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The day before the shika no tsunokiri Fran and I had already been to another festival.

I know; aren’t we just so amazingly open to new cultural experiences.

*cough*

This festival was a harvest celebration to thank the gods for good crops held in the local shrine for the town my school is in, Iwaoka. I wasn’t expecting much from this matsuri, after all Iwaoka is very rural and miles from anywhere and hardly famous for its matsuri. However I was curious what these small local events were like and I was quite excited to see my students and teachers in a more social setting.

I was absolutely blown away.

I was supposed to arrive at 10 o’clock but sadly the really horrible bus service between Seishin-chuo and Iwaoka meant that Fran and I arrived closer to 11. Well, getting slightly lost didn’t help either but we followed the sound of drums into the shrine and saw.

Well, this.

The festivities where already in full swing by the time we arrived and the shrine was full of shouting, laughing drunken people. At 11 o’clock in the morning mind.

The first thing we saw were the Mikoshi. Enormous, elaborate floats being carried by scores of male volunteers. Each float was absolutely gorgeous. The patterns were done entirely in embroidery and some of the embroidery was astoundingly gorgeous, if a little bit odd. We spotted more than a few sacred lobsters.

Inside each Mikoshi is a kami, a god in the Shinto faith that resides in some natural form. The Mikoshi are basically tombs for gods, typically former men of great virtue who have been enshrined within the Mikoshi and become kami in death.

The purpose of the matsuri is to wake the kami up; taken them for a walk and let them join in the celebration. All this is supposed to make them happy and demonstrates gratitude for this year’s harvest. To this end the carriers of the Mikoshi shake it violently once they reach the shrine, cry out with loud chanting, drop the Mikoshi on the ground and spin it furiously and generally mess about with it in a bawdy and joyous fashion. This apparently pleases the kami. I don’t know why. If I was an ancient and powerful god the last thing I’d want to happen to me is for a bunch of drunks to rouse me from my slumber by singing, banging drums and shaking me all over the shop. A nice strong cup of tea and the radio tuned to a volume that allows me to hear it if I need to but ignore it if I decide to sleep some more is how I like to wake up. Still they’ve been at it for centuries and the crops keep growing so it must work right?

In addition to a kami each Mikoshi also contains a small selection of young children banging away on taiko drums. The children must be as young as 8 or 9 and I’ll give them this, they are really terrific at drumming. They change rhythms several times but never once miss a beat and they get a really loud and furious sound out of the taiko. For quite a while Fran and I weren’t sure where the taiko noise was coming from. We thought that initially that there was a stall with a taiko drummer on it that we couldn’t see. Then we figured out that the sound was coming from the Mikoshi itself. We wondered if maybe there was a speaker in each Mikoshi but we finally got a glimpse of what was inside.

The kids did more than just drum too. They also joined in the chanting, which was adorable. One line would be roared out in a deep booming masculine voice and then the next line would be yelled in a sweet little kid voice. It was one of the cutest things you’ll ever hear.

You can just make out a little bit of it in the video I posted yesterday.

Dancing around the floats were several guys dressed up as tengu, with full face masks, odd stripy clothes and bits of foliage strapped to their backs. Tengu are a kind of Japanese demon. However demon has a slightly different meaning in Japanese myth. Rather than being evil demons and ghosts (or more properly yokai) are more amoral. They belong to the world of kami, but they are not strictly speaking kami themselves. Tengu are known for being ferocious fighters with a host of incredible powers, super strength, size changing, shape shifting, etc. They’re also famed for their enormous noses and phenomenal martial prowess. A lot of the most famous Japanese swordsmen are said to have been taught how to use a sword by tengu.

In this case the tengu (according to my kocho-sensei) were of a specific variety known as hanna. Apparently they serve as a kind of guide for the Mikoshi, showing the kami where to go and leading them. They also defend the shrine against evil.

After the first round of Mikoshi based festivities the tengu mounted a small stage and began to perform dances.

There were what seemed to be three troupes. The first consisting of a tengu, lion-dog and somebody in a woman’s Noh mask wielding some kind of glaive. The second had just a tengu and lion-dog and the third had a tengu, a lion-dog and an even stranger man in a Noh mask.

