Sunday, September 23, 2012

It's Festival Time

"Wasshoi! Wasshoi!"

As mentioned, fall has come to Nagano. Since it's the weekend of the Equinox, that means it's time for the Autumn Festivals at our local Shinto shrines.

The reasoning is, somewhat, complex. On one hand, you have the rice harvest and a festival is held to say thanks for a good harvest (Many rural shrines also have one in the spring to ask for one), on the other, we need to give the local kami (God, but honestly spirit would be a better translation), his exercise before he heads off to the yearly meeting (In Japan, October is considered the Month Without Gods because they all head off to heaven in order to have a big family gathering). And finally, of course, who doesn't like an excuse to party?

For the last 6 years, this has meant my helping carry the mikoshi, a kind of portable shrine. Ours is rather plain, some of them in Japan are beautiful affairs of gold and lacquered wood, ours is a wooden platform with rice casks and a sake barrel, plus the kami. But, plain as it is, it's heavy and after 6 years, I've gotten the ritual down pat.

The group of us gather at a local community center where we change into our festival gear, white pants, a happi coat, a headband, white tabi (Think ninja footwear), and a haramaki, a belly band.

Except me of course, because finding pants and a belly band in my size has proven difficult, so I head out in bluejeans and a white t-shirt. Still get to wear the tabi and the happi though.

Yes, we carry that, and drink the sake in front
First off, the photo, because one cannot ever get a group together in Japan for a purpose without a photo. The photo also allows us to crack open the sake barrel. We carry the sake around to pass it out to anyone who sees us along with cotton candy for the kids. The other reason for it however is to make sure that those carrying the mikoshi are good and drunk while doing so.

There's three theories as to why this is. The first is religious, the kami is happy when we're happy (I believe I have remarked before, "You've gotta be drunk, it's Shinto!"), the second is just so all that sake doesn't go to waste. The third, and my personal opinion, is that by keeping us plastered, we're less likely to question just why we're carrying, and tossing, a heavy wood platform up the side of a steep hill at night in late September.

Which, yes, is exactly what we do. The mikoshi is supposed to go around the neighborhood, which is accomplished by picking it up (Usually we need about 20 or more men for this) and carrying it on our shoulders while changing "Wasshoi! Wasshoi!" (Either heave-ho or it comes, depending). From time to time, people will stop us to give us an envelope filled with money as a donation. It's then that we've got to get a blessing from the kami for the house which is accomplished by tossing it up into the air and then catching it.

It's also about this time that I'm glad I've been sipping the sake as inevitably, I am the tallest there and the first to catch it so for a second, I get the whole weight.

Rest and food break
From time to time we'd stop to rest and a few times to eat. Along the way families would offer their place as a rest area and a few of them would provide food and more alcohol.

One of them is a challenging sort of place as for some reason, the owner of the house makes these incredibly spicy dishes each year and does so in a way to make sure you're never quite too sure as to which dish it is, until you bite into it. Every year he gets a kick out of people suddenly screaming "SPICY!"

Except for me. Because while spicy, it ain't that bad... Which I really shouldn't have said because this year he took it as a challenge and liberally spooned something he called "topping" on it. I don't know what that stuff was, but it WAS spicy and my mouth burned for a good 10 minutes after eating it.

Thankfully, the sake barrel was near by.

Finally of course we have to get the mikoshi back to the shrine to take the kami home. This being Japan, the shrine is at the top of a very steep hill (For some reason, the Japanese don't consider a site properly holy unless it's high up). So, tired, drunk, and with minor indigestion from eating spicy foods, the lot of us now have to struggle up the hill... And then prove ourselves to be manly men. It's not enough to have hauled this through the town, it's not enough to drink large amounts of sake, it's not enough to face down the fiery foods... no, we've got to get the mikoshi up in front of the shrine and then run, at top speed, stopping only to toss the mikoshi, and with our leader standing on top of it.

Pretty much our last toss barely clears our heads. But... it is done. The mikoshi comes to rest, the kami returns to his shine, and the lot of us get blessed by the Shinto priest. Finally, we take the mikoshi back to where we started from to finish off the sake, eat, and drink some more.

Except that I didn't. as much as I would like to have drowned my pain (Because 4 hours of carrying a heavy wood pole across my shoulders meant they were now black and blue), but I couldn't because I knew that Sunday morning was Thomas time and my sons would wake us up early.

And more than that, it was the day of the boys' birthday party and I needed to get the cake baked.

But hey, at least we finished the sake.

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