Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Local Matsuri I: The Mikoshi

A festival is like a circus that has spilled out over a whole neighborhood; it brings with it the bitter-sweet feeling that no matter where you contrive to be, you are unavoidably missing most of the fun. A festival is a garden of delights, and part of the joy of it is knowing there is just too much joy abroad for any one person top absorb.

But the most conspicuous activity of the festival centers about the excitement of the street procession
(Sadler 1972:89).

Summer in Japan brings with it many matsuri, or festivals, especially those centered on parading a Shinto deity on a portable shrine, or mikoshi, around the neighborhood that worships at the local shrine. The idea is that the deity can tour the neighborhood and bestow blessings upon the people of the parish (especially those who give contributions along the way). Another important part of the matsuri is the evening activities: food and game stalls are set up near the shrine and within the shrine grounds itself many performances (especially dances) take place.

This last weekend a shrine near my house (but in a different neighborhood) held its annual summer festival. This was another great opportunity for the visual anthropologist to take photos and interact with  the neighbors to learn more about local festival traditions. These traditions vary greatly, even in neighborhoods of close proximity. My own neighborhood holds an autumn festival centered on a danjiri rather than a mikoshi.

Early Sunday afternoon I heard whistles and shouts of wasshoi wasshoi ("to stay with harmony") behind my house. I grabbed my camera and went to meet the street procession. There were two small mikoshi as this neighborhood catered to children's participation. Mothers and older gentlemen from the neighborhood helped the children manage the parade route. As I met them they were about to take a break. I took a few photos before they stopped. Then I intended to leave as I have seen these processions many times. But before I could leave I was approached by an older man who gave me a can of juice. Another man encourage me to take photos of the mikoshi. He then asked me to take a group shot of the participants at the conclusion of the parade an hour later.  So I ended up following the mikoshi through the winding streets while curious participants asked where I was from, what I was doing in Japan and quizzed me on my Japanese language skills. Some children literally poked me in the ribs, wanting to get a feel for the first foreigner they met (!). My foreignness was a mixed blessing. It gave me a reason for being there and taking photos (the assumption being that I had never encountered such cultural practices before in my own country). But at the same time I was treated as an oddity (mostly with politeness but sometimes with jest that some might consider offensive). Very few could understand that I lived close to them for over 8 years and many children couldn't believe I had moved to Japan before they we even born.

There was one encounter with children that was a pleasant surprise. Two elementary school aged girls were asking me about my origins and such. The older girl began making fun of me (as children often tend to do...) and was making broad gestures with her arms. I started to tease her back and asked if she was doing sign language. The the younger girl then signed to me: "Can you do sign language?" It turned out she was hard of hearing and usually wore a hearing aid. She took it out this day because of all the water that was being sprayed on the participants to keep them cool (I had to pay special attention to this activity to protect my camera). She told me she was one of 12 students in a special class for hard of hearing children at her school. We continued chatting in (very basic) sign language until the end of the break, much to the surprise of the adults nearby.

Coordinating the procession on the narrow streets is challenging, especially when other pedestrians and bike riders want to get through.

I usually don't post photos of young kids, but since their parents didn't object, I couldn't resist. Besides, the kids told me that they were disguised as dorobo, or thieves.

And so finally at the end of the procession the group took another break to drink juice and cool down. One of the organizers then announced in his megaphone that all were to assemble so that the American could take their picture. He had to make this same announcement a few times before everyone followed his orders. As the children posed mothers stood in front of them taking their own photos on their smart phones before the organizer told them to get out of the way so I could take the shot. And here it is:

A nice memorial photo for the day... I plan to give this photo along with others I took to the event organizers in digital form so they can distribute it to all the participants.

Below, a different group returns to the shrine after touring their own neighborhood. Sometimes it is difficult to understand where the boarders between neighborhoods are in Japan. Following the mikoshi (or danjiri) gives one a good idea of the boundaries.

I like the portable taiko drum...

It was a busy weekend in the neighborhood, too much to cover in one post. Coming up next on VAOJ... Local Matsuri II: Evening Activities


Center for Regional Sustainable Initiatives Newsletter, No. 3, January 31, 2012.

Matsuri: Festival and Rite in Japanese Life, Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University, 1988.

Sadler, A. W. "Carrying the mikoshi: Further field notes on the shrine festival in modern Tokyo." Asian folklore studies 31.1 (1972): 89-114.

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