The first troupe had undoubtedly the best dancers and musicians. The second however had a much better lion-dog with the two people inside doing various tricks and flips. The third, meh.

The dance was telling a kind of story. The lion dog represented evil forces seeking to get into the shrine and the tengu as the defender of the shrine beat him back and killed him. The other characters apparently have no significance and were just included to make it all more visually appealing.

Each troupe performed a couple of times and during their last performance the tengu started throwing treats out into the audience. At first they were throwing apples, pears and persimmons but later they started hurling sweets. At which point the kids started going crazy, including the big kid I had brought along with me.

We got a sweet by the way. It was pink. Fran was happy.

Once the dancing had finished we headed off to enjoy the true appeal of festivals. EATING!

The usual culprits were all present, yakisoba (a noodle dish), takoyaki, yakitori (chicken on a stick) and kakigori. The flavoured shaved ice that is the defining feature of Japanese summer. That Fran ate….IN OCTOBER!

Hopeless that girl I tells ya.

I myself enjoyed my all time favourite festival food, taiyaki. The crispy, soft, pastry, hot and sweet sticky treat in the shape of a fish that I likes to eat.

Dunno what happened there. I went all poetic for a second.

I saw lots of my students out and about and had some short conversations with them but more crucially I met my kocho-sensei (principle).

He was incredibly drunk. Really, really far gone. Although, in fairness, he kind of had to as part of his job. As a community leader it was his responsibility to help entertain other community leaders and in Japan “entertaining” means drinking heroic quantities of sake.

When my kocho-sensei is drunk he turns into an incredibly friendly man but completely forgets how to speak English. So what he mostly does is continually compliment people. So it was a great conversation where I was asking what the significance of what was happening was and he kept saying “he is a great guy, your girlfriend is a beautiful lady” over and over again.

Eventually the people carrying the Mikoshi all got up again and we had another round of dancing, shaking, spinning, chanting, etc only this time much the worse for a few glasses of sake. In fact one of the teams in purple happi coats threatened to destroy a food stall at several times and more than once or twice Fran and I had to dodge out of the way of a runaway float.

Before long we got tired of fearing for our lives and it became clear to use that all that was going to happen for the foreseeable future was lots more shaking so we quietly made an exit,

I haven’t really praised the festival much in my description but honestly I think it is one of the best I have ever been to in Japan, including much bigger and more famous ones such as the Tenjin no matsuri, the shika no tsunokiri and the Gion matsuri. For a small local festival it really is spectacular and it’s full of good feeling and a positive friendly vibe.

Getting to see into these small private parts of Japan, the parties and moments when the Japanese let their guard down and let it all hang out is what makes staying here worthwhile. I get to see and experience things that are simply not available to tourists and often these are the most exciting and most interesting things to see in Japan.

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Sorry guys. I had a post already to go tonight but sadly I have left it at work.

Doh!

I’ll have it up tomorrow night. Until then here is a taster of what I’ll be talking about.

Thoughts? Theories?

I’m back!

As promised Mummyboon is back onto its former regular schedule. To start you off I have some exciting news about deer.

Yes, deer.

I have blogged about the sacred deer of Nara before when I visited the city the first time. For anyone interested in my opinions of the deer and the famous enormous Daibutsu-den (great Buddha) at Todai-ji please check out this post from last year.

Since then my opinion of Nara is much the same. It’s a lovely city, very leafy and the main historical attractions are gorgeous and well worth the visit.

This time around I had gone to Nara with my partner in crime (or girlfriend if you will) to see a famous festival exclusive to Nara, the Shika no Tsunokiri or Antler Cutting Festival.

It seems that around the mating season the male deer start to get a bit crazy. They frequently clash with other bucks, rub their horns up against the trees (damaging the ancient primeval forest) and pose a danger to themselves and to the many tourists that flock through the city. So the priests at the shrine, along with local volunteers, participate in a festival to cut the antlers from the bucks. The festival has ancient roots so I’m not entirely sure how much of it is merely a tradition and a game and how much stems from a cause of genuine safety. Considering that the parks are full of both bucks butting each other furiously and very small children it is safe to say that there definitely is some safety purpose behind the event.

