Japan: Tradition and Ear-Boxing
By Casey Anderson
8:50 AM, festival morning.
Just last night, the shabbily dressed old codger's arms waved above his head in disgust, stopping the drumming entirely. He spat some incomprehensible critique at no one in particular, then, for good measure, gave one of the two young drummers a solid box on the ear with a set of weathered knuckles that'd obviously seen their share of what we Americans would call "an honest day's work for an honest day's pay". The old man adjusted the battered twill hat atop his shining head, took a quick pull off a nearly spent cigarette, and with a sharp command started the two drummers booming away again.
Exactly what it was the old man had seen or heard that caused him to halt the cacophony, only he knew. The pulsating beat sounded the same as it had for the past four evenings running, and the precise, exaggerated, arm movements of the two drummers looked flawless to my untrained eyes. Until 8 or sometimes even 9 PM, this group of middle-school-aged students had piled into the tight confines of the storage shack behind Naohiko Sato's house in order to practice the ceremonial drums for tomorrow's Mikoshi Festival. I managed to untangle myself from the unfamiliar cross-legged seating position on the floor, taking care not to crack my head again on the low ceiling, bobbed a slight bow, and headed out into warm night, snapping the door shut on the stern old instructor's wafting cigarette smoke.
"Casey-san, obandegas! Would you like to try drum?" a smooth voice asked in heavily accented English. My eyes adjusted from the lamplight to the evening darkness, and Nao focused into view, striding towards the shack, apparently on a mission to check on the progress of the drummers. With visions of the diminutive, crotchety instructor swinging a knuckle up my head, I politely declined with a shake of my head. "Obandegas, Nao. No thank you. They sound very good, though.” Nao cocked his head to give a listen, then slowly nodded in appraisal. "Hmmm—this is good. Casey-san; Setsuko says dinner ready very soon. Please," said Nao, waving politely towards the house. "I cannot eat with you tonight. I must perform Mikoshi festival duties."
A quiet tap at the door at 6:30 AM tugged me out of a light sleep. The strange, almost-human cooing of Kitakami-town's resident birds tended to wake me up early most days; so I was glad for the excuse to wake up.
"Ohigas," I replied to the knock, and Nao's head popped in the door of the guest room.
"I go to prepare for festival. Would you like to come?"
Nao waited with practiced Japanese patience as I slid out of the too-small house slippers and tied my sneakers.
“How were your festival duties last night?” I asked.
“Difficult,” he replied quietly, but with an almost imperceptible grin. “Very difficult.” After a moment he decided to explain further. “Last night, my duty is drinking. Much drinking.” He then shut the door behind us, apparently content with his explanation.
Nao led me on a snaking path through backyards and across narrow streets to a small house, bee-hiving with activity. The student who'd been the recipient of the ear-boxing the night before recognized me and flashed me a toothy smile. "Good—morning," he said to me in broken English. "Good morning," I replied, and his smile broadened in triumph and pride with his successful use of English. He proceeded to rattle off what I could only interpret as some sort of question because of the inflection, and we both stared blankly at each other for a few seconds before bursting into laughter.
A pair of motherly-looking women, robes in hands, flanked Nao as he stood in the center of the room in underclothes. A black-robed man stood off to the side, appraising the situation and giving instructions, as the women intricately wove three separate layers of black and then blue robes around Nao. The final outside layer included broad wings jetting from the shoulders, which Nao proudly proclaimed he had designed himself to look “samurai-style”. Five years had passed since he’d last worn the ceremonial robes, and his beaming face showed that he was ecstatic to be part of another Mikoshi festival for Kitakami-town.
Though many Japanese cities have a yearly festival of this sort, Kitakami can only support such an event once every four or five years. The reasons seem to be many, including limited time, money, and resources. Perhaps the most important resource for a successful Mikoshi festival is strong young men to carry the Mikoshi. The Mikoshi itself is a portable shrine; basically an ornate miniature house perched atop a set of poles. Kitakami’s Mikoshi shrine has been in the care of Nao Sato’s ancestors for several hundred years. It is the job of about two dozen shrine-bearers to haul the massive shrine over a three mile course winding a loop through town to end up back at the main shrine behind Nao’s house. This year, Nao’s son Manibu is one of the bearers, as Nao and Nao’s father Naoa were before him. Over nine hours of hauling, heaving, climbing, descending, lifting, and dropping will test the shrine bearers’ stamina; they, like the young drummers who will pound on the festival drums in shifts non-stop over the course of the day, have practiced for weeks leading up to this morning.
9 AM, festival morning.
I stand in a crowd of hundreds, staring expectantly through the trees up the face of a rock-hewn staircase, the impossibly steep path down which the shrine-bearers will start the journey of the Mikoshi any minute now.
The Shinto belief is that the god, or Kami, residing in the shrine atop the small mountain behind Nao’s house rides inside the Mikoshi during the festival day. And the Kami rides in style. A murmur of nervousness and excitement bubbles through the crowd down below as Nao leads a pack of some sixty people, including a priest and a priestess, around the top corner of the steps and into view. The two dozen shrine-bearers, gleaming in white robes and tall, shining black hats, heave and struggle against the near half-ton weight of the Mikoshi. Wooden shoes strain on sandbags that were freshly laid the night before in an attempt to widen the rock staircase for the massive shrine. The lead shrine bearer shouts gutturally at his team, and they shout back obediently like soldiers at drill.
Slowly, steadily, the shrine descends, a line of suit and tie clad town officials in tow. Nao halts the procession in the center of the shrine grounds, where the bearers set the Mikoshi on a small platform and arrange themselves for a formal roll call and photo opportunity. The hushed crowd claps as each member’s name is read, and their flawless ceremonial robes billow in the still-crisp morning breeze.
Suddenly, with a sharp command, the drums thunder, and spectators and officials alike scatter from around the shrine. Water spray and flying rice erupt skywards as the shrine bearers throw the shrine over their shoulders, now lifting, now dropping, tilting, scraping one end of the poles through the gravel, then the other. A Mikoshi tug-of-war breaks out, shrine bearers on each side pushing and shoving against their counterparts in an attempt to knock the Mikoshi shrine back against the surging crowd. Snapping away with my camera, I’m forced back as the Mikoshi is nearly rammed into the crowd. Backing away, I bump into a brightly dressed woman carrying a tray brimmed with overflowing porcelain cups of sake. She smiles and offers me a cup, which, of course, I accept whole-heartedly with a bow and a mangled, “domo domo.”
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