A Traditional Shinto Festival

Some of the best international experiences are the ones furthest off of the beaten track. The following is an account of a traditional Shinto festival that I got to take part in as a member of a very prestigious martial art school in rural Japan. The names have been omitted because I have been unable to procure Sensei’s permission. As I understand it, he doesn’t do e-mail and I cannot write in Japanese, especially not in the form that would be befitting of someone of Sensei’s stature, so he is referred to only by his title: Soke.

We got to sleep until almost 6:30 and we woke up knowing that it was going to be a good day. There was still cleaning to be done, of course, but today, after cleaning, there would only be meditation. Training for the day was postponed, and as soon as the meditation benches were stowed away, it would be time to decorate the festival cart — the ‘danjiri.’ Danjiri carts come in many styles and ours was a simple, yet elegant affair; a two-wheeled model, complete with drummers and a dragon’s head carved by the masterful hand of the Soke himself. I think that pretty much every small town in Japan has its patron deities, and most of the big ones get their own festival, or ‘matsuri’ as it’s called in Japanese. Today was the festival of the fire god that lives atop Atago-san, the mountain that watches over this little slice of the land of the rising sun.

Our cart was decorated appropriately to the Soke’s exact standards, his wisdom in shinto ceremony guiding every small detail. Once finished, it was time to begin. We took turns pushing the cart, which now seemed remarkably heavy. Some walked alongside and others sat inside playing the heavy taiko drum rhythms, but there was always pushing. There was always another turn to be had. Some, one by one, danced with our carved, dragon head connected to the cart via a long neck of fabric. I’ve handled dragon heads in other Asian countries and the Japanese version is nothing to mess with. The dragon mask of solid, carved wood is a far cry from the rattan and cloth versions that you might find in Vietnam or Thailand. No, the Japanese dragon mask is a thing which can inflict blunt force trauma. I got to dance with the dragon mas, I wasn’t bad. I didn’t have the skill for the drums, but I was glad when I just got to walk alongside the danjiri cart — preferably on the shady side. The steaming heat of Japan’s countryside in the summer is like a sauna. Everyone carries around some kind of cloth to mop up excess sweat; in this environment, it’s a necessary accessory.

We had three drums inside our dragon cart. The Soke mostly worked the big drum, pounding it with his characteristic power and intensity. Along our meanderings though the neighborhoods every so often we would turn at a house and the Dragon mask dancer would move into a frenzy, snapping its wooden jaws, flicking it’s ears and the dancer would give all. The dragon dance scares away the bad spirits. Sometimes the homeowners might give us a few snacks, some bottled waters or perhaps beers to put in the large cooler lashed to the inside of the cart in a hidden corner. We even got one large bottle of cold sake. It was a going to be a long day, and refreshment was essential.

On the way through town we occasionally encountered other carts, a confrontation that resulted in a dance-off. The dancers under the length of fabric neck twist and writhe with even more passion and the drums boom more deeply in friendly competition. We made our routes and it was not long before we slipped in to early afternoon. As this aspect of the Matsuri came to a close, we wound our way into the center of town for the next phase.

We pushed and heaved our cart into a staging area where there were dozens of carts from all around assembling to honor the fire god of Mount Atago. As the sun began to go down, the carts were led out single-file onto the main street. The sidewalks were full of people and drums again began to roar out of the Danjiri carts. As the the procession moved along, both spectators and those in the parade sing and chant,ed the music of voices punctuated with a unison of staccato clapping in complex rhythms that none of the gaijin could master. The sound was a tidal force of an entire small city acting as one in celebration. The crowd thickened and the sound got louder and louder as more and more carts filed into the street. Many of the Japanese moved about in traditional clothing, many of them dancing. I saw a child pointing up and my eye followed her finger up above my head, where a goblin peered down at me from a high-staged wagon. The man in the goblin mask, with its elongated proboscis, danced with a popping kabuki style that managed to be amusing and scary at the same time. The painted yes on the wooden mask seemed alive. Somebody slapped a beer in to my hand, and no sooner than I had finished it, somebody had slapped another in to replace it. You have to love the matsuri.

And then there was the food. Festival food of different cultures is a fascinating thing. Japanese matsuri food is delicious. Some of it is scary, like the assorted cephalopods on sticks, but okonomiyaki is delicious. I’ve spent many the day since wondering why I can’t get this fried bit of heaven anywhere stateside. The matsuri is good fun, pushing the cart, food, libation, pushing the cart, parade, singing, dancing, general good times, and always straining with the cart. In Japan, there is always work and always a sense of the unity with everyone who lives there under the shadow of the Mount Atago. The day began to dim into sunset. Even as the sun began to extinguish Matsuri lanterns lit up like a second day. Outside of this street of light, music and dancing dragons we were surrounded by country darkness. After the last drops of day melted into night we could see way at the top of the mountain, at the temple of the fire god, a great fire blazed into life. I smiled at the firelight coming from atop the mountain. It was as though the guest of honor had finally arrived, the fire god was pleased and would continue to watch over all of us for another year.

The night ended with a party, of course. The Soke treated us all to a marvelous spread of food, reward for a hard day’s work, the Japanese way. It was a perfect ending to a day of festivities. Almost the whole dojo was there, as well as family members and us, seven foreigners came to study a traditional martial art at its source. That day we all got an extra cherry on the cake of our experience and for a little while, almost felt like we were Japanese too.

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