The event is held in Kasuga Taisha, the main shrine in Nara and the one from which the tradition of keeping tame deer stems. Kasuga Taisha is a pretty lively and colourful shrine with many different festivals associated with it. Okay, every shrine in Japan that consists of more than a covered statue has lots of festivals associated with it, but Kasuga Taisha has exotic, unusual and interesting festivals that attract a lot of attention. Besides the Shika no Tsunokiri it is also famous for the lantern festival in February and August, where all of the enormous stone lanterns that surround the shrine are lit and visitors are invited to admire the combination of lamplight, ancient woods and deer.

We approached Kasuga Taisha at about 2:40, a good 2 hours and 40 minutes after the festival began and loooooong after I intended to be in Nara. This was in part because I badly misjudged the amount of time it takes to get to Nara (I always forget just quite how far away it is) but primarily because many of the trains we intended to catch were delayed due to “human accident damage” i.e. a suicide on the rails.

Not to make light of what is obviously a tragic event and a damming indictment of the alienation in modern society and modern Japanese society in particular but I have never understood the impulse for people to kill themselves on public holidays. Why do you want to make your last action on the planet one that will annoy hundreds, if not thousands, of people?

Anyway, late arrival or not we didn’t actually miss much. Apparently the festival functions largely like a short show that lasts about 15 minutes and is repeated for three hours every Sunday and holiday in October. Visitors join a short queue and then are led into an amphitheatre. The theatre is roughly oblong with curved ends and long straight sides like an ice hockey rink. Visitors sit or stand all around the edge and peer down onto a field. Surrounding the field are very high walls which the seats join onto so that spectators are about 8 or 10 feet above the field. At either end of the field is a stake or post stuck into the ground. In the field are about 10 men known as Seko along with a Shinto priest and three bucks. The deer are gathered and corralled into a “deer house” (basically a very large pen, along with some does, food, water, etc) beforehand and three bucks are used in the ceremony at any one time.

Some of the Seko are armed with Danpi, basically a long bamboo pole with a red flag on the end. One of the Seko has a blue flag. Apparently the bucks will avoid the red but will move towards the blue. About 4 men are holding Juji basically a lasso but with the circular part stretched across a bamboo frame shaped like a cross.

The bucks are mostly just standing around, eating grass and occasionally butting heads with one another. They are clustered at one end and the Seko are gathered at the other. Eventually once the crowd is full the game begins.

Some of the Seko armed with flags begin to chase the deer, making noises and calling out. The deer spring about trying to escape but the men begin to herd them towards the other end of the field. As the bucks reach the far end the remaining Seko use their Danpi to make a wall forcing the buck to run around the edge of the field and speed up. Finally the Seko with the blue flag stakes it down and the buck leaps towards it. As he passes it the Seko’s with Janji strike the bucks horns. The bamboo cross is knocked away by the force of the buck and the noose immediately tightens around the antlers.

Well, this is what happens in theory. In practice the bucks have to be goaded to dash past the Janji several times before a successful contact is made. Whilst this is happening the audience is tantalized by the various missed throws, the times when the rope catches but the buck dislodges it or moments when the buck decides not to play the game by the rules and make a mad leap or a dash towards one of the Seko, threatening him with those antlers.

Eventually a rope is tied around both antlers and the buck is dragged towards one of the posts. He struggles, pulling his head this way and that and attempting to get free. Sometimes he does so but the rope is immediately snatched up again. Eventually with all 10 of the Seko pulling at him he stands no chance and is brought to hell and left to bang his head fruitlessly against the post.

Now all of the participants begin to restrain the buck, using primarily their own strength they hold him still and carry him onto a tatami mat. They rest his head on a pillow, hold him down and bind his legs.

Now the priest comes over. He offers the buck a drink of water and pets him until he begins to calm down. The priest then takes out a saw and goes to work swiftly removing the antlers.

Finally he raises the antlers up, turning to let the audience see and offering the antlers to the kami of the shrine.

