Watanabe Hiroshi／Head of the Hirauchi Ward Chairperson of the Hirauchi Underwater Onsen (Hot Springs) Festival
A man of many guises, he is a superhero at times, or a woman named Yakushimaru Hanako, or the Chairperson of the Hirauchi Underwater Onsen Festival. Needless to say, Watanabe-san is a hit at gatherings for the elderly. This man of many forms is also the Head of the Hirauchi Ward which is located on the island’s south side.
Every year, at the beginning of summer, the grounds behind the Hirauchi community center are festively lit with paper lanterns for the island’s earliest summer festival, the Hirauchi Underwater Onsen Festival. 2019 was the festival’s 19th year. While this is a small village festival, the grounds fill to overflowing every year. Watanabe-san has been involved in the festival since its first year, and he has become an irreplaceable part of it. And to give added life to this event, he is out and about promoting it on and off the island 360 days a year. “These days our parking lot isn’t big enough to handle all the people who come. We started having this festival hoping that people would grow fond of Hirauchi and fond of the island. So I’m happy this event has become so popular.”
There are no fireworks, but there is Karaoke, classical Japanese dance, and there are food stalls as well. Village residents take their turn at the microphone, bringing the crowd to laughter with local news in their role as masters of ceremonies. Making use of fine prizes donated by local individuals and businesses – prizes arranged for by Watanabe-san and other members of the festival’s executive committee – the raffle is also popular. But most engaging of all is Watanabe-san’s enactment of several male and female characters of his own creation. Gingamantaro, Yakushimaru Hanako, Catherine and more.
“In the beginning, the festival was on a much smaller scale. We borrowed scaffolding from a local construction company in the middle of a typhoon. We had difficulty finding people to perform. Now we have so many people who want to perform that we have to turn some away. Some guests even come from off the island just to attend our event.”
Watanabe-san also runs a regular “salon” for the village’s elderly “grandparents.” They drink tea, eat snacks, sing and talk with one another. Recently, they all went to a neighboring town to socialize with the people there. Watanabe-san told me that when he heard elderly men and women saying “I hadn’t seen them for dozens of years” and saw how happy they were, other ideas welled up inside him. “I want to take them to an onsen! I want to take them shopping!”
“Grandmothers and grandfathers get lonely when they’re home alone. I was raised by this community and I want to give back what I can.”
The Hirauchi Underwater Onsen Festival is for everyone in the village. One can hear the emcee calling out to “Aunt So-and-so” or “Uncle So-and-so,” names that are familiar to everyone in the village. This at-home event marks the beginning of another summer.
Written by Sanpo-tei, Rei Ogata
Hirauchi Underwater Onsen Festival
- Hirauchi, Yakushima Township
- Kumage County, Kagoshima Prefecture