Sunday, October 22, 2006


-- October 15, 2006 --
(Some photos can be enlarged.)
The main festival day was a gorgeous, sunny day with a forecast of a daytime high of 28 C. It was the day that the gods enshrined at the Hachioji 八王子 shrine take a short trip to two other smaller shrines. Gods’ short trip seems to be a common practice of Shinto festivals in Japan. You can see parades with mikoshi (portable miniature shrines) and various attendants in traditional costumes walking through the town in many places throughout this country. Often they are very solemn, but our autumn festival’s parade called otabi 御旅 (the trip) is pretty athletic – almost triathlon-like. I’m not kidding. Yes, our mikoshi swims in the ocean. ;)

It was a nice day, but the ocean was very rough because of a distant typhoon. So everyone was wondering if the mikoshi was going to go into the ocean this year or not. When I arrived at the shrine, some guys were giving a final check on the mikoshi.

The atmosphere of our festival was pretty laid-back, I would say, perhaps because this festival was not tourism-oriented but meant for the locals of this small town and their relatives who came back for this annual event. No food stalls came to this festival; you can easily assume that the food vendors could lose more money than they make. Here mikoshi were laid on the open stage of the shrine and various preparations were also done there, incl. dressing toninko boys, and visitors were able to take a real close look… THIS close. These photographers were taking shots of a toninko boy lying on the floor. (Looks like words are spreading among some amateur photographers recently that this festival is pretty photographer-friendly.)

Maihime taking a break before the ceremony

Shishimai (lion dance) outfit waiting for the departure

Touninko boys need to wear special straw sandals decorated with red strings. These elder people in formal black clothes took care of them.

Food offerings to be taken with the otabi

According to the printout given to festival staff, these fake sparrows and two small fish from the river are the symbol of indigenousness because they live in their birthplace throughout life.

The same ceremony as the previous day took place in front of the altar in the morning. Then attendants had a “departure feast” in a little hurry, and otabi started around noon.

At the head of the parade were two guys with big bamboo brooms, sweeping and purifying the way for the sacred troop. Followed were tengu 天狗 (long-nosed goblin), touji-baa 杜氏婆 (sake-serving women), Ichi-san (shaman) with maihime 舞姫 (girl dancers), touninko 頭人子 boys, and other people carrying various offerings and ornaments… and mikoshi at the very end.

The touninko boys were considered to be still possessed by the gods. So they were surrounded by the straw rope and paper ornaments which make a "sacred space" inside.

The way our mikoshi proceed was a little different from other festivals I had seen. Instead of steadily moving forward, they stayed at one place for a while and moved sideways several times, from one side of the road to the other, just like a drunken man who can’t walk straight. Then they suddenly rushed forward for about one block. This pattern was repeated the whole way through accompanied by the songs and calls by the guys carrying them.

No, not just songs and calls. Our generous and laid-back gods did not seem to care too much about politeness, and I heard some mikoshi-guys shouting things like “Gee! Don’t go too fast!” “OMG, I had too much beer!” “I’m too old for this!” “Hey! I’m not gonna do this next year. This is my last time!” (Oh, I’m 100% sure that he’ll be doing this again next year :)) The rest of the parade was always way ahead of the mikoshi, waiting for them to catch up.

Hey, is the mikoshi catching up?


Now this is the first “athletic” part of the otabi: all the members HAD TO go up these steps to get to Nishimiya 西宮(West Shrine) for a ceremony. Yes, all the elder members AND the two mikoshi.

Actually, these steps were steeper than they look in these photos. The awning of mikoshi had to be removed before going up the steps so that they can go through the small gate of the shrine.

Nishi-miya was a tiny, very old shrine on a hilltop, surrounded by woods. It was such a hard work going up and down the steps, but the ceremony performed there looked so beautiful and almost “magical” in the shade of the woods. To me it looked like a very homey Shinto ceremony of the good old days when people were closer to the gods in nature and absolutely no commercialism was involved in the festival.

There, the participants and onlookers, including myself, were offered sake by touji-baa, the sake-serving women.

In this small town where the mountains and the ocean are close by, we must pay respect to both the god of the mountains and the god of the sea. After coming down the steps, the parade headed for the beach. I don’t know how common it is in Japan, but our otabi includes actually walking on the beach like this. Then everyone, including the two mikoshi, took a little break at another tiny shrine called Hama-miya 浜宮(Shrine at the beach).

There, the mikoshi were set on a big rock, and a couple of guys threw small rice cakes to the attendants and onlookers. Those who caught rice cakes were sharing them with people around so that as many participants as possible could get the blessing.

Also, an elder man walked around to give everyone rice cooked with chopped taro. I don't know exactly what it symbolizes, but it must have something to do with good harvest and/or good luck. Too bad I didn't get to eat this taro-mixed rice :(

Now, after the little break at the Hama-miya, it was time for the most “athletic” part of this festival. The parade went back to the beach, where tomo-goshi, the black colored mikoshi, was supposed to go into the water!

