2017-11-07 06:42:03
Personal Journeys: In Rural Japan, Lifting a Shrine and Building a Friendship

“How much does it cost?” I asked Hirota.

We were inside his neighborhood shrine, and staring at what looked like a miniature Japanese palace, intricately gilded and lacquered red and black. It was the vessel for the community’s god, a portable shrine known as the mikoshi. “More than my house,” Hirota said. Outside, men from the neighborhood were prepping for the summer matsuri (festival): shrugging into ceremonial white robes, and loading a tiny pickup to the brim with ice chests full of beer, sake and shochu.

I looked back at the mikoshi and winced. It looked about as heavy as a brick oven and just as likely to move. But for the next nine hours, our task would be to move it. As Hirota put it, carrying the shrine would “show off our manpower” and prove to the unseen spirit inside, known as an ujigami, that the people in the small town of Miyoshi in Chiba prefecture were strong enough to take care of their community for yet another year.

“How much does it weigh?”

“You’re about to find out.”

Hirota helped me into my robe, tying all the knots for me, instead of guiding me through. It was one of those disarming breaches of male etiquette that winds up feeling paternal.

He looked a bit like Kikuchiyo, the samurai of dubious origin in Kurosawa’s classic “Seven Samurai,” with the same coal-black mustache and goatee, the same rustic and likable raffishness, the same boyish heart.

When he first asked if I wanted to take part in a “fun, Japanese tradition,” I initially refused. For one, the Japanese have yet to fully defang their ancient traditions. Every six years, for instance, men from Nagano’s Suwa region plunge down steep hillsides on unwieldy 10-ton logs in a celebration known as the festival of “the honored pillars.” Not all of the men make it down to the bottom uninjured, and, occasionally, not all of them make it down. Hirota listened to my excuses, from lingering back pain (real), a possible sun allergy (invented), to a sudden trip I remembered planning that fell on the same weekend (shameless), and rebuffed them all with a single word, “ganbarro”— “We’ll do our best.”

So there we were, swaddled like Hare Krishnas and ready to measure ourselves against the generations of ancestors who came before us to perform the exact same task.

When volunteers were called up to the line, without thought I stepped forward. Hirota, oddly enough, did not. Instead he donned a whistle and took a place on the outside, as one of the steerers.

Our team would be coached by the kiyari-shu, the procession’s leader, who would sing regional songs to cheer us up and dictate the length of our suffering at each waypoint; nine in total.

Presently, he sang for us to lift. We pressed the shrine a full arm’s length above our heads and the men around me started chanting, “Ya, ya, ya!” I joined the rhythm, the acceleration, and just like that our ship was underway.

The enthusiasm, however, wore off quickly. Feet were stepped on, dances were performed out of sync, and then an unexpected fight broke out between the left and right sides—which is to say unexpected only by me. It’s actually a completely regular occurrence during the procession, where one bearer shouts, “Come at me!” and the two sides attempt to hurl the mikoshi to the ground by pitching it onto and over the backs of the opposing team.

I let my side down, by dumbly absorbing blows, instead of heaving back punishment.

But what surprised me the most was how quickly carrying the mikoshi went from fun, social activity to actual labor to medieval punishment I’d have traded my morals to escape. While the others lounged on a blue tarp, guzzling beer and feasting on store-bought trays of sushi, tempura and onigiri, I spent the break huddled in a remote corner, convinced the next few hours were going to take years off my life.

“It’s heavy, isn’t it?” Hirota said. He was already tipsy, and wanted me to be, too.

“More than I thought, but maybe with both of us next time, it won’t be so bad.”

Hirota sighed. Bad news. Since he was a leader... he didn’t have to say any more. Since he was a leader there would be no challenging ourselves together. While I bore the load with the rest of the grunts, Hirota’s entire lifting duties would consist of holding a whistle, and he probably knew that when he recruited me.

“It’s an important position,” he called back, leaving to join the others.

I took a long pull of the sake he left and spat half of it on the grass. I couldn’t believe it — shanghaied! By the samurai of dubious origin.

What happened to ganbarro?

The tradition of carrying the mikoshi is centuries deep, though which exact century is still up in the air. One of the first recorded mentions of mikoshi took place in 794 A.D. in Kyushu, where the god of the Usa Hachiman Shrine was brought outside on a palanquin to either — depending on accounts — ensure the safe construction of the Great Buddha at the Todaiji Temple or suppress a revolt. Possibly both.

However, by the beginning of the 11th century, while Murasaki Shikibu put the finishing touches on what many consider the world’s first novel (“The Tale of Genji”), her contemporaries in Kyoto were already marching mikoshi through the city streets to ward off malevolent spirits and natural disasters as a part of their festivals.

Today these processions still take place, and not only on a grand scale like the Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo and the monthlong Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, and not only in every city, but in almost every neighborhood of every city in Japan.

As we entered the third rest stop, another procession was pulling away. It was our neighbor — or rather, the neighboring community, which was holding their festival on the same day. Unlike ours, their ujigami was ensconced in a large, wheeled float that was covered in paper lanterns and pulled by its bearers via two enormous dockyard ropes.

