¥150. It ain’t easy, but the obaasan (old lady) there helped me through the steps and not for long afterwards I got myself a cool magatama pendant.
After that I sat down in front of the main stage to enjoy the performance. I might have missed the previous performers, but the ones I watched was satisfying. There was this pair of husband and wife who played a couple of songs. They were just that good. She had an angelic voice albeit high-pitched, and he accompanied her perfectly with guitar. My favorite part is when they sang The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ rendered in Japanese. I wish I had recorded that since it was hilarious.
Entered the main stage next was the highly unique lion dance performed by six elderly men wearing lion mask (which actually looked like a wolf to me honestly) and carrying small drum. The dance was surreal. It felt otherworldly with the shrill of Japanese fue, the beat of the drums and the chant of incomprehensible language, all combined with series of bizarre movements including bowing, stomping and kneeling. I just could not take my eyes off the stage. I kept pressing the shutter on my camera. I kept looking back and forth between the dancers to try to figure out what were they doing. Sadly I could not remember for the life of me if the dance was originated from Tagajo and specific to the area or it came from somewhere else.
Having seen all there was to see in iris garden, we decided to visit different spots in Tagajo. Looking at the map given by the tourist information center near station, we settled to go to Lake Kase or Kasenuma (加瀬沼) in the north. We stopped by the site of Tagajo provincial office, a very old structure dated back to the 9th century. Remember I wondered how come a lot of festival staffs wore Chinese-looking clothes? There it is. This was the answer. Through the first half of Nara period (around AD 710 to 794), Tagajo was the major town of the northern provinces. At the time, due to relation between Japan and China, cultural influence from China was quite strong and hence it was reflected in the clothing style as well. This golden age of Tagajo is also the origin of station name Kokufu-Tagajo, which means ‘Provincial Capital’, named after public polling poll calling for a station name that would be appropriate.
Past the provincial office remains, we reached the lake via a humble little pathway cutting through the woods. Nobody was there, so we felt like the whole place belonged to just us alone. “Bet hanami (sakura-viewing) would be awesome here considering there were plenty of sakura trees around, ” that was the accord among us.
When the pathway finally showed a clearing between the leaves, we could see the lake in yonder. Lake Kase itself is surprisingly quite large, as it looked so much smaller on the map. And at long last we saw people there, laying on the lake shore just relaxing or fishing. I laid my eyes over the lake water. The leaflet about Tagajo shows a flock of swans on the lake, but I just saw one swimming in the middle. Could he be the only one? Or was the rest just being somewhere else at the time? I didn’t want Mr. Swan to be lonely!
Next to Lake Kase is Kasenuma Park (加瀬沼公園), a wide-open space to have family gathering, picnic with lovers or just plain old BBQ with friends (or all combined too if you mix between family, lovers and friends!). The weather and the location is just the perfect formula for a chill weekend; the smoke of barbecue, young parents with baby-walker, and children running all over the place. This park is open until 18:00 in summer time and until 17:30 throughout winter.
The day ended when we were exhausted to boot. Spending whole day under the summer sun was just tough when you were fasting, although it was windy and cool at times. There were still places to see in Tagajo such as the Tohoku History Museum mentioned earlier or the historical bridges Noda-no-Tamagawa and Omowaku-no-Hashi, but alas, our feet were not cooperative anymore that we strongly felt the urge to head back home.
The Germans have ‘ohrwurm‘, a term for a song that you can’t get out of your head no matter how you try, and this obscure word is just perfect to describe how the Ayame Matsuri jingle song stuck in my head and my heart. I kept humming the tune all the way back to Kokufu-Tagajo station, and with that I sealed the memory of one fine day spent in Tagajo.
- Tagajo Castle Iris Festival (basic information in English)
- Tagajo Ayame Matsuri (more details, but in Japanese)
PS: Here’s the three angels that accompanied me on this trip. Thanks Annisa, Rahmi and Lia!