Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My Kind of Weekend, Part III

Our Wednesday festival took us a little further afield to Kakunodate, known best in fair weather for its 武家屋敷/buke-yashiki "Samurai-house" district, a street or two of the preserved stately homes of 19th century provincial samurai, as well as a lovely municipal walking path along the Hinokinai River that features hundreds of century-old cherry trees and draws crowds in the thousands when the blossoms are at their late peak.

It's all this sort of thing when the weather warms up.  

Kakunodate in winter is much less the tourist hub-- but its empty municipal parking lot makes a perfect venue (wide and fireproof) to preserve its traditional midwinter festival, the Hiburi Kamakura.

Why a parking lot? The festival's Japanese name (火振りカマクラ, "Hiburi Kamakura" should tell you all you need to know. Many villages in Akita feature midwinter festivals based on the making of kamakura, or snow houses, and the Hiburi is no exception (though Kakunodate's kamakura are really more like snow lanterns than igloos)...

... but at Kakunodate the main event is unmistakably the hiburi, "fire-swinging". After lighting bundles of rice straw (I've heard them called tenpitsu, 天筆、"heavenly brush") from a bonfire in which the previous year's New Years' decorations have previously been burnt (closing out the old year and removing its misfortunes),  the flaming mass is whirled around in a slow circle, warding off sickness, guaranteeing "the flourishing of the five grains (1)", and flinging chunks of burning straw to the four winds.

We arrived as the fire-swinging was already in full swing, judging by the low-burning bonfire, the festival ground's thick coating of smoking debris, and the phalanx of amateur photographers all trying to get the perfect shot from the same vantage points.

One of the older guys on the verge grabbed my arm as I was just pulling out my camera.

<Oh, a foreigner!>

<Ah, yes, I suppose so...-->

It was easy to smell the beer on his breath, even through the smell of burning rice straw.


<Oh, thanks, I guess. I was wondering-->

"YOU WANT" [switching into Japanese again] <Swing. Fire. Yes?>

<Well, I suppose so-- is it OK if I give it a shot?>

<Here. Come. Yes.>

Maintaining his firm grip on my arm, the guy marched me over to a pile of pre-roped strawbales.

<Ah, this guy wants to try. Seems he's a foreigner.>

<Ah, well, I guess you can tell just by looking, can't you! >, I said, as graciously as possible.

Apparently convinced by this token that if foreign, I was at least able to speak normally, the straw monitor handed me a bale and began herding me into the middle of the arena. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the photographers nearest me busily adjusting their settings. Now THIS was the shot they had been waiting for, it seemed. <OK, hold the end of the rope, light the end of the bale, and swing slowly!> Feeling slightly rueful that I wouldn't have the chance to get any photos of the moment off of the hundreds of be-vested retiree hobbyists with midlife crises' worth of fast telephotos now trained on me, I began swinging the burning straw round myself. <Perfect, perfect, just like that... no, too fast!>, the monitor instructed me, standing just outside of my swinging arc. Even on a two-meter rope, the heat and light from the bale was impressive. It was a bummer when after only about ten or eleven swings, my tenpitsu disintegrated, flinging smoking ash in the direction of some of the more intrepid photogs. <HERE TAKE ROPE> yelled the tipsy farmer. "NO... SICK... YEAR".

<They took a ton of pictures of you>, said Fumie doubtfully as I walked back towards the edge of the swinging area. <I wish I could do it again so I could get someone to take some pictures of me-->


<Oh well, I guess I can get pictures of Kenny at least>.

And indeed I did:

"HEY, KENNY!" someone called in English. A passel of Akita City ALTs were crossing the Swinging Area, dressed in blue happis and headscarves marked KAKUNODATE CITY TOURISM ASSOCIATION. "Where did you get those outfits?" asked Kenny. --"Where did you get the straw? You have to pay 500 yen and borrow the clothes before they let you do it!" "Looks like we just got the gaijin discount over here!" I said. Behind us, an older fellow lit up a bale while holding his young grandson.


"I'm gonna get another bale!" said Kenny, striking off towards the other side of the arena. And wouldn't you know it, he pulled it off.

I had enough time while the last bales burned to eat a food-stand okonomiyaki and have a good go at talking with strangers, including a garrulous local ex-teacher, who was practically only kept from talking to me all night about the local homestay program he'd organized by the start of the finale fireworks.

And then we headed for home with fried food in our bellies and burnt straw in our hair.

(1) Those are wheat, rice, beans, and millet [there are two kinds of millet, awa and kibi] for those of you playing along. Though their practical significance to Asian (Chinese and later Japanese/Korean) society is obvious, their ritual significance was also such that abstaining from eating them, and so metaphorically partaking not of the "common world", played an important role in various premodern ascetic practices

Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Kind of Weekend, Part II

Once the movable feasts got going, they kept moving: For the next 5 nights, Kenny, Stephanie, Fumie, a motley crew of other area JETs, and I chased old-calendar New Years' festivals back and forth across the prefecture, evening work and weather be damned.

