Here’s basically how the ritual works; the dashi (山車 – float, festival car) is considered to be a portable Shinto shrine containing a kami (神 – god). The Tomosukai folks push the dashi through every street in town, passing pretty much everyone’s house at some point. The locals come out of their homes and give something to us as an offering to the kami, either money or alcohol, of which I preferred the latter. Instead of just taking peoples’ offering and pushing on, we stopped every so often and danced for everyone in a show of gratitude. And the dancing is what really made the festival an amazing experience for me.
Since Marissa had been visiting at the time that the Tomosukai group held practices for the festival dances, I didn’t attend a single one. Yamazaki-san assured me that during the two days of dancing I would pick up the moves, and he was right. I know that choreographed group dance numbers are done all over the world, but I feel like there’s no place where they are so thoroughly embraced than Japan. Throughout the festival we danced to many different songs, most of which I’ve never learned the names to or I’ve completely forgotten, but I definitely recall us doing the kiddy pop sensation Maru Maru Mori Mori (which I’m pretty sure was the number one single in the country at the time somehow), the old Eurodance hit Dschinghis Khan, 90’s J-Pop hit Hana Matsuri , and the theme to the cartoon Anpanman.
After what felt like only an hour of pushing the dashi and dancing, the Tomosukai group rolled up on a little street fair that had been set up right off the main road. Vendors set up colorful tents on the side of the street. Some sold food, some sold toys and masks, and some sold really random things like Pokemon cards, AKB48 posters, and the latest PS3 and Wii video games. Some of the tents did carnival games, giving kids an opportunity to win trinkets, which they did with relish.
Makoto-san introduced me a pinball-esque ball and peg game called Smartball (スマートボール). The goal of the game was to get the balls to land in round holes on the slanted game board, instead of having them simply roll to the bottom. Pegs placed on the board made it possible for your ball to bounce and change direction all over the place. If you were able to get you’re the balls into specific holes to complete a pattern, you win. I never really came close to winning however, so I don’t know what kind of prize you’re supposed to receive. Makoto-san did really well, but it seemed like he was just given more free plays.
One toy that some of the kids had won was especially interesting to me. It was a squishy, sticky little object in a swirled shape that appeared to be either a pile of feces or soft serve ice cream, I wasn’t sure which. I asked what this squishy toy was called and the kids told me it was “unchi” (うんち). When it was clear that I didn’t know the word unchi, one of the junior high students made a semi-crouching, grimacing, deification gesture. It actually was supposed to be shit after all! Japan is a wondrous place.
For lunch we stopped at Kida-san’s house, the coincidentally was around the corner from my apartment. The spacious double-car garage was setup with tables (the low, Japanese kneeling style ones) and an impressive spread was waiting for us. There were sandwiches, fried chicken, potato wedges, potato salad, meatballs, edamame, shrimp, and an impressive selection of sushi. And of course, there was lots of beer and shochu to drink.
As the kids finished their lunch, many of them ran back to the street fair. Most of the adults chilled out in the garage, and some of pipers played around on their flutes. It seemed like everyone must learn to play the flute at some point, because the instruments got passed around, and everyone from Yamazaki-san to Nao-kun, who had just dropped by from the office for his lunch break, could play the dashi chant melody. Since my father instilled in me a deep appreciation for musicianship, I was immensely impressed.
Our lunch break must have been about an hour, and then we were off, pushing our dashi around town again. We ended up going through a tunnel to reach an even more isolated neighborhood of Bikuni. Following behind the other float, we ended up stopped in the tunnel for a time. This was actually very nice for me because it was the coolest, shadiest spot I’d seen all day. While waiting in the tunnel, I was filled with a post-lunch burst of energy, and played around a bit for kids, running along the tunnel walls like Prince of Persia. The round pipe-like shape of the tunnel, and the unpainted stone it was made out of made for ideal wall-running conditions. The kids, as well as a couple of parents, were quite entertained by my antics.
