Swept Away by a Japanese Parade
By Susan Larson
My husband Jim and I, having lived and worked in Japan for several months, felt we were old hands. We had embraced Japanese-ness, padding shoeless through Zen temples, attending Kabuki and Bunraku performances, eating Kai-seki food served on exquisite little plates. We loved Japanese Culture. The aesthetic. The formality The restraint.
One Saturday we had gone to a print shop in the Jinbocho booksellers’ district of Tokyo, We were going to devote our day to choosing some “Floating World” prints to bring home. The monastic silence of the narrow upstairs shop was broken only by gentle rustling of rice paper pages being reverently turned; and the occasional murmured debate about which ones we might buy for us, for the kids, for a friend.
After an hour of gazing, we became aware that our contemplative hush was being violated by the faint shrilling of a flute, and the not-so-faint booming of a big bass drum out in the street. What was going on out there?
“Kanda Matsuri,” said the shop owner, a gray-haired gentleman in a gray business suit. He spoke little English, and we spoke less Japanese, but he gave us to know that we should go down and see whatever was going on, and he would gladly set those marvelous Kuniyoshi prints aside for us. He bowed, we bowed. We went downstairs.
A crowd was gathering in a side street. People, in kimono, or matching orange hapi coats and white bike pants, with rolled-up towels tied around their heads, stood talking and laughing together. A loudspeaker blared in a nearby alley; somebody was making a speech. The music we had heard was coming from a little wagon decorated with tassels. Teen-aged kids sat inside tooting and banging at full blast.
And then! The first omikoshi came dancing up the street, on the shoulders of a gang of yowling, sweating people in matching blue hapi coats and white bike pants. Of course we didn’t know it was an omikoshi at the time. We just gaped and fumbled for our cameras as good tourists should.
“It’s a little house- - no, it’s a little shrine!” said my husband.
The little shrine was made of wood, covered with gold and bells and silken tassels. The whole gorgeous confection was topped with a gilded phoenix bird, its head and wings outstretched. The shrine was lashed with many knots to thick wooden poles, which in turn rested, or bore down into, the shoulders of its bearers. We guessed it weighed five or six hundred pounds, maybe more. A huge and happy crowd was filling the big thoroughfare, cheering the carriers, waving banners and eating street snacks.
We had wandered into one of Tokyo’s biggest street festivals, the Kanda Matsuri. It looked like a sort of a parade, and who doesn’t love parades? People worldwide bring out their most sacred totems and run them around the streets. In England they parade the Royals, In Italy the Saints. In China, the dragon. In America it’s pretty girls old soldiers and Disney characters, in Spain it’s statues of Mary weeping jeweled tears, or grisly Passion tableaux.
The Japanese evidently loved parades too. As we soon discovered, they do it in their own particular way, with no procession at all, each shrine going on its own merry route; and the thing lasts all day. Participants bring a raucous intensity to an event that has nothing of reserve, restraint or formality about it. But we felt in our bones that this event was deeply Japanese.
We asked our friends about omikoshi parades the next day. They told us that every neighborhood, every temple precinct, apartment complex or club in Tokyo maintains its own portable shrine, an omikoshi. In that shrine lives their favorite Kami, an ancient god, The, sumptuous little shrines and their tenants sleep peacefully in a neighborhood temple most of the time.
But once a year, or every two or three years, the shrines and the Kami get to go out for some fresh air and a good jiggle around the ‘hood. Different Tokyo groups take turns parading, so there is omikoshi action going on somewhere in the city almost any weekend.
I wondered if these boisterous occasions were a strictly blue-collar event, but my best friend, a highly cultivated professor’s wife told me that she too had carried shrines in her youth, and adored doing it. “Someday if you wish, you can do it too,” Said she.
If a foreigner wants to observe the Japanese doffing their reserve and letting it all hang out,, one can always find a parade somewhere in Tokyo. But one does not merely observe, one gets swept up in the whole joyful madness of the occasion. Some groups will even let you help carry a shrine, if you ask politely. But be warned; serious shrine-bearers take great pride and pleasure in their prowess. Dilettantes and tyros may not be welcome.
The real omikoshi enthusiasts belong to free-lance carrying clubs. They go all around the city and sign on to carry other peoples’ shrines just to get more time with the pole on the shoulder. It’s an addictive sport; you can always spot the genuine omikoshi jocks because they develop a big hump of muscle where the pole rests.
“More Shrines!” I yelled to my husband, who in his photographic frenzy had been all but trampled by the crew carrying the first shrine. Two more shrines were swaying on a collision course at a major intersection. Policemen stopped the traffic, the shrines and their bearers all converged, with milling crowds surrounding each one, clapping and chanting to help the bearers keep their rhythm. The shrines circled each other under the traffic lights, like wary dogs.
Suddenly, everybody yelled; “Waaaah!” The crews lifted their three shrines straight up in the air, arms extended in a thrilling display of strength and balance. Then the golden shrines wove and bobbed down different side streets on an ocean of merrymakers.
“This really reminds of me of Spain,” said my husband, grinning fron ear to ear as he changed film. It was true . In Spain the big parade occurs during Semana Santa, Holy Week. The strong, the faithful and the male form parish brotherhoods, hermandades. Their mission is to hoist life-sized statues mounted on enormous silver-plated floats, and bounce them through the streets with the same rocking motion the omikoshi fanatics use.