Next in queue was the Kariwano Tug-of-War Festival, an easy hour and a half from Oga-- and, like many of the other area events, in the form of an easy-going competition. Divided into two teams with the names of now-defunct neighborhoods and colored Red and Yellow, the village pulls for the thrill of victory and to determine the result of the coming year's rice planting season. (1) Now, a village-wide tug-of-war calls for a big rope...

Will this do?

Made of rice straw and festooned with dozens of extra lateral ropes for the teams to grab, the immense cable was as big around as a man and extended well outside of the "official" festival area, in the midpoint of the village's main street. As we walked through a shower of increasingly chunky frozen rain towards the far-off sound of canned flute music and the smell of fried festival food, we were accosted by several younger festival-goers: 

<Wow, foreigners! Are you here for the festival?>

<Well, sure! You too, huh?> 


<If I wanted to participate, what would I have to do?>


Assuming my Japanese had let me down, I gave it another shot: 

<What do I do to join in?>

<Grab a rope and pull!> 

Was it really that simple? The explanatory PA was helpfully announcing a brief break before the beginning of festivities in earnest, so with time to spare we went to scope out the food stands.

Even fairground food comes in "regional specialty" varieties: the people of nearby Yokote have made this humble yakisoba their own by adding a sunny-side up egg and deleting (most of?) the pork. They probably wouldn't let you patent it, but it's at least a tasty variation on prior art.

Staff manning the nearby free sake tent assured me, straining a bit to be heard over the pulsating polyrhythms of the local middle-school taiko team, that we were welcome to join in with the pulling. 

<Have you picked a side?> 


<You should just stay over here and work for us then!> 

<OK, sounds great!> 

<Another cup?> 

From where we stood by the festival tent, I could see the preparations in more detail: 

Unbelievably, the immense rope was in two sections, with the Yellow Team's side (now, apparently, my side) a plain end and Red's terminating in a eyesplice large enough to crawl through. Before the competition, there'd have to be a knot tied. But first, the warmup act. Two groups of men, dressed  as Red and Yellow team representatives (2) in headbands, baggy pants, and happi began gathering between the untied ends. 

<AND NOW, THE JOSTLING (押し合い/oshiai)WILL BEGIN!> announced the PA. 

To dialect chants of "JOISA, JOISA" (3) tougher-looking members of the sides strutted towards each other, grappled a bit, and began pushing back and forth while jumping up and down. First in trickles, then in waves, each side's guys ran towards the building knot. Then, when conditions seemed right, one or more guys would make a run at the pile, clamber on top of the mass, and wave for a lantern emblazoned with their teams' name. Spurring the crowd they were surfing on to greater efforts, the riders waved their arms and tried their best to keep their tippy seats. Before long, they fell, the crowd dispersed-- and then someone else danced out into the middle. 

The thrill of victory...

...and the agony of defeat.

Our new buds got pretty pumped.

It looked much more like goofy fun and less like an actual competition-- so much that Kenny and I, standing on the edge of the crowd on the Yellow side, began debating with increasingly serious intent  whether it'd be all right to jump in. Just then, I felt a push from behind. The guy from the sake tent had his hand on my shoulder.

 <Go ahead and go for it!> 


We didn't need another invitation. Kenny and I tossed off our coats and dove headlong into the steaming scrum, yelling "JOISA" in time.  Somewhere along the line Kenny took a glancing elbow to the nose and I ended up in the stinking center of the mass, supporting the full weight of one of the lantern guys's butts with my face. Needless to say, it was a blast. 

An indeterminate, sweaty, yelly interval later, the PA announced the end of the oshiai, and, high-fiving our comrades, we retreated to the sidelines. With the warmup finished, it was time to hook up and pull. 

Marshals organize the tying...

.... while we wait for instructions.

I never quite did see how exactly they got the thing tied up. But I can tell you it took nearly 45 minutes of coordinated pulling from each side. 

Almost there.

Moments before the starting gun. 
And pull we did, when at last the time came. It had seemed almost unbelievable, even with half the town pulling each end, that the huge rope would move at all, but once each side (4) got their backs into it, the huge cable came alive, leaping inches off the ground as we strained in time to the marshals' chants of <YOI.... SHOOO! YOOI.... SHOOO!> (READY, PULL! ). We strained for a few moments in the middle, me leaning my full weight into the 2-inch horizontal hawser I was sharing with a foursome of coutured Korean tourists, Kenny dragging his feet into the ice to get a better grip. We grunted back and forth for half a minute as my hands began to lose their grip on the slick rope. Behind me I could hear straining in three or four languages. Then, in spite of it all, the advantage slipped. Korean noises of surprise told me the pullrope had parted, dropping the girls from Seoul on their designer-jacketed butts. Kenny lost his footing and slid feet-first through the muddy slush trying to right  himself. A triumphant shout rose from the Red Team as it pulled itself into a patch of ice-free tarmac down the road, and redoubled its efforts.

