Rolling thunder? Hunger pains? Another murmur from the Yamasaki fault line? No, that deep rumbling sound which fills the night sky over the Good Hood is the sound of a festival brewing.
The beat of the taiko drum heralds the approach of another year’s worth of shoulder pain, chanting, sweating, drinking and more drinking, all crammed into one day in October.
There’s not a moment in the Himeji city when I feel closer to the soul of Japan than at matsuri (festival) time. When the smell of burning rice chaff signals the end of the rice harvest and the sickly sweet aroma of the kinmokusei flower fills every street, lane and alley.
The sound of drums can be sourced to the backyard of my Jichikai-cho, the neighborhood Boss, and our elaborately decorated centrepiece, the omikoshi, or portable Shinto shrine.
Generating the thunder are the small arms of the neighborhood school kids. Two weeks before festival day, they hammer volleys into the night sky, honing their skills, perfecting their rhythm for the big day.
One day before the festival, the Boss summons me. An extra pair of hands is needed to assemble the omikoshi; it’s an intricate and fiddly job which entails bolting, knot-tying, binding the shrine and attaching ornaments to its housing. When preparations are complete, six packs are passed. Quiet slurping and furtive glances towards the sky follow. Will Raijin the God of Thunder stay away tomorrow?
Across the archipelago, autumn festivals are thrown to honour the Shinto gods and give thanks for the rice harvest. But as my good friend Ono-san laments, it’s a meaning too often drowned in drinking, eating, macho posturing and the excitement of carrying the omikoshi. I reply: “And you think Christmas is just the Big Man’s birthday?”
The night before the festival, our illuminated omikoshi ventures into the streets swarming with school kids and pushed and pulled by fathers who have escaped the office early. Lanterns hang from residents’ porches like overweight glow worms. The omikoshi moves slowly, like a dinner cruise boat along darkened laneways.
Festival day breaks with a clear crisp dawn. I don my blue festival jacket with its giant red kanji character for “festival” on the back, shake the night’s hangover from my head and secure by self-pity with a red bandanna.
The Boss gives a speech. Cups of sake are passed. Died 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 neighborhoods, their omikoshi topped with dancing lions and decorated with tigers and bamboo, each supported by an entourage of mothers, wives, kids, babies in prams and the occasional lost tourist.
The day wears on, the sun beats down, bento and beer flow, and through the Good Hood the omikoshi rumbles and rattles like an old war horse. The sound of its drum brings residents to their doors bearing envelopes of gift money. For this they receive a boisterous, semi-drunken chant and vigorous shaking of the shrine by its bearers.
Rice millers, tatami weavers, barbers, tea shop and restaurant staff 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 inside of our heads.
By late afternoon the chanting eases, the fall of the drumstick dependent more on gravity than energy, the bearers are tired, the drummers slightly deaf and the mothers’ auxiliary strung out in the streets behind us; only the babies waking from their afternoon sleep are punching the air.
On sunset, as the crows fly north overhead, we give thanks for another great day, then set to work dismantling and packing away the omikoshi for another year.
Once the roller door is pulled shut, I turn and head for home, bone weary and beat. The Boss summons me. I cringe and 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 traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!