My first time carrying a miniature shrine (mikoshi) at a Japanese folk festival left many lasting memories – mostly pleasant ones but some very – physically – painful ones as well. Especially my right shoulder from carrying the mikoshi and my head from the constant alcohol consumption throughout the day. But hey, I consider these being rather small sacrifices. After all being invited by local people to participate at a Matsuri to praise the gods is not only a big honor for a Gaijin, but also a lot of fun.
The principle of drinking and dressing up for a folk festival is nothing new to me. I grew up in the German Alps where as soon there is a traditional music band playing people throw themselves into Dirndl and Lederhosen and drink beer out of one liter jugs. Then I moved to Munich and spent two weeks every year dancing on the tables at Oktoberfest.
And even though there are some similarities between those cultures – such as the equally high-spirited atmosphere – I would never dare compare Oktoberfest with a Japanese Matsuri. Not only because the religious part plays a dominant role here, but also because Matsuri participants in Japan still know how to behave – even after a full day of beer and sake. (If you have ever visited the Oktoberfest, you might know that the situation there is slightly different.)
Taking part at a Matsuri Parade requires some serious preparation. Ueda-San, who invited us to this festival which was performed in gratitude for the rice harvest, took us to a shop in Asakusa, where all the traditional garments for festivals are sold. That’s where I first learned about Fundoshi, a traditional Japanese undergarment, which comes in several basic styles, is mainly worn by men and looks similar to the piece of clothing sumo fighters wear in the ring – briefly, it does not hide much of your butt. We opted for the prude variation: white knee-length cotton pants.
Equipped with those, Tabi boots (Jika-Tabi), Tabi socks (with a separation between the big toe and the other toes), a headband (Hachimaki) and an onsen towel (to spare our shoulders from being injured) we drove to Shin-Nakano Station at 8 am, and met up with Ueda-San at Shinga, a local Izakaya, where he had spent many merry nights with his friends before becoming a family man. After putting on our Hanten (or happi, the yukata-like outer coat), Satoru, who runs the Izakaya, poured as a beer with the words “Let’s get some strength before we start”. He must know: it’s his 21st year in a row to participate at the Shin-Nakano Matsuri and help organizing it.
After the organizers’ greetings and toasting to a successful and safe day with a cup of sake the real challenge began – the carrying of the god (shintai), well protected in the portable shrine through the streets of the neighborhood to the sacred resting point (tabisho). I have watched various festivals in Japan since I moved here and I always asked myself why the people carrying the shrines were drenched in sweat. Well, it did not take me long to find out why. The beautifully decorated shrine looks filigree and delicate, lightweight at first sight. But the appearance is deceiving: together with the wooden scaffold, where the shrine is attached to, the construction weighed about one ton.
For the first time in my life I regretted being taller than most Japanese people. In order to keep the shrine stable I had to squat while walking, which made me look like a duck stumbling over her own feet and I could not help but wonder: would I survive if the entire construction cracks down on me?
I felt a little sorry for my husband at that moment, who measures 1,85 m and is a head taller than all our fellow carriers. After a short while I thought my shoulder was going to break (the onsen towel had shifted towards my pants), but at least I found the right rhythm. The repeating chanting “Esa, hoisa, esa, hoisa”, which can be freely interpreted as “left, right” paired with the sounds of the band playing traditional tunes (Ohayashi) was kind of meditative. While moving towards Shinjuku more and more groups joined the parade, which had in the meantime become an elaborate float with around 1000 people participating and many more spectators cheering and clapping from the sidewalks. But despite all the cheerleading, I had slight doubts to survive the spectacle until 8 pm. Especially after the announcement of a girl next to me, Shizuko-San, that the highlight was still to come: the girls-only performance, where only women carry the shrine all by themselves without any male support.
Just when I thought I was going to collapse under the merciless midday sun and the sensed one ton on my sore shoulders – the carrying crowd had decided to jump up and down while screaming out “furu! furu!” (shake, shake) – the entire procession stopped. Lunch break. While a Shinto Priest recited prayers at every mikoshi, people from the local volunteer organization distributed bento boxes and within no time everyone was supplied with drinks and food, which made me again admire the perfect Japanese organization. “Don’t you love it?”, asked me a woman sitting next to me. “Free booze, free food. A free fun day. All to praise the Gods!”
But not only the Gods were praised that day. When the procession moved back towards Shin-Nakano Station, we stopped again in front of the local police box. “We are here to bless the police”, explained Ueda-San, after telling us to remove our headband out of courtesy. If you grew up in a country where police is not really perceived as being your best friend, this is quite astonishing. “Japanese people like safety. And the police provides safety. That’s why we like the police”, said Ueda-San. A quite logical conclusion, I had to admit.
Meanwhile darkness had come, the parade had moved almost back to its departure point and I was still fearing the moment, when it was the girls’ turn to carry the mikoshi. After all I did not want to wimp out, but prove, that a Gaijin deserves the honor of participating. It turned out that my concern was entirely unfounded. “I have bad news for you”, said Shizuko-San. “The big shrine is too heavy for us. And as there is no small shrine available for girls, we have to pass this year.” Admittedly I had a hard time hiding my relief.
The moment, when we got back to the starting point, where the mikoshi was put back into the storage, was indescribable. Partially because the physical torture was over. The small square at Shin-Nakano crossing was illumined with hundreds of lampions and Bon-Odori performers were dancing elegantly around the wooden festival stage pulling us into their circle.
When we walked home that night – after having celebrated the successful day with our new Japanese friends at the Izakaya – we were wondering if we had done a good job. We got our answer two days later. Ueda-San asked us whether we were ready to slip back into our happi coats. There is another Matsuri in Zushi in October in need for some strong shoulders.