We emerged on the other side of tunnel in time to the o-mikoshi (お神輿) groups carrying the portable shrines out into the sea. As you’d imagine, the ritual involved them getting soaking wet, and considering the water was frigidly cold, it was fun to watch. While they carried the mikoshi into chest-deep water and vigorously shook it around above the surface, the mikoshi was never actually submerged in the water.
The group stopped for more rest and refreshments, with drinks and snacks being provided by a building that I guessed must have been a traditional Japanese inn. After 10 or 15 minutes, we continued on, pushing the dashi up an incredibly steep hill that seemed never-ending. Still feeling rather energetic, I took a position at the back center of the festival car and, pushed with all my might. For a moment, I felt like a superhero, providing most of the vehicle’s thrust with my Herculean effort. This was quickly replaced with a feeling of utter exhaustion bordering on nausea. I have no idea how long we climbed that hill, but it feel like an eternity as my legs burned and sweat stung my eyes. When we finally made it to the top, greeted the locals whose houses were there, then simply turned the dashi around and came back down. Bringing the float back down without losing control and ghost riding it into the sea also took serious teamwork. I wondered if the ordeal was really necessary.
We continued to push the dashi, stopping intermittently to dance for the rest of the afternoon. Around 6:00, all the dashi and mikoshi teams stopped outside B&G, the community gym, for a bento dinner. The weather chilled just as we arrived and in the middle of eating, it even rained on us, which was downright cold. The inclement weather was short-lived however, and went right back to stifling hot. Luckily, since the sun was going down soon, the temperature was about to be perfect.
I had grabbed a beer to drink with my bento, but as I looked for a spot to sit down, some local older gentleman called me over to share sake with them. Never one to turn down an opportunity to bond over alcohol, I humbly obliged. These particular men were ceremoniously dressed up in matching light blue kimonos, which had exaggerated flared out shoulders. The ensemble was complete a large flat disk-shaped bamboo hat and geta (下駄), Japanese wooden sandals. The outfits made them really look like samurai. I struggled to converse with them in Japanese, and they seemed satisfied with my effort.
After dinner, the dashi pushing continued, winding through some of the smaller residential streets. As the sun when down, the lights and lanterns on the floats were turned on, making our Tomosukai float luminously live up to name. By the light of float we continued with our group dance routines, partying like one does at a festival. At some point, Yoshimura-sensei and Itagaki-sensei (Yusuke), who had just returned victorious from a regional badminton tournament, found me and beckoned me to come with them. I had forgotten that I had agreed to come participate in the festival’s most spectacular event, but they informed me that it was almost time for us to walk through fire.
We walked straight to Bikuni shrine. A crowd had formed on both sides of the path where the fire walking would take place and a small crew was getting large piles of wood shavings ready for burning. We entered the shrine house, where I believe the Shinto priest actually lives, and there we were met by Masui-sensei and Miyakawa-sensei. Bikuni JH was going to be well represented in our group. A grandmotherly lady gave each of us white cotton pants, a white long sleeve shirt, a white pair of gloves, and two white towels. As we were changing into our fire walking outfits, Yusuke explained to me that the two towels were for covering head and face, ninja-style. I was warned to leave only my eyes uncovered, and to make especially sure that my eyebrows were not exposed. Yoshimura-sensei was adamant that someone has their eyebrows singed off every year.
All ninja’ed up, we walked outside to our starting point. The mikoshi was resting on its stand, with similarly dressed ninjas milling about around it. A man with a clipboard started calling out names and directing each person to their spot on the portable shrine. The mikoshi’s base was comprised of wooden beams, which allowed for many people to shoulder the burden at once. I discovered that I wasn’t actually going to supporting the weight of the mikoshi, instead I was supposed to run alongside it, ringing bells on a rope that was attached to the top of the shrine. The news was simultaneously a relief and disappointment. Could I really claim that I fire walked if I was only on the periphery of the action?
