Chapter Sixteen: Summer Festival Part Two

Once more consulting the street poster for information, it seemed something was happening at the shrine at 12.30pm, and so I made my way down in time to see a formal procession emerging through the gates. It was led by young people, starting with two teenage boys in black shirts and conical hats, followed closely by a young man in a yellow shirt and purple trousers, who wore an elaborate red mask with white beard and carried a mock spear adorned with white folded shide paper. Next came a long line of young men in what looked to be slightly scaled-back shinto saifuku of white clothes and black hats. Four of these boys carried between them two wooden crates on their shoulders. Behind them were much younger children in green and white shirts, purple trousers and beige hats, succeeded by a group of girls in the same purple trousers, pink shirts and beautiful cascading golden headdresses. Lastly, a group of adults emerged carrying a grand mikoshi portable shrine, with red fence, pure white thunder bolts of shide paper, and bright golden eves. The event was not crowded, and it seemed most of the congregation were parents taking photographs and trailing behind the convoy as it moved down the road. Hoping to indulge an anthropologist curiosity, I followed the procession, fully aware of how sinister it made me.

The parade moved along for no more than ten minutes before stopping and placing the mikoshi between four thin bamboo poles with shide bunting strung between them. All the participants stopped for a rest while the parental support distributed drinks. I hoped to perhaps strike up a conversation with someone and not remain a silent interloper, but no opportunity presented itself. I stood around awkwardly for a few minutes, weighing up my options, when I heard the festival music from yesterday, saw dashi spilling onto the streets, and moved off in pursuit.

All the carts were cavalcading through the town again, and I jogged alongside them until I found the one I had joined last night. They played instruments and ambled in the sweltering heat, protected from the sun by matching straw hats with green trim. I saw Kazuki and trotted up to ask if Yuki was there. She wasn’t, and neither were Ine and Aya. Unable to keep up a conversation with anyone, I followed along in social discomfort for a while. My throat was becoming dry, and so I nipped off to buy something refreshing when I spotted one of the ubiquitous drink machines. A woman, however, pulled me back and, opening a cooler in the centre of the dashi, offered me a chilled drink. She also handed me a straw hat, both of which were welcome defenses against the season. We started talking and I recognised her as the woman who had jumped in front of me and prevented my potentially devastating taiko performance last night. Given how nice she was, I felt better about the situation. Akako, I learned, actually knew a lot of English, as she’d completed an exchange year in the States. We spoke for a long time, primarily in Japanese, touching on religion, music, hen and stag parties and Guy Fawkes. Unfortunately the music was quite loud and I didn’t understand a lot of what she told me.

After a while the cart pulled up and everyone stopped for a break. Ice cream was handed out, and despite several refusals, a tub was forced into my hands. I discovered the contents were more ice than cream, which was probably beneficial. I made small talk with a couple of girls I found myself sat with. A third girl appeared who attended Sanchu Middle School. I asked if Richard was her English teacher, which she confirmed while also correcting my pronunciation of his name, inciting indignation on my part. Not once did I see her smile.

We started off again, and I spoke more to Akako. She said she could lend me some festival clothes for the evening, insisting it would make the event more enjoyable. Eventually the dashi was parked in the same small car park from yesterday. We found Yuki, who had a discussion with Akako about which of them would lend me festival clothes. I was given another goody bag, much to my delight, and was left in awe at the amount of snacks I was accumulating.

It had been decided that Akako would lend me clothes, and together with her brother we walked to her parents’ house. I was invited in, sat down and given tea. I met her inscrutable father, who gave me a savoury biscuit and three jelly sweets in attractive individual boxes. He invited me to relax my legs which were tucked under me in a formal seat known as zeza, but I politely insisted I was fine and maintained my position. I talked with them for a while, sat at a floor table, and Akako gave me the clothes while demonstrating how to wear the trousers which tied at the back. I tried the clothes in the toilet, the floral vermillion top being like a tent and the plain navy trousers being far too small for my expansive hips. Akako and her father showed me the Shinto shrine in the front room, with large aging photographs of family members hanging high around the walls. I attempted to explain that my own culture pays little attention to ancestry, instead focussing on individuals in the most recent generations. Akako told me later that her dad had concluded that I must be English (as opposed to American) because I had shown respect for their culture.