In the end we never did manage to get the momentum back, and Red dragged us more than 100 meters up the road as if it were nothing. But, backs sore as we high-fived through the crowd back to our car, it felt like a fantastic victory. 

(1) No matter who wins the result is good fortune. If one side wins, the year's yield is good; if the other side does, the price merchants pay for the crop will rise. Almost like they were trying to game the system!

(2) Or like medieval workmen itching for a fight-- bare-chested in the cold, many wore strips of cloth called sarashi wound round their middles-- a practice that Edo-period brawlers took up to protect against slashes to the gut, and present day gangster-movie yakuza and tough-guy anime characters still affect. Incidentally, the same binding cloths also were instrumental in creating the flat-chested ideal kimono body of the premodern era. I'm afraid you get no points for effort if you guessed that innumerable period dramas play both facts off each other to create beautiful Sweet Polly Oliver/Huā Mùlán/ Nakano Takeko warrior princesses who mysteriously find the need to fight in their old-timey underwear... 

(3) Or something like that. Not even the folks I asked in the crowd could tell me what it meant exactly. Consensus suggested <良いさ、良いさ> / Yoisa!, Yoisa!/ GOOD!, GOOD!, as a possible antecedent... which suggests some interesting connections.

(4) I'd guesstimate there were 400 people there in all pulling.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Kind of Weekend

Owing to 19th century calendar reforms, the 25th regnal year of the Heisei Emperor officially began on January 1st, but out here in the provinces, the festal calendar is more closely tied to the Chinese calendar than the Gregorian. Lucky for me, Lunar New Year fell on a three-day weekend in this Year of the Snake, leaving me plenty of time to get out to the first of Akita's many midwinter festivals.

First on the docket: A Saturday night visit to the namahage's second yearly appearance, the 柴灯祭/りSedo Matsuri

Although their yearly work of scaring the dickens out of local children is long done, having been moved to Gregorian New Years', the namahage of Oga also make a yearly visit to the mountain shrine at Shinzan, the official "center" of namahage activity, torches (柴灯/sedo) (1) in hand, in order to mug for the cameras of tourists from far and wide. Along with Kenny, Stephanie, and a gaggle of our acquaintances from Akita City, I went to check out the festivities.

At the Namahage Museum next door, a live demo of mask-carving was on.

As darkness fell, we headed up the hill to the shrine itself, where braziers had been lit and banners hung to announce the festival.

The imposing gate, with (nominally Buddhist) guardian statues, tagged with important visitors' names on pasted stickers/ofuda. 
Also present were the usual complement of festival street food tents-- this one selling takoyaki.  I had a steamed  an dumpling and a bowl of tsukimi-udon further down the hill. 

I paused at the top to pay my respects to the mountain gods enshrined in the main hall... 

... and purchase a package of good luck New Years' mochi and a bamboo cup (free refills!) of sanctified sake/ 神酒 (shinshu) from a nearby stall manned by miko.

While we waited for the night's "official" namahage to make their appearance, I followed the crowd further into the compound... and found myself at the head of the line for the "Namahage Transformation Corner":

Using the term "transform" (変身)might cause you to expect something different...

I wasn't out of my borrowed raincape and skirt long when I noticed the crowd packing in around a rope-cordoned (2) space towards the center of the shrine's courtyard. Inside: a gaggle of priests and a miko in full dress, an altar bearing offerings of rice, salt, and fish, and a vigoriously boiling cauldron of water. A portable PA system, set up a semirespectful distance from the enshrined space, crackled into life. (3) <AND NOW>, it intoned, <THE FESTIVAL WILL BEGIN WITH TRADITIONAL RITES AND CEREMONIAL DANCE>.

With things officially underway, the clerics disappeared up the hill above the main shrine. The crowd turned as, lo and behold, from the top of the mountain came men dressed in rain capes, carrying namahage masks and bamboo torches in their hands. Now the PA carried the sounds of the priests as they officially invested the men (入魂, nyuukon, "enter-spirit") with the spirits of the namahage. With a yowl, the men donned their masks, ignited their torches, and stalked back up the hill. While we waited for them to return, the PA helpfully directed us to watch a recreation of the "traditional" visit of namahage to a local home:

followed by a performance by a local taiko drum group, appropriately garbed for the occasion:

Yells from the top of the hill announced the end of the taiko set. The namahage were descending, fifty in all, representing each village's unique style of masks and equipment. Extinguishing their torches and taking up their knives, buckets, and axes, they descended on the crowd-- with plenty of growling and getting in people's faces of course:

Two of the group peeled off for a dance number:

And then it was time for photos before heading home:


(1) n.b: The more standard term is taimatsu/松明
(2) And hence ritually purified. The technical term is himorogi.  Cf shimenawa, yorishiro
(3) It being impossible in this day and age to have a traditional festival in Japan without explanatory comment.