The Tengu was the first to walk through the fire, and the crowd oo’ed and ah’ed. While we waited for our moment of truth, the man with the clipboard now walked around with a giant bottle of sake. He poured the drink into plastic cups for each of the fire walkers that wished to partake. I drank my cup of sake, as well as Yoshimura-sensei’s as he didn’t want it, being very careful not to spill any on my face towel. I didn’t know if the sake was really flammable, but I also wasn’t in a hurry to find out. We got the signal to get started, and the mikoshi was lifted up on everyone’s shoulders. I had my left hand on the end of one of the beams and my right clutched the bell rope, but I wasn’t supporting the mikoshi’s weight at all.
“Wasshoi, wasshoi! Wasshoi, wasshoi!” (わっしょい、わっしょい！)
Everyone started chanting and the mikoshi was heaved up and down. There was an anxious feeling in the air as well chanted and bobbed in place, growing more and more rowdy as tension mounted. People started pushing, both the crew outside our group, and the members of the group itself. Generally, the man behind you kept his free had on your shoulder, shoving or pulling you, to guide each other for better group cohesiveness.
The crowd that had been watching the Tengu parted like the Red Sea for us and I got an unobstructed view of the blaze. The crew skillfully used long streamer-like strips of wood to produce a wall of flames on the path, which ebbed and flowed. When the flame was at its low point, it was at knee height, about the size of a regular campfire. But at its high point, the flame leapt up to head height, at least six feet in the air.
Worked into a proper frenzy, the group teetered and staggered left and right, while shaking the mikoshi in violent rhythm. We started to move forward towards the flame, only to be pushed back by the crew. Apparently the inferno wasn’t quite big enough yet. They crew added more fuel to the fire and our group outright jumped up and down in place. Then they gave us the ‘all clear’.
With a heave-ho, we ran forward into the flames. Even from my sidecar position, I could feel the fire’s heat, although I’m certain it was more intense for those closer to the center. My left side, which was facing the blaze, felt like a marshmallow on its way to becoming part of a smore. I was extremely grateful for the loan pants, for if I had been wearing my synthetic material track pants, they surely would have melted like candle wax.
There were actually two bonfires to pass through and we were quickly on the other side. Once across, the mikoshi was promptly turned around, and the group bobbed and chanted in place for a moment. We were going back through again! Some more wood shavings were thrown on the fire, the flames grew higher again, and we ran back through, going the other direction. Back at our starting point, the mikoshi was again turned around and aimed at the fire. In no time we were running through the fire again.
I think we made five passes through the fire before we were finished. And after us, the next mikoshi team immediately mad their run. I don’t even know how many different groups ran through the flames.
Making it to the other side unscathed, I thought that my position on the side of mikoshi—instead of underneath it—made for a half-assed fire walking attempt. Sure, it was damn hot for me, but not nearly as hot as it must have been for the guys doing the carrying, especially the men in the middle positions. The level of danger was much less too. I had heard that last year a woman had tripped and fallen into the fire, but if I had fallen, I would have been safely clear of any burning hazard.
My fellow teachers and I returned to the shrine house and changed back into our street clothes. We talked about how hot the inferno had been, and happily laughed about our fortunate survival. I felt a little insecure, now sure that my experience was like the Diet Coke version of theirs. Yusuke told me that his eyebrow and sideburns had been singed slightly and his face shown an expression of shocked amusement. He noticed I was wearing my usual Adidas sneakers and asked if I had other shoes at home. I told him that this was my only pair at the moment and he smiled. “You’ll probably need to buy new shoes,” he said.
After the fire walking festivities, the festival was done for the night, and we returned the Tomosukai dashi to its garage. Makoto-san and some of the younger guys were still down for more fun, so we went out for more food and drinks at Yamatomi. We didn’t over do it, since there was still another full day of the festival to go. I was home and sleeping around midnight.
To Be つづく’ed…