Autumn festival, and an unexpected invitation


Today was the second day of Autumn festival celebrations, which includes lots of yelling, dragging floats around town, and something that could probably be considered singing.

It’s been really fun to see the floats in various states of construction.  I pass three different spots where they’ve been built on my way to and from work.  I was on my way to work the first day the workers gathered down the block from Hachimangu to start work on one of the floats. I passed them on my bike, and half the men stared, tired and bored.  Then one of them, dressed all in brown with very short hair and a generous gut, raised his arm and called, “Ohaiyoooo!” (good morning!).  I felt my face relax as I broke into an easy smile, and twisted around to shout “Ohaiyo!” back and wave to him.  Several of the workers laughed and waved.  It was such a nice way to break the tension of being observed as an anomaly in a small city in one of the most homogeneous countries in the world.

I resolved to ride the very short distance to Hachimangu shrine, where the festivities were centered, and partake in whatever overpriced food they had, take some photos (my camera died in record time, and I forgot my phone, lol, fail), then wander down the street to see what I could see before heading to the electronics store to find a mic I could use with my laptop so I could finally Skype with my family back home now that I FINALLY had internet.

I tried takoyaki (delicious, but the tako part [octopus chunks] was overcooked and really tough), enjoyed watching people mill around with their families, occasionally in festival garb or yukata.  It’s nice to know that kids are weird and hilarious no matter where you go.

I Facetimed my dad to show him the festival, but realized it was close to 11pm in LA, and hung up before it rang twice.  He called right back, and I flipped the camera around to show him what I was seeing: two young women in yukata among dozens of stands selling food and games.  He really enjoyed it.  He said he and mom got my letter: a real tear-jerker that starts innocuously, then moves abruptly into thanking my parents for my education, for encouraging me to study something as frivolous as art history and philosophy, my dad for watching Star Trek with me, and my mom for being an amazing female role model.  Naturally, he said mom cried, and thanked me a few times.  I was in the middle of a noisy festival, so it wasn’t really the place to talk about it, but I’m glad they got it and that mom cried, haha.  I sound like a terrible daughter, but I love them, and I think that letter made them feel loved.  So.  Mission accomplished.

I went back to my apartment to grab my phone, took a few photos at Hachimangu, then wandered down the street.  I stopped when I heard singing.  I saw a group of people who clearly worked on the festival (bright green robes) drinking heavily and taking turns singing.  I pulled over and took a few photos from across the narrow street.  A man standing at the open doorway waved me and a few other onlookers over.  I crossed the street, parked my bike, and ventured a bit closer.  Next thing I knew, there were a dozen people smiling at me and seemingly yelling at me to come in and join them.  I felt a gentle hand on my elbow steer me briskly inside.  I bowed deeply and accepted a seat at a table covered in sushi, edamame and beer.  “Bee-ya, ok?  Japanese bee-ya, ok?”  “Hai!” I replied, and someone handed me a cold can of Asahi.  They all shouted kampai and slammed glasses into my can before laughing and taking turns encouraging me to drink.

Everyone wanted to know where I was from and how long I would stay.  Did I like Morioka?  “Hai!  Morioka-wa dai tsuki!”  A roar of approval went up and everyone demanded that I take a drink.  At some point someone stood, and the (clearly drunk) gentleman who had ushered me into the room indicated that I should film what was about to happen.  The man who had been sitting next to me stood, lifted a mostly closed fan into the air, and began to sing.  The others chatted softly, joined in or replied as they were expected to, with strong, easy voices, and cheered loudly when he finished.  This happened a few times, and each time it was made clear to me in the friendliest way possible that I was expected to film it.

They asked what I thought of the festival: very nice!  More drinking.  One of them stood up, ran to the back room, and came back with one of the green jackets some of them wore.  He dropped it on my shoulders, pushed me out of my chair and handed his phone to another man so he could take photos.  I put the robe on, he fixed the collar, and we posed together, fan in hand.  I was then shoved out of the room to observe a parade of men on horseback, one of which was an archer.  I took photos and received strange looks from each rider, probably because I was still wearing the green robe, but was clearly a foreigner.  “Sugoi!” I smiled at my hosts.  They invited me to stay, but I still needed to get a mic, and had to get going.  I returned the robe and fan, and said thank you to everyone whose eye I could catch.  A few of them left before me, and were very kind in their goodbyes.  My drunk friend handed me three stickers with kanji on them: seals for attracting money.  I thanked him seriously and bowed low.  We shared a laugh and shook hands.  On my way out, I was stopped gently by a woman who had also chatted with me, and introduced to a very elderly man who had been sitting next to a woman about the same age by the door, quietly observing the festivities and singing along when the occasion called.  “Boss of festival,” she said.  “You should meet.”  I bowed and said, “Hajimemashite” while he smiled and shook my hand.

This is kind of exactly the kind of experience I hoped to have here, similar to the one I had the soba noodle shop just down the street weeks prior.  Who were these people?  Why did they invite me to join them?  What were they talking about?  Why were they so comfortable bringing a foreigner into their private celebration, and communicating in a language none of them had mastered?  Meanwhile, my bike stood unlocked outside, my bottle of jasmine tea nestled next to the front wheel, awaiting my return to a slightly less bizarre environment.

My day already thoroughly made, I walked on until I hit a sandal store that usually looked closed.  I chatted with the owner while she showed me sandals my size for a few minutes, then mounted up and rode to Odori street, where I was chastised for not going on foot.  The street was shut down for the impending parade, and sure enough, as I exited Dotour with a small mocha, I could hear it approaching.  I wandered a few blocks until I was next to it and got some photos.  I was invited to step in front of the parade to get a shot of the ornately dressed women at the front by one of the dozens of men in charge of crowd control.  I thanked him, snapped a few shots, and jumped out of the way so he woudn’t get in trouble.  I stood and enjoyed the drums and clothing for a while before he approached me and abruptly started explaining the meaning of the float.

Each season was represented, and four aspects as well: the pine branches on the top held blinking lights, and represented the “celestial.”  Humans were represented by the man posed next to an ox on the front of the float.  Next was stone, then the ocean.  Different flowers also represented different seasons (sakura for spring, of course, but the rest I didn’t catch).  Silver balls stuck out the sides to represent water splashing away from the float.  He paused, then said, “These clothes are old fireman clothes.”  “Eeeh!  Honto-niiiii?!” I gave my best shocked Japanese reply.  I couldn’t believe all these men were dressed up as Edo-era firemen to direct the parade route.  So cool!  He was nice enough to pose with one of his friends for a photo.

I fuzzy-logicked my way to the electronics store and picked up a mic (which doesn’t work without an additional power supply piece, wtf), then headed home, but got caught up in the parade on the way.  So loud!  All that singing and drumming!  “Aya-re-are-are-are!”  Endlessly, for the whole route with frequent stops to sing.  I saw some of the drummers swapping out, but even so, how do they all maintain their energy?  Such stamina.  And a bunch of them can’t be older than 13.

I slowly made my way home, and was shocked to feel how cold it had become.  I went home to change into something warmer and catch the end of the festivities in case something else happened, but I deflated in the warm comfort of my apartment.  I took out the trash, did some dishes, and made tsukemen for dinner.  Tomorrow promises archery on horseback at Hachimangu shrine!


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