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Aki Matsuri

Wednesday, September 28, 2005
This past weekend, I carried a big portable Shinto shrine around my island, drinking to excess and blessing houses for two days in a row. At the end of the second day there was a ceremonial battle, and now I'm sore. Let me elaborate.

Before I get started: my hand is healing nicely.

First, I just wanted to post a couple pictures I took when going to the mainland last Friday. I'm trying to capture something about the daily life on the island, and the ferry is such a big part of life here.

That's my house, over there, across a bridge from the smokestack.

So last week someone asked me if I wanted to take part in the Aki Matsuri festival. I figure that I'm in Japan, I don't exactly have the most active social life here, and if someone offers me the chance to do something, I say yes. It doesn't matter what it is, when it is, I do it. That policy has gotten me into an 800 meter race, to a tea ceremony, to Kure, and to Tokyo. Not bad so far.

The Aki Matsuri is a fall festival, in which men between 20 and 70 (one crazy guy) carry a Mikoshi around the town. The Mikoshi is a portable shrine that has got something mysterious from the Shinto temple inside of it, supposedly carrying the god with it, resting on some heavy wood crossbars. The festival centers on a different neighborhood each year, and for two days you carry this shrine, from about 5:00 in the morning till about 3 in the afternoon. The festival ends with a big shrine fight, but I'll get back to that.

At 4:30 in the morning Cory, Cory's father, and I arrived at the designated meeting place. It was a meeting center, basically a big tatami mat room with rows of long low tables. Everyone was wearing the required white long sleeve t-shirt and white pants, and we were assigned to team pink. The organizers gave us Aki Matsuri jackets and headbands, and we filed in to have breakfast. It was still night out, no later than 4:40 in the morning, and maybe 200 Japanese men sat on the tatami in rows, some smoking cigarettes, some having the miso soup and rice balls, some just staring off into space. It didn't feel much like a festival, it felt more like we were getting ready for some pre-dawn patrol, everyone in uniform and lost in thought.

The impression didn't change as we rolled out. A guy with a megaphone standing in the dark street, illuminated by headlights called out destinations for each team. As we were called, we climbed into the back of a truck and waited for everyone to get ready. Just as the sky was turning deep deep blue, we started out, a long line of trucks rolling down the empty streets of my small town, men huddled in the back smoking cigarettes, some standing to see where we were going, most just sitting with their legs dangling. The streets were empty, the stores all closed, and it looked a lot like the images I've seen of night patrols the army. It was a good feeling, riding there in silence and thinking about what might lie ahead.

We arrived en masse to the island's main Shinto shrine. Everyone piled out and we made our way up the steps to the main building. A group from team red went into a special shed and came out carrying the portable shrine. They carried it into the temple and we all sat as the priest did a ritual transferring of the god from the temple into the little shrine. While I sat there, a spider crawled across the wall, big and black and bigger than my hand.

We got out at about 5:30, and everyone had a big glass of Sake before the sun had even come up. We piled back into our trucks (red team with the Mikoshi) and went to our starting spots. Red team carried first, then pink, then blue. We would carry for about twenty minutes at a time, with roughly 40 minutes off. We'd carry the shrine to houses and stores, someone would run ahead and ask for money, and if we got it, we'd bless the house. To bless something, We threw the shrine in the air three times, then held it above our heads. The shrine weighed somewhere between 500 and 800 pound, the estimates differ, but with around 15 men carrying it, it was still extremely heavy.

A side note. Since I was carrying the shrine, I gave my camera to Cory's mom. She took pictures, and whenever I saw her, I grabbed the camera and took whatever pictures I wanted to take. There are six or seven pictures in this update that are hers.

Thank you, Carol. Besides the photographer, you can also see my bike (the blue one), my scooter, (the black one) Cory and Megan's car, and my house (the big dirty white one).

Leading the pack was the music truck. These guys walked (or rode) ahead of the procession, making a racket and getting people up. Keep in mind that we made our rounds starting at 5:30 in the morning on Saturday.

Then there were the dancers in lion costumes, the dancers in foreigner masks (big mustache, red face, giant nose), and the guys with red flags who took the money and waved their flags so we would know that we had to come and bless the house they were at. This is team blue carrying, I am standing in front of my house taking these pictures.

You've got it all here. Flag man indicating a blessing. Shrine going up in the air. Spectators watching. The guy who is tired and taking a break.

