Monday, September 29, 2014

Weekend Part 2 - Samurai! Geishas! Fire Walkers!!!

29 September 2014

I'm going to dispense with my usual format, because there are WAY more photos from Sunday's activities than usual - and WAY more photos than I can talk about.

But the photos are unique, and really show what we experienced.  I don't want to pick and choose a select few.

So, if you prefer to just read the text, that's fine.  Skip the photos where there isn't any text.  But glance at a few, or you really will miss some special sights.

Before I talk about what we did, I want to say that Saturday was our father's birthday.  Well, would have been his birthday had he not passed away in December.  Anyway, Mount Ontake (on-TAH-kay) erupted unexpectedly on Saturday.  And while there was a great deal of devastation on the top of the volcano, and some people apparently perished in the ash and initial blast and falling rocks, well, I think my geologist father would have almost liked having a volcanic eruption on his birthday.  I realize that's a little weird, but volcanoes are a geologic phenomenon, and eruptions are fairly rare.  So having one occur on your birthday, when this is something you've studied and taught about, well, it's rather exciting.  I found all the volcano news interesting, though sad about the people who died.  Anyway, I just wanted to mention the volcano.

So, about the photos - we had read that Shinagawa has a big festival at the end of September, so we took the subway and trains back to the area where we spent our first two weeks in Tokyo.

Shinagawa was the first post town on the old Tokaido Road, the road connecting Tokyo and Kyoto, dating back several centuries.  

The Shinagawa Shukuba Festival is held during the last weekend of September each year, and celebrates this important part of Shinagawa's history.

On Saturday afternoon and evening, there's a parade of women dressed in their finest kimonos, marching from the Kitishinagawa train station to Aomono Yokocho (ow-moe-no YO-ko-cho) which is the old vegetable market.  This is the area with the lamp posts that look like pumpkins and peapods.

Then on Sunday, there's a parade that begins about noon, again starting at the Kitishinagawa station.  This is where we saw the parade and jumped of the train, right at the perfect spot to see everything and get great photos.

This parade celebrates the importance of the town during the Edo period, roughly the 1600s through to 1860-something.  So people dress in the clothing of that period - most likely taken from artwork of the time.  There were samurai, geishas, courtesans, princes, princesses, average poor people, firemen, musicians, archers, town criers - it went on and on!!!  And was so colorful, and so much fun!!!

We stood in one spot and watched the parade go by.  (I should add that we heard the beginning troupe, which was a marching band.  Good music, but not what we came to see.)

Most people went by quietly, but one group had these wooden racks full of blown glass objects, followed by drummers - and the people were yelling and shouting about something.  In Japanese, of course, so we had no idea what they were saying.  But I really liked the tree-like thing with the glass globe ornaments - way cool!

So the parade continued to go by.  One group had very fancy footwork, with archers carrying red bows and arrows overhead, did a coordinated trade-off of the bow/arrows, while the guys in the background did squats and sumo wrestler one-legged kick-and-hold stances.  They did all of this right in front of us (we were next to a TV camera), and put on a great show!  Our section of audience applauded, and they moved on.

There were also the funny moments, like the silver senior lady in kimono with her little dog in a decorated baby carriage.  Or the children's dance troupe doing moves to Abba's "You Can Dance."  One of those incongruous, funny, bizarre little things that we run into sometimes.

And the emotionally touching moment, at the end, when people were wheeling along much older relatives in wheelchairs, all dressed in costume as well.  You could tell these people had participated in this festival all their lives, and they weren't about to miss it just because they were elderly and to infirm to walk the parade route.  They were involved, no matter what.

At the end of the parade, as they marched on down for two more train stations, we went around to a parallel street and walked more quickly, avoiding the crowds.  A bite of lunch (there were food booths set up all around) and a rest, and we were able to complete the parade route and meet them at the other end, in Aomono Yokocho.  But some NEW troupes had appeared - truly scary warriors with antlers on their helmets and all kinds of weird animal parts incorporated into their armor.  Really creepy nightmarish warriors!

