The Night of the Mikoshis
There should be signs put on every street corner in the small coastal town of Wajima, Japan during this one-night-a-year event: "Don't drink and carry one-ton portable shrines" Or to the crowds "Warning! Watch out for falling portable shrines!"
Every summer, the small coastal town of Wajima's streets are filled with spectators looking on teams of twenty people carrying portable shrines or mikoshi. These backbreaking "portable" shrines are carried around the streets of Wajima for the annual Wajima-taisai, or literally translated as Wajima's largest festival.
Accompanying the portable shrine are a few dozen kirikos, 4m to 15 m high giant paper lanterns with Wajimas's distinctive lacquer coating. At night, the lanterns brilliance seems like a beacon to the festive crowds, calling all from afar to behold the night's spectacles, a time for the citizenry to thumb their noses to the dark spirits.
In the pre-festival meeting, just an hour before the actual event, the official mikoshi-carrying costume was distributed. First, the happi, a short jacket that resembled those worn by karate players. On our feet, the tabi, slippers consisting of two pockets, one for the big toe and the other bigger pocket for the rest of the four toes. And finally the all-important shoulder pillow to cushion the mikoshi's weight.
The start was rather mellow. After putting on our festive wear, we were quietly ushered into a restaurant whose owners were major financial supporters of the particular Shinto shrine with which our mikoshi represented. A Shinto priest with formal ceremonial garb began to sanctify the whole proceedings by chanting some mantra and waving his wand back and forth in slow, rhythmical movements while the long strings of carefully-folded paper attached at the end of his wand made rustling sounds in the deafening silence of the restaurant.
Outside, following the cleansing ceremony, Japanese rice wine (sake) was given out in small paper cups. Some speeches were given and straight down went the sake. With that, the formal preliminaries were finished and it was time to set our eyes on the task before us.
The polished mikoshi sparkled under the street lamps. It looked like a miniature of the shrine itself with the roofs angled at the top at ninety degrees affixed with bow-like fixtures on both ends. The lacquer-coated, solid wood structure was engraved with gold and set on two girders, one on each side. At the back, a large drum was placed.
Getting underneath the girders, with ten people on each side, was coordinated by the team captain, Mr. Fuji, a jovial man with little hair on top, sturdy-looking and large sweeping gestures to give orders to us all.
"Ready? Up! Up! Slowly!" he ordered with a booming voice and flagellating arms.
Slowly, the mammoth, one-ton structure rose from the ground with sounds of wood creaking and cracking as pressure was released from the bottom of the mikoshi and transferred to the girders and our shoulders.
The cushioned shoulder pillows did not help much, crushed under the weight of the mikoshi. Taller than most of the people in front and behind me, I felt I alone was carrying the one side. Pain ripped through my muscles with my tendons stretched to its limit. I was about to falter under but with so many shouts of "ganbare" (Try your best!) and cheers of excitement by the increasing crowds around us, there was no way I would let them down. I could see the headlines then, "Man Crushed by Mikoshi in Local Festival" or "Shinto Gods Unfavorable to Festival Participant"
"No, no. Turn your body," shouted Mr. Fuji in Japanese. "Put the weight on your upper back muscles. Less painful."
I followed his advice and rotated my body to transfer most of my weight to my trapezoid muscles. Instead of sharp pains, it was now a tolerable dull pain. Unfortunately, because my upper body was not aligned with the girders, I started to shuffle with my left foot going over my right foot. As to the height problem, I crouched my back to make myself the same height as the other carriers.
Once everyone was firmly on his feet, our troupe began to move. There were twenty of us carrying the mikoshi with about ten others waiting on the side to relieve those in too much pain. A drummer was at the back to set our walking tempo. Mr. Fuji out front waving out instructions. The wooden flute player to accompany the drummer and the pole man who was responsible for lifting any electrical lines that we would come across to let the mikoshi pass. Everybody had a job.
Like the other mikoshis, who started at different parts of the city, we had a specific route to follow and stops along the way including shops or restaurants that contributed to the shrine's coffers. Far from being a rest stop, we had to "perform" at each scheduled stop. How else for a portable shrine to perform than to rock back and forth? One side would quickly bend down, while the other would push up, tilting the shrine to one side. Immediately, the two sides would switch from up to down and repeated over and over. From afar, the mikoshi looked like it was on water, smoothly bobbing up and down on a sea of people.
At every stop, the kind owners would offer huge bottles of sake, with the height of each bottle being about the length of my arm. For those who preferred something less strong, beer was the alternative, carried by yet another member of the team whose sole responsibility was to refresh the unending thirst of the carriers.
As we approached closer to our goal, a large sea-side park where all the other mikoshis were to assemble, control and stability became a factor, especially from the exhaustion and alcohol surging through our veins. At times, one side would suddenly dip, forcing the other side to compensate by putting more pressure up. This sudden change in pressure would swing the mikoshi wildly to one side, right towards the smiling crowds whose features would automatically change to frozen deer-like expressions caught in headlights, while a large ominous portable shrine quickly rushed toward them like a 16-ton semi.
Somehow, with the frantic arm action of Mr. Fuji, the shrine would veer back away from the crowds and equilibrium would again be reached. The crowds cheered energetically.
Through narrow streets barely big enough for cars, over curved stone bridges, under precariously hanging electrical lines with the help of the pole man, we finally made our way to the large open area of the park, down by the shore, next to the darkness of the sea with its waves crashing against the shore, as if wanting to join in the festive mood, the sounds of the crashing waves in rhythm with a distant drum.
After setting our shrine down in the designated slot, we took in the sights and sounds of the ending of a very long night.
Hundreds of people both spectators and participants were crowding around the mikoshis and kirikos, drinking, talking and randomly beating the drum at the back. Children lifted on shoulders to touch the tops of the shrines, karaoke enthusiasts bellowing out traditional enkai songs, the smell of takoyaki (fried octopus) balls from food stalls floating in the air, the bitter Japanese wine warming the gullet. The light from the lanterns was shunning the dark night away and brightening the faces of the high-spirited festival participants and onlookers.
As the crowds began to diminish, one by the one the mikoshis were hauled onto trucks and carried away, back to their home shrines for storage the following year. Some of us on the team also had to be carried back to their homes.
As for the rest of us, we got rides back into town to where we first started at the restaurant. There, Mr. Fuji made his obligatory closing ceremony speech, a round of applause for a successful night and then a toss with more sake.
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Date: The Wajima-daisai takes place every summer, for three days, from August 23 to August 25.
How to get there:
By Bus: The Okunoto express bus service runs direct between Kanazawa and Maura via Wajima and Sosogi. The trip between Kanazawa and Sosogi takes two hours and the ticket costs \2000 one way.
By Train: The JR Nanao line runs from Kanazawa to Anamizu. At Anamizu, you need to change to a private train line for the rest of the trip up to Wajima.
The tourist information office at Wajima station can help you find accommodations. Wajima has dozens of minshukus with prices starting at around \5500 per person including two meals. Wajima Choraku-ji Youth Hostel (0768-22-0663) is 15 minutes away on foot from the station.
For more information:
Wajima Tourism Association
Kawai-machi, Wajima - Tel: (0768) 22-6588 Fax: (0768) 22-0136
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Published on 2/2/04