This is the reason why this festival is often listed as one of the “unusual festivals” in this prefecture. Even though there is little need to worry about the enshrined god catching a cold, ocean water is undoubtedly bad for the mikoshi itself -- especially when it is supposed to be passed down to descendents for years. But in our hometown, we keep performing this ritual. And now that the uniqueness of this custom is (relatively) widely known, attracting media attention and bunch of amateur photographers from in and outside the prefecture, the tomo-goshi seems to have no other choice but to go into the ocean as much as possible.

Since the waves were too rough, the carriers of mikoshi seemed to have decided to go knee-deep only.(Usually they go further off-shore until the ocean water actually washes the tomo-goshi like this!)

But with the blue sky, blue ocean and breaking waves in the background, the scene looked really spectacular! So you think there must be a great religious importance behind this custom of taking the mikoshi into the ocean? I thought so, too, until I read the printout this year.

But the truth is, according to the quote from local history literature, the custom started in 1948 (some say 1946), not several hundreds years ago. This is how it started: After WWII, there spread a rumor that GHQ was going to ban all the Shinto festivals in Japan. Thinking that it could be the last time to celebrate, young mikoshi-carriers at that time felt like doing something outrageous and memorable. So they rushed into the ocean with the mikoshi, perhaps with the help of some sake-drinking. ;)

There was another strange custom that showed how “athletic” our ancestors were. At the very end of the gods’ short trip, when the two mikoshi came back to the main shrine, the mikoshi carriers rushed to let the mikoshi run onto the stage. A mikoshi itself is small enough to be set on the stage, but with people carrying it, it was much taller so it hit the roof of the shrine (not too hard, though). Then the guys stepped back to bring the mikoshi away from the stage once, and brought it back to the stage again to set it on the stage properly. The printout did not say anything about this ritual, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was another recent addition which was also triggered by lots of sake-drinking. :)

When I went into the kitchen after coming back from otabi, the place was neatly cleaned up and all the food was properly packed. Mom went home to rest, and I stayed on to watch the tachiodori 太刀踊り(sword dance) again.

The dance started after these guys had enough rest. Yes, they were the same guys who carried the mikoshi. (Of course. There aren't too many young guys in my hometown.)

BTW, to me this Hachioji shrine looked pretty functional, though I cannot really compare because I haven't been to the backstage area of other shrines. There was a gray curtian between the altar chamber in the back and a stage area in front. I think it was there to be closed when the stage was being used for non-religious performances. The stage had a main curtain, so it was obvious that this place functioned as a local theater in olden days. And you can directly come into the altar or to the stage from the adjacent kitchen through separate sliding doors.

Tachiodori is accompanied by songs and the beat of wooden clappers only.

This is my favorite shot showing how laid-back and homey our festival was. Absolutely no food stalls. Most of the amateur photographers were gone by this time. It was just local folks and mikoshi sitting close together, watching the traditional dance performed by local men, both young and old.

There are many famous Shinto festivals in Japan, but a scene like this could be rather rare. And to me a scene like this means so much.

Taking down the decorations

So, this was my first experience of helping with the autumn festival in my hometown. Now I’m wondering…the next time I help with this festival, perhaps 30 years from now, would things be the same? Would there be the same mikoshi? Would there be more photographers then? Would there be boys to be touninko?
I left my hometown when I was twelve. I never felt that I was a part of this kind of “continuum” until now.
But I guess I am.
And after all, being part of a continuum is not really bad, I guess...

Photos in this post by obachan -- All rights reserved
posted by obachan, 10/22/2006 08:45:00 PM



Thanks for your wonderful "scribbles" about your town's lovely autumn festival. Your account is very special.

Wow, 28 degrees yesterday there. Quite hot.

Take it easy for a few days now, if you are tired after all that work.
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 10/23/2006 12:59 PM  
Thank you, emma.
Well, actually, it was 28 degrees C on Oct. 15th, not yesterday. I forgot to put the date of the festival (so now it is on top of the post.)
BTW, are you the emma that I know? Have you been to Kochi?
commented by Blogger obachan, 10/23/2006 4:39 PM  
Obachan, this is amazing!! What a wonderful writeup. Do most small towns or villages do something this elaborate?
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 10/24/2006 12:27 AM  
This was fascinating and so nice to see real people doing their thing for the town and themselves rather than for tourists.
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 10/24/2006 8:20 AM  
I guess most of the places have customs like this.

anonymous commenter
It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? I don’t like too much commercialism, but soon it’ll be difficult for this small town to be totally self-sufficient to run this festival. Then some tourism-oriented ideas will have to come up.
commented by Blogger obachan, 10/25/2006 11:20 AM  
Hi again Obachan,

No, I haven't been to Kochi yet, though I passed by it on a bus tour to view scenic spots in Shikoku island. So, we've never met.

I have an old friend living in Kochi, though. She was born and raised there.

I love your accounts of life in Shikoku (also enjoyed reading what you have wriiten about your life in the USA and Kobe...).

Happy All Saints Day (Nov. 1st).
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 11/01/2006 11:58 AM  
Thank you, emma. :)
commented by Blogger obachan, 11/16/2006 10:44 AM  
fed your fish = )
commented by Anonymous Anonymous, 10/24/2009 1:33 AM  
Wow, thanks. They must be happy, 'cause I neglected them for ages. haha...
commented by Blogger obachan, 10/24/2009 7:55 AM  

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