And some people in the crowd were dressed up as well.

When we met up with the parade at the other end of the route, what could I do but take more photos?  Same characters, some in better view, some not.  Just, all colorful, all exciting, all new and different and thrilling!


Truly frightening warriors!   The stuff of childhood nightmares!

Wasn't that a gorgeous parade?  Incredible attention to detail!  (Most of the people had wigs, you could see the tape around the edges.)

The parade ended right by Honsenji Temple, which was the site of the next big activity of the day, with their own unbelievable events.

The monks of this temple have a yearly firewalking ritual.  This is said to purify the soul, rejuvenate the spirit, cleanse your entire being. 

There was a huge crowd, and the guests of honor are under a tent.  So my photos are taken at a distance, between heads and shoulders.

And since this is a firewalking ritual, there is smoke.  A LOT of smoke.

It seemed to me that part of the theme was the coming together of the four elements:  earth (items burned); air (smoke); water (thrown on the flames to create more smoke); and fire (obvious).  I know some traditions believe that when you mix the four elements, there is a certain mystical power that occurs.  I'm not sure if that was a conscious part of this ritual, but I believe the roots of that belief are in the origins of firewalking.

There was a lot of chanting.  Playing conch shells, which sound much like the ram's horn (shofar).  Rings on metal sticks for tympany.  More chanting.  One monk, the scapegoat, beating himself with branches dipped in boiling water - yup, self-flagellation.  Various items shaken over the onlookers, something akin to being sprinkled with holy water.  More chanting.  You see all the common themes to our Western religions?

A huge bonfire was built in the center, and lit.  One monk threw ladles of water on it periodically, and more chanting and shaking objects ensued, the drama building.  My research says that the chanting is praying for the safety of the community, the monks, the guests, safety and good health.

And then, when the bonfire has died down, the moment we were all waiting for:  the monks put small sticks and strips of wood on the fire, and roll out the coals and ashes, making a flat long bed of coals.  The kindling catches fire.  And the monks take turns walking or running across the flames.  Not glowing coals.  FLAMES.  One man walks slowly, step by step.  Another sprints.  Many carry wooden tablets wrapped in writing.  

Once all the monks complete their walk, once each, the guests of honor line up, take off their shoes, and walk across the fire, still flaming.  The onlookers start lining up and taking their shoes off, to walk across the flames.

Did we take part in the walking?  No way, are you kidding?  I'm adventurous but not insane.  We were covered in bits of ash from the fire, coughing from the smoke blowing in our faces for the past hour, and no way was I going to subject my tender little feet, finally healing from the fungus and eczema, to trial by fire.  Although it might clear up any residual fungus.  But no, I haven't grown up with the right mindset for mind over matter and all that.  I'd probably burn my feet miserably.  Unless I was the absolute last person to do this, at which point the flames and even burning embers might be out.

I wanted to watch the believers do this personal test, or feat, or however they think of it.

But Richard grabbed me, because some of the parade marchers were posing outside the gate.  And we found some guy on a box, reading or preaching or ranting or, well, we don't know.  Just, a guy on a box.


So we chatted with parade participants, took their photos, thanked them profusely.  Some people spoke some English and asked us where we're from, are we just visiting, how do we like Japan.  

And of course we told everyone they looked beautiful or fierce, depending on their costume.

This group was funny - the nun is a man, and the firefighter to the left (second person from left) is a woman.  Love the gender role busting!

All in all it was an amazing and exciting and thrilling day!  Like nothing we've ever seen or experienced before!!!  DEFINITELY visit Japan in the autumn so you can attend a festival like this.  (Though other Buddhist temples do the firewalking at other times of year.)

My newest word in Japanese:  nekko, meaning cat or kitten.  As in Hello Kitty.  Nekko.