Having treated myself to pancakes with banana, blueberries and honey, the morning of the 2nd August was off to an optimistic start. It then continued to be the craziest two days of my life.
I had recently seen a poster humbly duct-taped to an unassuming window about a festival taking place over Sunday and Monday, and so I headed to the nearby shrine to investigate. Music played from high speakers above a few festival stalls along the road, but it was otherwise eerily quiet for a carnival. Reconsulting the poster, I realised that there wouldn’t be an event until the evening, and consequently walked the short distance back home.
I had recently become the proud owner of a new bike. Admittedly the contraption looked much better than it operated, as it was heavy and had few gears, but it didn’t have a flower basket on the front which put it leagues ahead of every other bicycle I’d seen for the past two months.
I embarked on an inaugural ride around the area, and passed a couple of festival carts which naturally caught my attention. These beautiful parade floats are called dashi (山車, literally ‘mountain cart’) and each is a unique, temple-like wooden structure. The bulky frame rests on a quadricycle with a front-articulated axle steered by pulling a long intertwined red and white rope at the front of the vehicle. The body of the cart strongly echoes shrinal architecture, resembling a two or three tiered pagoda, each layer lined with red lanterns inscribed with the name of the local area which the dashi represents. In the back of the cart, a large taiko drum sits with its hide angled outward, flanked by two smaller flatter drums. While the cart is pulled slowly along, three walking drummers will lead a band of people in the dashi’s wake, playing flutes, wooden blocks, and small bowl-shaped bells that give an innocent but powerful ring.
After taking some photographs of a cart that made its musical way down the road, I stopped at a drinks machine to quench my thirst on this sultry summer day. Despite being on part of my route to work, I suddenly realised that I was stood before a bike shop that had previously escaped my attention. I peered into the window, but the radiant sun darkened the glass and obscured the room beyond. Theorising that I would find nothing of interest within, I envisioned the embarrassment of doing an awkward about-face after passing the threshold, and instead turned my attention to a festival poster in the window. I did not have long to scrutinise this, however, as a smiling old woman approached, opened the door to greet me and warmly welcome me in.
This woman was archetypally elderly; short with grey hair and a mild hunch, wearing a charming countenance and a floral apron. She walked me through the shop, with a landscape of bicycles to the right, and sat me down at a table bedecked with an outmoded plastic cloth and two old men. The lady gave me tea and we chatted for a while, before her small grandson came bounding in. I recognised him from one of my elementary schools, about eight years old with a dreamy expression, an abundance of saliva and a breathy ineloquence. He was wearing navy festival clothes with bold white patterns, and was followed shortly by his mother and younger brother. They were all amiable and welcoming, and the children prattled away at me, too fast for my comprehension. The elder woman introduced the young mother as Midori. When I asked what her own name was, she smiled softly and responded “Obaa-san” (grandmother).
Obaa-san asked if I liked cycling, to which I emphatically expressed my ardent love for it. Allegedly Midori and the boys had seen me pass by earlier and had thought my bike looked cool, for which I felt ungraciously and unfoundedly proud. They encouraged me to join a cycle group the following week to which I agreed and they jotted down a brief note for me. When at last I made my excuses and left, Obaa-san and Midori stood outside and waved goodbye until I had peddled away, feeling flattered and extremely self conscious.
It felt incredible to be cycling again, even on a crap bike in the unforgiving sun. I headed to Ganjouji Temple, a Buddhist complex of charming if modest buildings and gardens. When I walked through the gates, an enthusiastic woman ran up to hand me an English leaflet. Wondering through with little context or understanding, I admired the architecture and pond before heading home.
In the evening I returned to the shrine, which was much more populated and cacophonous than it had been that morning. Some students called out when they recognised me and I returned an awkward wave. Inside the shrine walls dashi sat majestically in rows to either side of the long gravelled entrance space, while a jovial crowd carried a wooden frame on their shoulders with barrels of sake piled atop and strapped into place with the familiar red and white rope. Around thirty people, perhaps more, bore this weight up and down between the carts, bouncing the load, shouting, and generally having a good time. The throng consisted of men and women in festival clothing seamlessly tagging in and out, presumably when they got tired or sore. Being alone, I stood to the side and took some photographs, but my alabaster skin betrayed my clandestinity and a couple of merry folk gave me high-fives.
I soon saw a man who I didn’t know but instantly recognised. He was easy to spot among the fairly homogenous crowd as the tall black man who had greeted my friends at the Retro Festival while I had been distracted by a second-hand kimono stall. I introduced myself and learned this gentleman was Abrahim from Senegal. He was a student at Aizu University, accompanied by another student called Ten who hailed from China, and their host for the evening, a Japanese lady called Yuki. During the ensuing conversation I asked Yuki what the festival was in aid of. She said she didn’t think it was for anything in particular, other than thanking the gods. I made a clumsy attempt at explaining that, until the recent past, similar events were held in the UK at this time of year. I was chatting to them for a while before Yuki asked if I was going to walk with them. Having no idea what she meant, I agreed. People had started playing the drums and accompanying instruments at the back of each dashi, and as the sound amplified, the carts juddered into motion, leaving the shrine grounds. Yuki instructed us to grab the long cord at the front of the dashi. Running round, I took a free section of rope and pulled the cart along with about ten other people. I wasn’t sure how, but I’d just become part of the festival.