Whilst the priest is sawing at the antlers several of the remaining Seko are holding up a bright red wall which stretches across the field. This prevents the remaining bucks from attacking the prone one or interfering in the sawing.

The antlers raised, the buck is untied and he immediately leaps up and moves, almost nonchalantly, out of a gate and back into the “deer house”. His demeanor doesn’t seem to suggest loss, anger or annoyance but rather a graceful defeat. His movements say “well, I put up a good game but you won in the end lads.”

Rinse and repeat with the remaining two bucks and you have an interesting afternoon.

Despite all the difficulties involved getting there I greatly enjoyed the Shika no Tsunokiri. It genuinely is a thrilling spectacle. I’m not usually one for spectating at sports but there is something very different when the deer are involved. The way they move, the grace and power in their assured, confident leaps is hypnotic. They are simply amazing and beautiful to watch. In a way the loss of their antlers is a big anti-climax. Whilst you do root for the Seko and the capture of the deer feels like a victory seeing these proud stags divested of their antlers is a little bit sad. However the momentary sadness is more than made up for by the thrill of simply watching these animals move.

The rest of the day was nothing particularly blog-worthy. Fran and I visited the Daibutsu (it is still amazing) and the enormous bell (which is also still amazing) and we fed deer in the park. I didn’t do this the last time I came to Nara because I had nobody to feed deer with. This time around I gamely had a go and it was, well, rubbish really. I think you need to be a kid to get any sense of wonder from it. Still I am glad I did it because I got to see the spectacle of Fran being mobbed by 3 deer at once. As she frantically tried to feed them all she had they butted up against her and frantically scrambled for food. She got very annoyed that I was taking pictures instead of coming to her rescue but the memory of the sight of her was more than worth it.

We finished the day in a café called “Shizuka’s” which I can highly recommend. Shizuka’s specializes in a Nara-specialty known as Kammameishi. Basically an iron pot in which rice is cooked together with fish and vegetables. We ordered the Nara special consiting of crab, prawns, eel, burdock, onion, egg, peas and rice all cooked together. It came served in the pot together with miso soup, pickles and some vegetables cooked in broth; as most Japanese meals are. It wasn’t exactly a culinary revelation but it was tasty, cheap and very filling. Like most Japanese cooking the idea is to let the quality ingredients speak for themselves rather than heavily season the dish and in this respect it was superb.

We had yet another delayed train on the way home but not even that could dampen a unique and thrilling experience.

Sorry.

No, really, I’m sorry.

It has been now, over a month since my last post. And prior to that I had only produced 3 posts in the whole of August.

This is unforgivable etiquette guys and I unreservedly apologise.

I suspect that any small following I had built up on this blog have now deserted me and so I am going to have to start a long slog to regain credibility and respectability.

to give my reasons, not my excuses, but my reasons, for the lack of posts will do little to help regain lost fans but it should at least help anyone coming across this site in future understand what happened.

Basically it was the old story. Work. Work is actually where I wrote most of my blog posts and at home I merely fixed format issues and added photos. Just recently (well, since September began anyway) I have been horrendously busy at work and almost totally devoid of free time.

In the past this hasn’t stopped my blogging as I would instead do a write up at home. However, I have also been very busy at home of late too. It used to be the case that I would have my entire evening free every night of the week and I would use this time to clean, blog, etc.

However as of a month ago I am no living in sin with my long time girlfriend. Whilst this is wonderful it has sapped my free time like you wouldn’t believe. Coupled with the fact that my new school is over an hour’s commute away and finishes half an hour later than my old school (meaning I lose about an hour and 10 minutes in the evenings) and it all adds up to a simple formula.

Less time to write posts at work, less time in the evening total, more things to do in the evening = no blog posts.

That said, I am absolutely determined not to let this state of affairs continue.

I will finish up Tokyo, possibly tomorrow but probably not for quite some time. But more importantly, starting Tuesday there will once again be a post every single Tuesday and Thursday.

By way of an apology here is an amazing short clip from a Japanese TV show called “Enta no Kamisama” (the god of entertainment) where a man undresses in 7 seconds.

Enta no Kamisama has been endlessly reccomended to me by my students. I should listen to them more.

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