Iwaoka Matsuri

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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