The sound of rolling thunder in the Good Hood can be sourced to the backyard of my Jichikaicho, the neighbourhood Boss. Here, in all its lacquered, braided, tasselled glory, stands our portable shrine, called an omikoshi. Within its main housing, the pièce de résistance - our taiko drum.
Generating this thunder are the small fists of the neighbourhood school kids. Two weeks before the festival, they hammer volleys into the night sky, honing their skills, perfecting their rhythm for the big day.
One day before the festival, Boss summons me. An extra pair of hands is needed to finish dressing the omikoshi; an intricate and fiddly job which entails bolting, knot-tying, attaching and binding to the shrine all of its trinkets and ornaments. Every small job ends with the passing around of six-packs of Asahi Super Dry. Then quiet slurping and furtive glances towards the sky ensue; everyone wondering if the Gods of Wind (Fūjin (風神) and Thunder (Raijin (雷神) will stay away tomorrow?
Across the archipelago, autumn festivals are held to honour the Shinto gods and give thanks for the rice harvest. But as my good friend Ono-san laments, it’s a spiritual meaning too often drowned in drinking, over-feasting, machismo and all the excitement of carrying the omikoshi.
The night before the festival, our illuminated omikoshi sets sail into streets swarming with school kids and pushed and pulled by fathers who’ve managed to escape work early. Lanterns hang from residents’ porches, guiding the way, as the omikoshi passes like a noisy cruise boat along the darkened streets.
Festival day breaks with a clear crisp dawn. I don my blue hapi jacket with its big red “festival” kanji emblazoned on the back, shake the night’s grit from my head and secure my self-pity with a red bandanna.
The Boss gives a speech. Cups of sake move hand to hand. Squid jerky, too. A staccato drum beat sends the men to the yokes and together we carry the omikoshi to the local shrine to be blessed by the Shinto priest. Joining us are other neighbourhoods with their omikoshi topped with dancing lions and bamboo fronds, each supported by an entourage of mothers, wives, kids, babies in prams, and occasionally, a lost tourist.
The day wears on, the sun beats down, bento and beer flow, and through the Good Hood the omikoshi rumbles and rattles, an old war horse goaded on by an army of kids and a semi-drunken chant from the menfolk. The sound of its drum brings residents to their doors bearing envelopes of gift money. For this, they receive a boisterous, louder semi-drunken chant and vigorous shaking of the shrine by us, the bearers. Rice millers, tatami weavers, barbers, cake shop staff and restaurant waiters come out of their shops to cheer us on. To a destination I’m no longer sure of, or even care. The omikoshi becomes a lifeboat for those who have drunk too much. Stay with us! Don’t let go! The taiko beat feels like a huge rolling rock pounding the inside of our heads.
By late afternoon the chanting eases, the fall of the drumstick dependent more on gravity than human effort; the bearers are tired, the drummers slightly deafened and the mothers’ auxiliary strung out somewhere in the streets behind us. Only the babies waking from their afternoon nap are fist-punching the air.
On sunset, as the crows fly north to roost on the Ichi River, we thank each other for another great day, dismantle and pack up the omikoshi and pull down the roller door on another year. I turn and head for home, bone-weary and beat. The Boss summons me. I cringe, then turn slowly to face my fate: the other annual tradition in the Good Hood I forgot to tell you about--the matsuri AFTER PARTY!
What is the essence of a small neighborhood in Japan? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!