Well… once again I survived the annual neighborhood festival. Being in somewhat worse physical shape than usual and less prepared this year than last, I really wasn’t sure how well I’d hold up. To make matters worse, I spent more time helping out on other stuff (like setup, teardown, etc) than I did last year.
On Saturday morning I helped with the children’s mikoshi (a smaller version of the portable shrine that the local kids carry around — see below). Both of my kids had soccer practice — which I suppose implies it’s own kind of ritual, but after another manner. Anyway, I got to blow the whistle for half the route — which doesn’t seem all that hard until you realize that continuous staccato blasts of breath interfere with one’s proper intake of air while having to walk and help hold up what is still a very heavy object as the kids start to run out of gas. And it seems to me there were fewer kids this year… no doubt the result of the unusually warm temperatures we’ve been experiencing (which adds a double dose of “argh” for the adults helping out ;-).
Anyway, that went well, save for my sunburn. Later that afternoon, after a sufficient intake of beer (the standard festival fuel) and an unsuccessful attempt to take a short nap, I wandered down to the local shopping street to help set-up a tent and wheel a huge scaffold structure down the main street (part of which was closed for the festival’s evening events). Then more beer, of course. Later helping a drunken acquaintance find his way home (not part of the festival, of course), followed by more drinking. Having gotten home as 1:30am, I kinda figured I’d be somewhat less than my normal self for the following day’s activities. I was right.
I arrived at the shrine a bit late on Sunday and found that the large Mikoshi [portable shrine] had already set out for the morning. No problem… instead I got drafted to help with the kid’s mikoshi again, this time sans whistle. After that a bunch of us walked over to where the large Mikoshi was involved in a non-annual special event where the Mikoshi from six different areas gathered for a common parade down one of the main streets (near our old apartment, as luck would have it). The weather was very hot and I managed to add another layer onto my sunburn in just a few short minutes. I spent some time under the Mikoshi but the bunch of us who were involved in the kid’s parade arrived at the main parade fairly close to the end, so there wasn’t all that far to go. At the end of the route, all six groups gathered at a single street intersection, facing each other from all four sides, and collaborated to make as much noise as humanly possible. That was fun to witness.
For those not familiar with Shinto tradition, a Matsuri [festival] is an event where the God from a given shrine will be temporarily called down to reside in this very ornate but very heavy “portable” shrine called a Mikoshi. This Mikoshi is then carried around the local neighborhood in an effort to distribute the power of that God to the local merchants and residents for the coming year. The Mikoshi stops on occasion to give a special dose of “enthusiasm” in front of the shops of merchants who happened to contribute to that year’s festivities. There is usually a late-evening street fair associated with these festivals — sometimes at the local shrine and sometimes on a closed street where the local shops exist (Japan has many such “shopping streets” scattered about in local neighborhoods).
After the morning’s six-Mikoshi parade was over, our large Mikoshi was wheeled back to the shrine on a cart (thank the god(s) we didn’t have to carry it) and we took a very short lunch break before the parade through our local neighborhood was scheduled to start. By that time I had passed “tired” and was on my way toward “exhausted”. It might be interesting to note that, in prior years, that would have been the time I’d just be showing up — fresh and well rested.
The afternoon’s event went pretty much as I had remembered. Starting out at 1:30pm and arriving back at the shrine around 6pm, it’s a very long day that covers much of the neighborhood. Every now and then we stop for a break. I was smarter than usual this time in that, during alternate rest breaks, I chose to drink something containing no alcohol. There was also a truck with water following us about (something new this year — probably because of the heat) and I availed myself of that resource on more than one occasion. There are usually far more participants than what can comfortably fit under the Mikoshi so participants trade off as they get tired. I also got to spend some time in the back “steering” the thing — which I think is actually more fun (but no less stressful) than actually carrying it.
Not everyone who shows up to help is from the particular area covered by the festival parade route. In fact, I actually live in an adjacent area but I know several people in this particular group so I’ve been showing up every year to help out. Two years ago I also went to help out with five other festivals in various parts of the city. One friend of mine participates in over a dozen every year. It’s mostly the same people who come every time so after a while you get to know various people from other areas of town as well as many from one’s own area. Festivals are really a large contributor to the social “glue” that binds communities together. It’s a rare day that I can walk down the local shopping street without stopping to greet someone along the way. Of course, being a regular at many of the local restaurants doesn’t hurt, either.
Usually near the very end of the route, as we approach the shrine in the evening, the Kai-cho [leader] calls for everyone from *that particular* area to come to the front of the Mikoshi, ahead of those from other areas, to help carry it to its final resting point. So… despite feeling like I was ready to collapse right then and there, I also felt obligated to join my comrades once more under the poles. That’s usually the most frenzied part of the route. Maybe that’s because everyone knows that the end is near. Anyway, I believe that may be the part of the trip where my shoulder got so badly briused ;-).
After helping our group give a proper thank you to those who came from other areas of town to participate, we settled into dinner with plenty of… yes, you guessed it… beer — the official fuel of these festivals. Later that evening I got to witness the Shinto ceremony where the priest removes the God from each of the three Mikoshi. That was very special and somewhat memorable for reasons I can’t readily say, lest reputations be ruined.
On the way home I stopped at a restaurant near my home where I had heard that several of my friends were holding court. I was so tired I couldn’t even drink. I had two mugs of cold water, one grapefruit sour (which took an unusually long time to drink), and one sliced tomato before leaving to catch the next bed to slumber-land.
Today? Well, except for 2nd-degree multiple sunburns and not being able to walk, I’d consider my recovery to be inevitable. There’s another Matsuri next weekend — this time covering the area in which I actually live ;-). I’m considering taking part — if for no other reason than to establish myself in my new home community (I already helped them dismantle stuff from a minor festival a couple weeks ago so my absence would be more conspicuous). From the way I feel today, I may just be willing to go through this again in another week. We’ll see how I feel then, however.