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Bearing the Weight of the Gods

August 11, 2012

I’m back! My week in Kansai was absolutely amazing, and I promise that there will be posts about my vacation coming up. Anyway, I have kept you waiting long enough regarding my post about carrying the 神輿 (mikoshi), a portable shrine, in Koga’s festival.

I need to begin at the beginning for this. In May I went to the 三社祭 (Sanja Matsuri), and I wrote all about seeing people carrying the 神輿 (mikoshi), which is a small shrine that people carry around on their shoulders throughout their neighborhoods so that they are blessed for the upcoming year. Anyway, I went back to Koga to my favorite café in town and talked with the owners about the festival and how crazy it must be to carry the mikoshi. A little over a week later, I went to the café again and the owners excitedly told me that they talked to some people in the neighborhood about my interest in the mikoshi, and would I want to help carry the neighborhood mikoshi in the summer festival?

I’ll be honest, at first I really had a lot of trouble coming to a decision. It took me a week or so before I could give them my answer. I couldn’t figure out whether or not I would be breaking some sort of cultural barriers by participating in a somewhat holy activity. At the same time, it’s kind of an honor that they would invite me to join in on carrying it in the first place. In addition, I was worried about not really knowing anyone else. Luckily for me, I found out that M-sensei, one of the teachers from my Tuesday school, was also participating. His English is also really good, so I would have someone to explain things to me if and when I couldn’t understand them. I finally said yes, after coming to the conclusion that if they really didn’t want me to participate, they wouldn’t have extended an invitation in the first place.

So, at around 1:00 on July 28th, I went to the meeting spot like I was supposed to, and then was whisked away to put on my はっぴ (happi), a coat traditionally worn by workmen, and たび (tabi), which is a type of footwear split at the big toe so it lies separate from the rest. Once I was properly dressed, we went back to the meeting spot and waited for everyone to arrive.

Me in my tabi. Photo taken by my friend Samuel Duncker, since I couldn’t carry my camera on me.

Before we started, we all stood in a circle and the community leader gave a small speech and warned us to avoid heat stroke. Then we did a special clapping sequence three times, which was a 123-123-123-1-Hey! type of pattern. I enjoyed it a lot. My assumption is that it’s a way to boost everyone’s spirits and motivate them. Every time we stopped we would do the same sequence one time before taking a break.

There were around six other girls who also carried the mikoshi, but I was the only foreigner. We were placed in the front, where we are most easily visible. I was directed to stand in the middle (I was told afterward that it was because I was the star). While in my place, I quickly found out that the usual bar that I was supposed to shoulder was too tall for me to carry it. Not one to have others think I was lazy, I situated myself so my shoulder was angled to reach the crossbeam, which was a little lower. That way, I was bearing the weight just like the others.

Getting directions from the community head on where we should be standing.

Soon it was time to go, so we hoisted the mikoshi onto our shoulders and began our trek towards the main shrine in Koga. There are several men who walked alongside and in front of the carriers. Their duties are to direct traffic, since we were on the main roads in the neighborhood, and one would blow on a whistle twice,  to which we would respond with the phrase 「わっしょい」(wasshoi), which was mostly used to keep our minds engaged and to make sure nobody was moving faster than the others.

Our first stop was at Hanamomo Plaza, where we took a short break there, to rehydrate (Koga is HOT in the summer) and after a little while we once again had the mikoshi on our shoulders. Our next stop was the shrine, where we were to wait while the Shinto priests transferred a part of the shrine’s deity into the mikoshi. We had an hour-long break, during which we had a group photo in front of the shrine and we also stopped for lunch and a bathroom break. During this time I had time to make friends with some of the girls who were also carrying the mikoshi, and we exchanged phone numbers.

Carrying the mikoshi!

Our time to rest was over and we once again picked up the mikoshi and made the journey back. I don’t know if I was just tired, but it did feel heavier this time around– as if the 神 (kami), the deity, we were carrying really did have weight. We went to the train station and circled the rotary a few times before heading back to where we began. Once we arrived, we had a brief moment where we all exchanged 「お疲れ様でした」and the like. Then we all filed over to the community center to see low tables set out with places set out for each of the carriers. We all sat down to eat sushi and drink beer. After dinner, M-sensei turned to me and told me that now was a turning point in the evening, where the drinking would increase. What would I want to do? We came to the decision that it was probably best thatI stopped for the night. While changing into my pajamas later that evening, I finally took notice of the pain I was in and discovered a massive bruise forming on my shoulder.

One thing that kept playing throughout my mind as I was carrying the mikoshi that day was how much the community must trust me in order to allow me to participate in such an important part of the festival. I felt very honored, and a bit touched to realize just how much they accepted me even though I’m not Japanese.

The goal of Day Two of carrying the mikoshi was to parade it all throughout the neighborhood to spread the gods’ blessings for another year. We gathered at the same meeting spot at 8:30 a.m., but by some strange stroke of luck I was the first one there. Where was everyone? I was starting to worry that maybe I had gone to the wrong place, but I was relieved when others slowly began arriving. There were fewer people carrying the mikoshi, which meant that it would be a lot heavier than the day before. Not only that, I was also the only girl!

The community appeared and stopped right next to me. I was a little confused as to what might be happening when he reached into his sleeve, but then he pulled out a bracelet of red beads and handed it to me. “It’ll be a good memory,” was his reasoning. It was a small gift, but it meant a lot to receive it. I wear it a lot now!

Once everyone arrived, I resumed my place at the front of the mikoshi and we picked it up and hoisted it onto our shoulders. Then we started our rounds throughout the neighborhood. As the morning went on, the mikoshi began to get heavier and the weather steadily grew hotter. As a result we stopped frequently to rest and rehydrate. My friend Courteney came by to watch us and talk for a little while during one of our breaks, but we somehow managed to rope her in to carrying it with us. So, as she ran off to get her はっぴ (happi) and たび (tabi), we enjoyed our break as much as we could. Courteney rejoined us clad in her new festival-wear and was assigned the spot next to me. I gave her a quick explanation of how it would work, and we were off! After walking a little ways we stopped at a temple for lunch, which was a bowl of tofu. The afternoon continued as such, and we finally stopped at around 1:00.

I found out later that by carrying the mikoshi, a person is granted a little extra luck from the kami as a thank you for bearing its weight. Good thing too, because I need it! That’s another story, however…

Stay tuned for posts about my trip to Kansai! I’m still sifting through pictures, so it may be a little while, so I apologize in advance.

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