Yay! Blessing my house. Cory's dad failed to notice the switch, so he's there on the left representing team pink during a blue team carry. The guy wearing the blue bandana as a hat absolutely destroyed me in a beer chugging contest during our next break. In my defense he was the town champ.

Cory's dad was a trooper. As in he looked like he was in charge of the whole festival.

A mix of people. My pants are so hot right now.

The day went on, breakfast at 4:30, lunch at 9:30, and dinner at 5:00. We carried until 2, then we carried in a parade until 4:30, and we finally went to the first after party at 5. That night I got to sleep around 9, so that I could get up at 4 the next morning to do it all over again.

The next morning was very much the same, getting ready, driving out, blessing houses until noon, when we were taken back to the shrine. It was time for the closing ceremonies, but we ha an hour to kill.

Carriers, finding some shade and resting before the big showdown.

At 1:00 we had to get ready. Teams were split in half, one half being the God team, one half carrying the shrine we had been carrying all day. I was a part of the God team, and that meant I needed special robes and a hat. Luckily the monks helped me get ready.

Cory's dad, Akko (an island friend and also robe dressing helper), Cory, and me, ready to represent all that is good in this world. Also, we are representing pointy black hats.

The next thing you know, we're all dressed, and we are carrying another heavier, prettier, fancier Mikoshi out of a different shed. We carry it into the shrine where the priest performs a ritual worth explaining. This portable shrine, it turns out, is the home of the real god, the other one being an impostor. The priest walks up a set of stairs in the back of the temple, another man in a suit rolls up a bamboo curtain enough that the priest can go into the pitch black room behind, and as soon as the priest is inside, the man lets the curtain down. After a few seconds he rolls the curtain up and the priest is standing there, hiding something in the sleeves of his long Japanese robes. It's impossible to see what he is carrying, and he walks carefully to the shrine, opens a door, then another door inside that door, then undoes a latch, and opens yet another door, and puts whatever he is hiding into the shrine. I could barely see what it was he put in, I'm not even sure he put anything in at all, but I could have sworn I saw something tiny, square, and gold. The priest quickly closed the doors, and then a group of guys wrapped the innermost level of the shrine in white cloth. We hoisted it on our shoulders and carried it out.

The fancy Mikoshi, coming out of the shed.

We took the new shrine down the steep temple stairs and into the dusty courtyard, where the other temple was circling, the carriers running back and forth. A slow parade started around the outside of the courtyard as we entered the middle. We walked back and fourth four times, with the other shrine coming nearer and nearer to us, and then they aimed right at us and crashed into us. A huge, heavy, and dangerous game of tug (push?) of war ensued.

They rammed us four times, and the pictures don't really capture the feeling that this whole thing could come down on you at any moment. The shrines took some pretty serious damage, the ground was littered with splinters of lacquered wood, tatters of ribbons and rope, and we nearly lost an entire crossbar when they used the entire weight of their shrine on one of our logs.

We got past them, up another flight of stairs to a blessing at another shrine, and then we went back to the original shrine. Whatever had been in the shrine during the combat was removed, the shrine went back into the shed, and at around 5:00, I went to the second after party. I had work the next day and I was feeling pretty wrecked.

Work went all right, My entire body was sore, The scars on my palms were hurting, but the kids I teach had all seen me carrying the shrine and they thought it was pretty funny. Speaking of the kids, I had a couple comments wanting to see the kids I teach. Here's one girl, dressed up for Aki Matsuri. She is a second grader at Nakano Elementary School.

I'm feeling much better now, I went to a third party on Monday, and I think that doing the festival was a sort of rite of passage among the men on the island. They seemed to be much more open to me after the whole festival was over, and I've been getting more hellos out on the street now. Final verdict: Worth it.

Also, I have a regular nightly visitor on my window:

Last thing. As I try and write out these complex and long things into manageable blog posts, I keep thinking of a quote I read recently. In the book I'm reading, this is a letter to a friend from a writer traveling in post World War II China:
This afternoon I finished a draft of my first section on China, and have been reading it over. It strikes me that, in the interest of coherence, an infinity of impressions have been sacrificed and, along with them, some experienced truth. So it must be reworked. In the meantime, the thing emerges as worth doing.

I feel like I'm constantly struggling with balancing the completeness of my experience with the difficulty of creating a coherent narrative of what I've done. I leave so much out, I hope that what I put in paints a picture, or at least starts to paint a picture of what my life is like here.