We never saw an actual Semana Santa procession, but we saw the brotherhoods doing training runs at night. One hermano told us that they work for months to lift a ton or more and dance without suffocating underneath the float’s drapery skirts. He said “it’s ok if it hurts to do it.” I’m sure the Japanese would say the same.
Unlike the Spanish parade, there is nothing tragic or penitential about the occasion we witnessed in Tokyo. Spanish saints tend to suffer and bleed; Shinto gods are largely a good-natured lot, and include smiling badgers, foxes, mice and the like. Kami still inhabit the old familiar places, from huge temples and torii to tiny roadside shrines. The old gods are petitioned for favors, like a healthy baby or a good grade on an exam. Once each year, Japanese scientists who experiment on mice go to a Mouse Shrine to offer their thanks- and their apologies.
At one Shinto shrine we visited at Nara we saw a prayer written in English on a little slab of wood. It read: “I must be pass.” A student facing exams no doubt. We hoped they weren’t English exams. We sent him all our good wishes, and then we asked the Kami if the Red Sox could win the Series this year.
If you find the Kami just too quaint and exotic, please remember that we westerners are not immune to the charm of ancient customs either. We still enjoy “pagan” holdovers like Leprechauns, jack-o’-lanterns, mistletoe, bonfires, Yule logs, harvest sheaves and colored eggs; we still break wishbones and knock on wood.
An English-speaking teen advised us to take in performances in progress at the home shrine on Kanda yojin-dori, so we took out our map and headed in that general direction. We only got moderately lost, but forunately in so doing we stumbled across the venerable Yushima Seido, a Confucian temple and former university. Even though it’s just across the street from the Kanda Shrine and its rauc0us festival, peace reigns here among the black-lacquered wood columns. People come to pray, take t’ai chi class or just sit enjoying the cool and silence.
.The new-built Kanda Shrine is painted shrieking red, and the place is hopping. At the entry a long alley of festival booths has sprung up. Vendors hawked balloons, plush toys, souvenirs of all kinds and down-home festival food. We ate some, then ate some more.
I loved the chocalate-dipped bananas. I madly loved the okonamiyaki, a cross between an omelet and pizza. Countless octopus gave their lives to make tako yaki- that’s grilled octopus or octopus fritters on a stick, the obligatory snack at festivals. We also worried down a big bean dumpling, and looked yearningly at the shish kebabs known as yakitori and the French crepes with jelly. We also passed on the cookies, beer and the free sake served in little square wooden boxes, courtesy of Japan Air Lines.
Music performances were in full swing; high school girl taiko drummers made the place shake with frenzied choreographed pounding on the big drums and hair-raising traditional yells. Prim matrons in kimono and formal hairstyles were playing the shamisen, as far away from the drums as they could get. Golden-agers in jogging suits were sitting a spell and gossiping in the shrine’s meeting hall. A big electronic board showed the winding routes of all the omikoshi, now converging inexorably on this place.
We wanted more parade. We walked back down the hill. Shrines bobbed through the side streets amid swelling crowds. Everyone had gotten into a blissful trance, sweating, grinning, swaying, chanting.. When a bearer needs a drink, or her toes are bleeding or his shoulder hurts beyond endurance, a substitute will slip in and take her place. Sometimes teen-age kids are hoisted atop the carrying bars to jiggle a few minutes in precarious triumph, increasing the sweetness of the communal torments below.
At five o clock the carriers took a break. Lowering the shrines onto ornamental sawbucks, and promptly collapsed. The refreshment committees brought them cold noodles and beer. Bearers ate sitting on the sidewalk, chatting quietly among themselves. When they finished, to a man and to a woman, they picked up their trash and put it in the wheeled blue bins that followed the parade.
As the day faded, some of the bearers got their second wind. So did we. “Here comes an all-woman team!” we yelled at each other. Ten strong ladies carrying an (admittedly) smaller omikoshi danced toward us showing great style. They wore matching summer-weight cotton kimono, and every one of them was barefoot.
An old, old man in kimono stepped into another crew and shouldered his pole, dancing for a few yards. Dropping back out, he grinned with undisguised and toothless delight, fanning himself as his relatives encircled and congratulated him. We noticed that he has the tell-tale shoulder hump; the mark of a life-long omokoshi bearer.
One tall blond gaijin, a foreigner, joined a crew. He had to bend his knees to get his shoulder under the pole. If he stood up straight his shorter neighbors would be lifted off the street to dangle like lanterns. I was seized with a great longing to shoulder a pole myself, even for a few agonzing yards. Would the barefoot ladies invite me in?
On and on they danced. Shredded straw sandals littered the street. We followed, clapping and chanting, full of deep and uncomprehending happiness. We can’t remember when we have had more fun in a crowd of total strangers. The streets are crammed full of yowling enraptured people, now turning toward the Kanda shrine. We staggered back up the hill ahead of them.
Outside the Shrine people gather along the street, waiting. As we joined them, people asked us where we were from. “America! Boston!” They made the peace sign. “Nomo Hideo! Boston Red Sox! Suzuki Ichiro! Seattle Mariners!” Little kids said “harro, howa you?”
We said “Komban-wa,” and bowed. We heard drums and yells and flutes below, but the shrines did not appear. Kids yawned. We yawned. We decided to call it a night. Somebody in the crowd told us if we really like street festivals, the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa was only two weeks away. It’s the biggest wildest one, with real geishas in attenadnce, and 100 omikoshi parading. We told our new pals to look for us, because we would definitely be there.