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Sean Grisdale - Blog Post 1: Wasshoi! My First Japanese Festival

Sean Grisdale - Blog Post 1: Wasshoi! My First Japanese Festival

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I woke up at nine am to the sound of megaphones, not an uncommon occurrence here in Japan considering their frequent and enthusiastic usage by paramedics, police, and van-driving protesters, but this time was different. Today was surely festive because answering the chanting beat of the megaphones were the a capella responses of numerous crowds, amidst the ambient backdrop of city traffic and an energetic festival murmur.

My awareness of the occasion was vague but I’d had some hints. The previous day I’d been tipped off when the local bus service was cancelled and our main road was closed to accommodate a number of carnivalesque food stalls and game booths on Honcho-dori’s (my sub-neighbourhood in Tsurumi) main street. Furthermore, my expectation for Sunday was that I’d be attending a Bon Festival dance via the invitation of a new friend from my dorm. She mentioned she’d be dancing with others in a traditional Yakuta outfit, while I assumed I would participate as a bystander. Nonetheless I was surprised to be standing on my balcony that morning, overlooking masses of people, drinking, eating, and socializing, around numerous spectacles of screaming, megaphone wielding men leading on large relics, undulating on the shoulders of still more chanters.

Ready to start the day, and decked out in my touristy summer garb, I made my way to the dorm’s lobby to meet my friends and head out. However, almost immediately, they told me they had to change into their yukatas and were whisked off, leaving me standing there confused, drowning in my inept Japanese skills, and unsure what to do. Everyone was in the lobby it seemed, both staff and residents, and they were all wearing traditional clothes and bustling around urgently.

“Would you like to participate?” one of the staff asked me. “Yes!” I said.

10 minutes later I had swapped my backpack, camera and clothes for a traditional “happi” coat, sash, and a pair of white “tabi” socks, which were a little small but comfortable nonetheless. Soon, there were many dorm residents standing beside me wearing the same outfits and we headed outside to gather around the “mikoshi,” an ornamental box, resembling a miniature shrine or temple, perched atop a wooden frame, designed to be carried by a large group. Fortunately, I was not the only gaijin (foreigner) participating. Most of the residents in my dorm are from various places in Asia outside Japan, and for the next hour, we mingled in the street eating homemade Japanese curry and introducing ourselves.

 

While we waited, I took the opportunity to learn more about the festival and what it meant. Though a large gathering, I learned that it was not tied to any meaningful date but was organized by the neighbourhood as a way to come together and celebrate summer. The mikoshi ritual is a feature of Japan’s indigenous religion Shintoism, a ritual-oriented, animist, belief system that incorporates an indigenous mythology with ancestral reverence. The mikoshi is meant to represent a vehicle for transporting a deity from one shrine to another, a process which is done very slowly, loudly and joyously.

Due to a lack of shrines in the neighbourhood, this festival took some liberties with the process. Each block in Honcho-dori had its own mikoshi and unique “happi” coats with their own symbols, and by my estimate there were more than ten of these groups. We lined up, starting at the entrance bridge of the community and made our way one after the other down the main street, passing through a tunnel of food and games stalls and spectators.

 

As each mikoshi takes a long time navigating the streets of the festival, we had to wait about two hours before we could start. In between each mikoshi were other parade-like groups including marching bands and groups of female dancers wearing “yakutas,” many of whom were from my dorm.

Once your mikoshi is in place to start, the group leader assumes his place on top of a chair in the front, holding a wooden block in each hand. Then everyone picks up the mikoshi, rests it on their shoulders, and gets ready to make noise. The other leader, a kind of hype-man, then gets started on the megaphone, chanting “wasshoi!” on every other beat in a 4/4 rhythm. The man with the wooden blocks then begins to point in a variety of directions while the mikoshi bearers shuffle in response, undulating the palanquin and shouting “wasshoi!” in the offbeats. The crowd gets in tight and many add to the energy by chanting. Then we’re off: the hype-man continues his chant, backpedalling, waving his arms, bounding around us madly, as the mikoshi moves forwards.

 

 

This continued for another hour as we made our journey through the streets, towards our initial meeting place. Periodically, we would take breaks, ritualistically setting the mikoshi down on stand and then sharing drinks. As well, at certain points along the way, the wooden blocks would come out and guided by the leader, we would direct our energy at a certain site or respected person. A couple times, we did this to respect a local community member who would hold a picture of a loved one who had perhaps passed away or needed support.

After an hour, we did this again along a different route until the sun began to set. Returning to our initial meeting place, we did a final shuffle, surrounded by children beating ornate drums and more locals clapping and cheering. By this point my shoulders were yellow with bruises and my feet ached in my traditional cloth shoes, but the group energy was inspiring and refreshing.

Here, the sake keg was cracked and everyone relaxed sipping from traditional “masu” cups – small cedar boxes that add an extra aroma to the drink. To cap off the night we were ushered into a hall to commence the feast. Spreads of sashimi, onigiri and a variety of hors d'oeuvres style snacks lined the table and everyone was smiling and a little red in the face.

 

Already I’m sure this will be one of the highlights of my stay here in Japan. It was amazing to see this sleepy bedroom town become so alive with energy and I can’t be grateful enough for the amazing hospitality I was shown while being allowed to participate. I imagine there will be many more festivals to witness this summer but to be an active part of this was a truly memorable experience.

Next blog I will go into some detail about the work I’m doing with CITYNET. Many of the projects I’m involved with are still in the process of maturing but include: a monthly newsletter that I’ve designed, a World Bank project proposal that’s in the works and pages of research which will be synthesized for our Disaster conference in August.