Yesterday I had the pleasure of working at the Shibamata Festival. If you’re like me until a few days ago and have never heard of the place, Shibamata (柴又) is a quaint, Edo-style town in Tokyo’s north-east. Think Asakusa only without the insane crowds.
Shibamata was put on the map when the film series Otoko wa tsurai yo (男はつらいよ, “It’s tough being a man”) was launched in the late 1960s and eventually ended up spanning 48 episodes. The films featured a character by the name of “Tora-san” (寅さん), a travelling salesman who went from town to town peddling his wares with only the contents of his briefcase, the clothes on his back and some money in his pocket, and who yearned to return to his hometown of Shibamata. The film series ended with the lead actor’s death in the mid-1990s. However, the town is still a dedication to the character played by actor Atsumi Kiyoshi where you will find a bronze Tora-san statue outside the exit of Shibamata station complete with his signature hat, briefcase and gehta footwear (traditional Japanese wooden shoes), along with Tora-san inspired posters and souvenirs.
Shibamata has numerous temples dedicated to the Shichifukujin (The Seven Gods of Good Fortune) with the most well-known being Shibamata Taishakuten (柴又帝釈天). The temple grounds were the site of yesterday’s festival. Along with other volunteers, I was helping to serve up Ishinomaki-style yakisoba (fried noodles). If you have read my previous posts about volunteering in Ishinomaki, you will know it was one of the places in the Tohoku region devastated by last year’s tsunami and holds a special place in my heart.
Recently I have been getting involved with an excellent organization called It’s Not Just Mud (INJM), an NPO based in Ishinomaki providing support to local communities in a myriad of ways. A lovely and generous local resident by the name of Hashimoto san or “Hashimoto mama” as she is now fondly referred to by many volunteers, was provided assistance with the clean-up of her home. To show her appreciation she starting cooking meals for INJM volunteers as well as volunteers from other groups. Long after her house was completed last summer, she has continued to cook meals for volunteers from the goodness of her heart and her own pocket. Hashimoto mama was invited to the Shibamata Festival to represent Ishinomaki and asked whether any INJM volunteers could assist her in Tokyo. Of course, we were happy for the chance to be able to give something back to her. The weather was beautiful and the Ishinomaki yakisoba was a big hit among festival visitors.
So what makes Ishinomaki yakisoba unique? Firstly, it uses a brown noodle that has been steamed rather than boiled. It is then fried using a seafood “dashi” or broth which absorbs into the noodles, softening and infusing them with a delicious flavor. In addition to the usual pickled ginger, it is also topped with an egg. Special Ishinomaki yakisoba sauce can be added for an extra kick. As a lover of yakisoba, it really was different to the usual matsuri (festival) yakisoba you might be used to and, in fact, the best I have tasted.
In the morning, I helped Hashimoto mama making another dish similar to katsudon (pork cutlet on rice) with egg and spring onion but instead of meat using abura-fu, a type of wheat gluten, and put small portions in little bowls as free samples. I then went out into the festival crowds offering the dish and encouraging people to come to our stall while practicing my best attempt at shouting out to potential customers “Irrashaimase! Ishinomaki yakisoba dou desu ka?!” (Welcome! How about some Ishinomaki yakisoba?!).
By late morning, the lunch-time rush was in full swing and the queue went all the way along the stall and around the trees lining the perimeter. We had so many orders that we couldn’t cook enough yakisoba or eggs fast enough. Luckily though people were willing to wait a few minutes for the next fresh batch to come off the hot plate. The moment that batch was ready, they were sold in the blink of an eye and we were getting calls from the front for more, 4 for the next customer, 10 for the one after that, another 3… I ran the yakisoba from the back to the front as they were packaged. It was a busy day but such a lot of fun to experience a Japanese festival from behind the scenes and a pleasure to help out Hashimoto mama.
By early afternoon we had sold out of everything! We had sold more than 600 packs of yakisoba! We even sold the extra eggs we had leftover by cooking them up into omelettes. All proceeds will go to ASHINAGA, an organization that provides educational and emotional support to orphans worldwide.
Mid-afternoon the festival came to a close and the packing up began. While we were waiting for the truck to arrive to pick up the tent and cooking stations, we ventured down the main shopping strip (Shinmeikai) where there are an abundance of little souvenir and sweets shops. This shop was selling freshly made candies which they chop up and package in front of you, banging their knives against the wooden block in a musical display – yes knives can play music!
Finally the trucks were packed and we headed to an izakaya (a drinking establishment that also sells small dishes) a few stations away for a well-earned “otsukare” drink (not such an easy word to translate but basically “well done and thanks for your efforts”).
With the charm of old Japan within easy reach of the city and without the hoards of tourists, Shibamata is one of Tokyo’s least frequented gems and best-kept secrets that is well-worth an afternoon of your time. But shhhh, don’t tell too many people.
Shibamata is accessed on the Keisei Kanamachi Line. About 20 minutes from Nippori, take the Keisei Main Line and change at Keiseitakasago.