One of the things that I love most about Japan is the fact that there always seems to be some random festival being held. Whether it’s based around food (like Oma’s annual tuna festival), nature (such as Hirosaki’s autumnal foliage festival), or simply taking to the streets to dance the night away (here’s looking at you, Nebuta), Japan has countless festivals throughout the year.
Though some are about as culturally traditional as you can get, newer festivals still pop up all over the place. This past weekend, I make the trip to one such event: the 8th annual Oirase Salmon (sake, 鮭) Festival. Oirase’s one of the smaller towns in Aomori; anytime I hear the name, I automatically think of “Oirase Gorge,” which is actually about 45 kilometers from the town itself.
As the name obviously suggests, salmon’s the star of this festival. Salmon racing? Check. Volunteer wearing a salmon costume? Check. Catch your own salmon? Check, check, check.
That last activity was especially a highlight for me. Fork over 1000円 (around 10 USD), and you get the chance to wade into a shallow pond and try to grab your own salmon with your bare (okay, gloved) hands. It wasn’t particularly hard, but I admit that the first few times I tried to grab a fish, my squeamish side got the better of me. These salmon are huge and entirely muscle, and when you grab hold of one, they don’t exactly come quietly. It didn’t help that I accidentally backed into one of the makeshift fountains in the basin, which got a good portion of my back soaking wet.
But after everything was said and done, I managed to wrangle my catch back out of the basin. I’m a bit competitive, so I was pretty pleased to see that my salmon was one of the bigger specimens that my friends and I caught. As rough-and-tumble I was feeling after catching my fish, I wasn’t feeling so Rambo-esque as to gut and clean it myself. I happily paid my 300円 and let a few Japanese grandpas hack off the head for me.
While catching my own salmon was good and fun, the other thing I was really looking forward to enjoying was the festival food. Funnily enough, though, salmon was curiously lacking in the food options. When I went to the Oma Tuna Festival last year, there were loads of tuna-centric foods available…tuna sashimi, rice bowls topped with tuna, tuna onigiri, tuna steaks, tuna stew…you name it, it was there. At the Salmon Festival, however, I only caught a glimpse of roasted salmon steaks. Even with that shortage, I definitely didn’t go hungry.
Now my salmon is taking up a good portion of my freezer space; I’ll probably be eating him for weeks to come. And of all the experiences I’ve had in Japan, riding the train home with a bag full of fresh, bloody salmon fillets is definitely one of the odder.