Boxed jelly sweets

Having been home and showered, I headed for the shrine that evening in Akako’s shirt. I had entertained the thought that being cloaked in the appropriate apparel would make me feel more involved, when in fact I felt far more self conscious and fraudful.

Inside the shrine grounds I bumped into Midori from the bike shop, who introduced me to a couple of guys who were joining the cycle ride I had agreed to participate in. I found Akako and Yuki, and gave them souvenir London keyrings to thank them for their kindness and for involving me so unreservedly. As I gifted these, I recited the relevant textbook phrase: “Hon no kimochi desu” (本の気持です); “This is my true feeling.”

A small mikoshi was being clumsily carried by a group of young children; an event that was being commentated by two men with microphones doing little to contain their laughter.

Richard’s student from earlier stone-facedly told me that I should move closer to the shrine, though I didn’t understand her explanation. Something was then mentioned about lucky money. Myself and Yuki joined a gathering crowd as our dashi jerked its way out from where it was parked and faced the shrine. Aya and another woman leant out from the roof of the cart and started throwing small paper packets into the jostling and jumping crowd. I didn’t dare try to catch any, preoccupied with protecting my head from being elbowed. It was terrifying and fantastic fun. The tactical Yuki had used a baseball cap as a net, and as the crowd dispersed she handed me one of the white and red packets, saying: “Hon no kimochi desu.”

Lucky money being thrown
Yuki catching money with her cap

With lucky money dramatically distributed and courageously acquired, the dashi manoeuvred back to its position. A little later the music began and each dashi filed out of the shrine grounds. Once more the caravan toured Kitakata, while I banged blocks together and jumped and shouted for all I was worth. The younger members of the contingency, including a little girl whose energy and glasses dwarfed her, were thankfully pretty excitable.

At length we arrived back at the shrine and parked up once again. I saw some people go up to the top of the dashi from the inside, where the packets of lucky money had been hurled from. I witnessed one woman and her child go to the top, then thank a man for allowing them to do so. I was debating asking if I could climb up, when the man enquired if I wanted to. My eyes lit up like stadium flood lights as I nodded earnestly. It was more of a struggle than I expected, having to balance my weight on a loose horizontal rope and pull myself up, but I was happy to reach the elevation.

To wrap the event up, there was an address from the shrine steps by someone who presented a board to the leader of next year’s head group. I learned that it had been my dashi group this year, which is why they had distributed the lucky money.

We paraded around the streets a final time, although everyone looked exhausted. Aya in particular seemed knackered, and was tapping her face to rouse herself. She mentioned that she had been awake since 5am thanks to university entrance exams.

Eventually we pulled into a parking area, and the kids were yet again awarded goody bags. This time I did not receive one, and we set off again. In the final five minutes of the journey the already fast music quickened. With considerable effort and several hands, the dashi was reversed into a high and narrow metal storage shed, while the musicians diligently played until it was safely in place. The music finally slowed and ceased. Stood in a circle, all present performed the final claps popular at the end Japanese events:

Clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap!

Hoi!

Clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap!

Hoi!

Clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap!

Hoi!

The remaining goody bags were distributed, and at the last minute I was handed a bundle. Once again I tried to make sure it was acceptable that I received the treats, but I suspect it was obvious how much I wanted it.

Contents of goody bag

At home I opened the small paper packet and discovered what lucky money looks like. It was a bright new five yen coin, the only denomination with a hole through the centre, with thin red and white threads tied through the middle. It did indeed feel like a considerable amount of luck had brought it into my possession.