On October 15th, at the invitation of my friend Tsukasa, I was honored to participate in the annual Niimi Samurai Festival. I’ve known Tsukasa almost since arriving in Niimi more than a year ago. He is a “larger than life” character, very active in the community and with a great sense of humor. In his seventeenth year with the festival he is responsible for a team of “bearers” (wearing traditional samurai attire) who carry one of a number of shrines (Mikoshi), from a temple atop a hill, along the parade route and then back again. I was to be one of the bearers. Sounds easy no?
The Samurai Festival is steeped in tradition and dates back hundreds of years. Winding through the old Ginza district of town the route is marked every couple of hundred feet with conical mounds of sand about a foot high and topped with salt. Traditionally they acted more or less as sponges, intended to soak up the blood of insufficiently respectful parade attendees who were beheaded along the route. It is still considered “good form” to be seated when the parade passes.
On the morning of the parade, as I walked up the wide and steep steps terraced into the hillside and leading to the temple, I could not help but wonder if I was capable of seeing this through. Even though I’d taken painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs for my damaged left knee, it seemed pretty daunting. Reaching the temple and seeing the shrine itself did nothing to assuage my trepidation. It weighs 500 kilograms and is supported by four thick wooden poles running through it that rest upon the shoulders of about a dozen bearers. After watching a demonstration of samurai sword-fighting and drinking saucers of a traditional and potent sake brewed by the temple, we set off.
Just lifting the Mikoshi from the sawhorses that supported it was a bit awkward. Working as a team, it took a while to gain a sense of equilibrium. As the lead Mikoshi, we also had to be mindful throughout the route that we could not be either too fast or too slow, knowing that the other Mikoshi were right behind us. I was in the front at the right hand side and, as we slowly descended the steep steps down into the town, kept thinking how easy it would be for one person to stumble and bring us all crashing down the hill. It worked out well enough though and we made it down the slope and into town.
It’s a big event and, even though it is most often held on a weekday, the parade route is lined with spectators. Even at this early stage I noticed that, because I’m a little taller than the average Japanese, the weight of the supporting pole on my left shoulder was crushing. The streets in the Ginza district are quite narrow leaving little room to maneuver in any but a forward direction. Each team has a leader who marches in front of the Mikoshi and exhorts them on with two short blasts from a whistle. The bearers respond with loud shouts of “WA-SHOI! – WA-SHOI!”, essentially meaning “heave-ho”.
Periodically, where the width of the street allows, the leader will unexpectedly push one of the supporting poles to either the left or right forcing the team to lurch and stumble in that direction. Not easy when you are supporting a 500 kilogram weight. Three girls wearing traditional dress and carrying large baskets accompany each Mikoshi. Spectators along the route put offerings (often a bottle of sake), into the baskets. Sounds good no? The downside is that, with each gift we have to raise the Mikoshi above our heads with arms fully extended, four times in rapid succession.
By the end of the first hour my knee was “on fire”, my left shoulder felt dislocated and I was drenched in sweat. Looking forward along the seemingly endless parade route, I could only say to myself, “one more step: one more step”. Quitting was tempting but not really an option: I could not allow myself to be the gai-jin who let the team down. I had after all, made the commitment to do this.
Fortunately, at the half-way point there is a scheduled break. We lowered the Mikoshi onto sawhorses and I almost collapsed gasping for breath. Cold beer (thank god!), snacks and beverages were provided. When my friend Masa, who had stood directly behind me and looked out for me along the route, offered me a cigarette (I have not smoked in eight years), I accepted without hesitation. With a frosty can of Asahi beer, it may have been the “best” cigarette I’ve ever smoked.
Although the route back to the temple is slightly longer, just knowing we were “over the hump” made it easier. I had mixed feelings when we turned the final corner leading up to the temple. Yes, it was the final stretch: Still though, there remained “the hill”. Each of the many steps was painful and I felt as if I was ascending Golgotha. When we finally lowered the Mikoshi onto the sawhorses though, all I felt was a sense of exhilaration. I’d completed it!
We drank more sake and then went to a great dinner hosted by Tsukasa at the local Community (Gotenmachi) Center. We drank and then went to my favorite pub, Nemunoki and drank some more (on a school night no less). It was a wonderful day: One I will never forget!
PS: I’m hoping to post a few pictures of the parade within a couple of days.