I left the office late yesterday evening and emerged into the noise and swirl and laughter of a summer festival, the streets lined with food stalls and reverberating to the sound of taiko drums. It was completely unexpected; I had no idea that there would be a festival right in the city near my office. Lots of children were dressed up in colourful yukatas. Very cute!
Unfortunately my pictures aren’t the best quality because it was dark and I only had my mobile phone camera.
The little girl has a bag of what looks like marbles, but they are actually soft rubber balls. The children are getting them from this stall:
Another activity is to try to catch goldfish using shoji paper scoops. This is called 金魚掬い kingyo sukui—goldfish scooping. The point is to try to scoop the fish before the wet paper falls apart.
Today Yuko sent me some information about the festival, and I found out that it was a two-day event, associated with the local shrine (Goryo jinja). So after work today I went there again.
Inside the precinct of the shrine I discovered that the drumming was provided by these boys. They were working themselves to exhaustion in the sweltering heat, but keeping up a very impressive rhythm and chant (not to mention spinning the drum sticks). You can watch a short video here.
The boys and the drum are on a mikoshi which will later be carried in procession through the streets.
The shrine precinct was full of stalls selling food: fried eggs, sweet potatoes, karaage; as well as entertainments and toys. The boys on the right are armed with an impressive array of inflatable oversized weapons.
I noticed that two young gaijin women were getting some explanation from a young woman in white and red robes. I went over to listen in on their explanation. It turned out that they were Israeli tourists.
The girl in the red and white robes explained that she dances at shrine ceremonies (for example, at weddings and at New Year). She asked if I would be interested in seeing inside the honden. I said I certainly would.
This is what the honden looks like, peering in from outside.
It was an extraordinary experience, and I felt very privileged. Unfortunately it was not possible to take photos inside, so a verbal description will have to suffice. Also, because I didn’t follow what was going on, my description may not be fully reliable.
Before entering the honden, I inscribed my name in a roll using a nice calligraphic pen (vertically, in katakana – I found myself admiring my own penwork), then filed in with 10 or so other people.
We sat near the entrance on a long bench decorated with brocade fabric. The priest stood nearby, a slightly plump and avuncular man wearing a tall white hat and white robes, and holding a wooden paddle.
The interior of the honden is on three levels, of which the area where we were sitting (and the priest was standing) is the lowest. Although the interior looks dark in the photo, once you are inside it is not gloomy at all. There is lots of wood and many religious artifacts. There were also many many offerings in the form of bottles of alcohol and fruit. The crates of alcohol were literally piled high.
Up a few steps directly in front of us was a large open area something like a stage. Over to the left of this platform, two women were sitting seiza, wearing black hats and green robes. Beyond the open area, at the back, were more steps leading to an open door, through which I could see more religious objects and bowls of fruit. This area, I guessed, was where the gods reside.
The priest invited us to stand and bow, then to sit down; he recited some . The seated women started to play a melody on the flute. The girl in the photo above, in the white and red robes, knelt in the middle of the stage, then stood up holding bells in her right hand, and began to dance. She slowly turned in each direction, shaking the bells. What an amazing religion, that puts a dancing girl centre-stage, while the priest stands off to the side!
Then we were invited to stand again and bow twice, then clapped twice, and it was time to leave.
On the way out each person was given a drink of sake. We picked up a red bowl in both hands, a small amount of sake was poured from the spout of a metal pot, and we drank it. Then finally we were each given a towel as a memento.
Unfortunately I didn’t stay on for the climax of the festival, when the mikoshi would be borne in procession through the streets, but we may be able to experience that at the weekend if we go to the Tenjin matsuri.