Also unlike ours, their procession was musical. Drummers and flute players sat inside, sending out a charged and playful melody. A kami is a Shinto deity and therefore has no name, no features, no disposition, but it can retain a certain characteristic. Whereas our ujigami liked to be jostled and bobbed like an upside down pendulum, this one liked music. I watched a 4-year-old

girl run after the float, trying to wallop the two enormous tao drums sticking out from its rear like exhaust nozzles on a space shuttle. They were too high for her, but still she lunged, arms flailing in rhythmic circles, until she finally got close enough to hop up and deliver a bang.

A big hollow sound answered back and she ran into her father’s arms, dirt-scraped, smiling, triumphant. “They don’t have enough people. This will be their last year,” a man said.

This struck me as sad. Partly because their group was only slightly smaller than ours, but there was something else. You see, Miyoshi lies on the far southern tip of the Boso Peninsula, where every weekend surfers and cyclists flock in from Tokyo and Yokohama to take advantage of the beaches and ocean-view roads, but between those coasts lies a landscape that echoes of a pastoral past. A place where farmers sell crops via unmanned, roadside stands to customers who pay on the honor system; where crows are formidably enormous, and the summer growth is so explosive it foams right into passing traffic; where every summer morning Asian lilies open with a pop(!)—scenting the air with licorice—and every summer night bush-league yakuza rattle past your windows, gunning motorcycle engines.

There’s a delicate balance to it all that is held together by a community willing to bend and band together.

But what happens to a place when its people are no longer strong enough to take care of their community another year?

I watched the procession disappear back into its neighborhood for the last time, where the drumbeats faded to a murmur: the sound of an ujigami retiring.

“Even if I drink sake, my spirit doesn’t get drunk, until the matsuri is over,” our kiyari-shu sang. It’s not exactly the accompaniment you’d expect to hear at a religious procession.

These songs — some silly, others bawdy, most not for children — weren’t going to help anyone up the steps of enlightenment; they were made to lift the spirits of generations of farmers, who were out seeking their gods in their own way.

But at the time, I could not see that. By now, all of my fellow grunts had either drunken themselves stuporous or had long since been rendered mute by pain. And yet the kiyari-shu still pushed — always prolonging each dance so that it was longer than the last; once we had given the supreme effort, he always found a new verse and kept on singing. My breaking point came at the seventh leg. I had made it seven hours. Seven hours of that unfamiliar god towering over, biting into my shoulder, and I hurt right down to the skeleton.

When the dance was finally over, I practically threw my beam on the sawhorse and stormed off through the crowd.

I walked down a country road bordered by rice fields until I was far enough away to have to consider whether I should just walk home. Unsure, I stopped. While the Japanese countryside may lack the sheer expansive scale of a heartland, it is heartlandish. At this point in the summer, the rice stalks were dense, yellowing and just starting to bend. Herons, white as candles, patrolled the shadows of their rows. A hand touched my arm.

It was Hirota. I was too angry to talk, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he offered a can of Pineapple Strong Zero — my favorite — and we drank in silence next to the rice fields, watching the wind comb them. “I wanted this to be fun for you,” Hirota finally said.

He was always trying to include me. And how many foreigners come to live in Japan, especially rural Japan, and find inclusion just out of reach? I suddenly felt ashamed of my anger. Here was the man who signed the lease for my apartment, without my even asking him; who taught me how to wrestle octopus and fist-sized mollusks from the ocean floor and later how to dice them up into fresh sashimi. He had invited me into his home and counted me among his community, and it was about time I started acting like it.

On our return, I scooped up one of those balloon-size sake bottles off the blue tarp, and tilted it back with the rank and file until we were all sputtering alcohol. If the summer matsuri is as much about sharing happiness as sharing hardship then it was time for me to even the balance.

I grabbed a shovel and drew a sumo ring in the dirt. Ten minutes later, I was standing outside of it, holding up the fat arm of a fisherman who had ousted me.

When it was time to march again, Hirota put his whistle around my neck and took my place in line. But for the final length, we went together.

Back at the shrine, after 20 minutes of continuous jostling, the men holding the mikoshi were crumbling. Backs were bending and the right side was starting to buckle. One man shouted, “Let this be the last one. Ganbarro!”

“Ganbarro!” we answered back.

And the kiyari-shu found another verse and kept on singing.

Japan’s three largest festivals include Tokyo’s Kanda Matsuri, Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri and the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. All events are public and free for spectators.

The Kanda Matsuri (gotokyo.org/en/kanko/chiyoda/event/kandamatsuri) (mid-May, 2019) features several processions, including floats with characters from famous folk stories, samurai on horseback and the Sengan mikoshi (weighing in at approximately 3.75 tons). It takes place in odd numbered years, alternating with the Sanno Matsuri (japan-guide.com/e/e3065) (mid-June, 2018).

Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri (osaka-info.jp/en/events/festivals_events/post_20) (mid-July) is most notable for the brilliant 90-minute firework display that lights up a traditional fleet procession crisscrossing the city’s Okawa River. Visitors can view the torch-lit boats from several historic vantage points, including Osaka Castle.

The Gion Matsuri (jnto.go.jp/eng/spot/festival/gion_matsuri) is sometimes referred to as the most famous festival in Japan. It spans the entire month of July and features numerous events; the highlight occurs on July 17: an extravagant procession of 32 ornately decorated floats, known as yamahoko, which have been recognized by Unesco’s World Heritage list for their outstanding cultural value.