As the sun diminished the light of the red lanterns intensified, illuminating the carts as they drove music and grandeur through the town. Many people stood or sat on the streets to watch the carts go by, including a group of Filipino strippers who convened outside their establishment and smiled at us as we passed.
While the band behind the float played and shouted, the children pulling the rope where yelling a motivating chant. I was somewhere in the middle of these two parties and began to feel a little left out. As our respective pulling arms began to tire, I switched sides with Abrahim and Ten. Finding myself closer to the children’s melodic mantra, I asked Yuki, who was also shouting joyously, to teach me the words. She went a little too fast for me to catch it, but I managed to piece together enough to join in the end, when everyone would punch the air on the last syllable in a rallying fashion.
Mou hitotsu … soré! Ichi ni no san enya!
My best stab at translation is:
One more time … That’s it! One, two, three, heave-ho!
With the sky now pitch above us, we stopped along the high street together with all the other floats, and for a while all the musicians continued their cyclical tune with gusto. One section of the song has a long, high whistle of flutes that leaves a freefall feeling of suspense before the sound is caught mid-plummet and carried by a series of shouts of SORÉ! which grow in frequency before the flutes and blocks and chimes rejoin for another round. During the shouts, some of the members at the back of the cart would jump enthusiastically in time, and I did not need much encouragement to participate, even with my large and heavy camera. In particular there was a man in his early twenties called Kazuki and two teenage sisters called Aya and Ine who were clearly enjoying themselves, and so I gravitated towards them.
After this interlude, we moved off again and took another tour of the town. I played little attention to our dark route. I had switched from pulling the cart to walking along behind, which was much more fun. The trailing procession played whichever instrument seemed to suit their whim, and while the song was collectively maintained, the person playing the central taiko drum would change frequently as the instrument requires a muscular and visceral input to produce the strong leading beat. One energetic man in his forties would swagger close behind the drummer, his legs straddled akimbo, frantically fanning the player who was inevitably dripping with sweat.
Perhaps I was admiring the taiko drum a little too intensely because at some point Kazuki handed me a pair of sticks and pushed me towards the drum that had just been vacated in the latest switch. I tensed in resistance, knowing this was not a latent skill I could summon, and was a single pace away from the instrument when a young woman jumped ahead of me and started playing. Kabuki himself disappeared, and I was left worrying that it had been an intentional intervention to save everyone from embarrassment. He did show up again later, and I continued to shout and jump along with the more energetic members in the centre of the crowd.
As we paraded, the thought occurred to me that I might be metaphorically treading on the toes of those around me. As far as I knew, everyone involved had practiced for hours and given their free time, energy and resources to this festival, while I – a pasty, inarticulate outsider – had blundered in and was treating their cultural heritage like a mosh pit. With this anxiety burgeoning, I shifted to the side, in the hope of being less of an obstruction.
Later on, Kazuki looked at me, went to the cart, and handed me two oblong blocks of wood, about ten inches long and three squared inches thick, to bash together. I was extremely grateful to be able to join in the rhythm, however crudely. I hit my blocks, I jumped and I yelled:
Soré! Soré! Sorésoré! Sorésorésorésorésorésoresoresoré!
Eventually we pulled into a small carpark area not far from where I lived. With the other carts gone, we were no longer part of a larger entourage. The music continued for a short while before drawing to a close at which everyone applauded.
From among the small crowd I saw a woman who I had met once before. She worked in a local pharmacy and had kindly helped me to successfully locate some medicine by patiently interpreting my feeble description and gesticulations. With antidote in hand, and polite conversation unfolding, she had told me her daughter had moved to Australia. Now, at the festival, I asked how her daughter was doing, only to find out I had not paid enough attention to the difference between musume (daughter) and musuko (son), because it was in fact her male offspring that had emigrated.
Cardboard boxes appeared, from which plain white plastic goody bags were handed out to all the children. I was handed one, for which I felt completely undeserving. The pharmacy lady’s husband said it was fine, despite my insistence that I was naught but an intruder.
I left the cart with Abrahim, Ten, Aya and Ine, and joined them at Yuki’s house as I wanted to thank her and say goodbye. I was invited in with the others and given tea and ice cream. Yuki has two sons, the younger of which is quite severely autistic. He seemed to like it when I tickled his feet.
I walked back home with Aya and Ine who lived nearby, and Aya told me of her love of European art and her ambitions to study galleries in Europe. I was in awe of her intelligence and drive.
Once home, I opened the goody bag to find a number of snacks, a plastic uchiwa fan, an eraser, a notebook, and an inflatable green lightsaber.
I was tired but elated, and had no idea the next day would prove just as eventful.