Friday, August 3, 2012

Japanese Summer Festivals

Hello, and welcome to a very special edition of "Russell's Ken-Bun-Ki." These photos are from the August 1, 1996 edition of the Aya Shu-Ho (weekly magazine). Aya, the town where I lived for 14 years, held its Traditional Summer Festival on July 28 that year. In a town of only 7,500 people this is a huge event. And as a young single man, the understanding was that I would participate with all other 20-30 year old men carrying the Portable Shrine through the town in the parade. However, by 1996 I was married with a daughter, so I don't remember if I was actually one of these guys this year or not. I'm thinking maybe by this time I had retired...but not sure when that was. I know I helped for atleast five years: all the years I was single and the first few years that I was married. Anyway, the character on these hapi coats is "matsuri" which means "festival."  We would start at the actual town shrine and then go through the town, "blessing" rice fields and babies as we went. We had several rest stations where towns people would bless *us* with beer and shochu (potato whiskey). After the first year, I stuck to beer! The shrine felt like it weighed a ton; I have no idea how much it actually did weigh, but it really did take atleast eight guys to move it. The more there were, the easier it was. However, because I was taller than the average Japanese guy, it often dug into my shoulder *before* it dug into anybody else's! So I would try to balance my time with the other taller guys instead of the shorter ones. No matter how it worked out, everybody who did it would have their shoulders rubbed raw by the weight and friction. For the next few days we all had very painful neck areas. At the end, in the middle of the town we would place the shrine in a blessed stand and it would be there for the next few days, keeping an eye on the rest of the festival.  

The rest of the parade consisted of kids from the kindergartens marching, politicians walking, and groups from designated areas dancing. In Aya there were about 22 separate "towns" or "districts," and each had its own traditional dances. Each year two or three groups practice for a month or so and then perform for the rest of the town.  other highlight of the festival was the parade, which we Shrine Carriers were only a part of. Here are two of those groups. This year they were all women, but sometimes the groups were men. This photo has the women dressed in summer yukata (cotton, simplified kimono) doing a dance for harvesting (you can tell by the straw hats they are wearing). The other dancers are doing just a "happy" dance wearing traditional festival hapi coats and festival headbands.

The other groups were middle school "glee" clubs who would usually try to do something "traditional" but not too stressful. This picture below is a group of kids playing flutes or drums while riding (?!) in a mock-Portable Shrine. You can see that they are made-up to look like traditional Daimyo (imperial rulers) or other important people in their light green kimonos.

Lastly, I'm reprinting the actual last page of the magazine. I was going to just print that but for it to be a size to fit on the blog I lost a lot of the clarity, so I picked out the photos I actually wanted to discuss.  The headline say, "Towns People Support the Traditional Festival By Huge Amount of Participation!" Lower line reads, "We were able to have a huge turn-out thanks to all the towns-people who came out in cooperation. Thank you very much!"

Besides the parade the festival includes a talent show (karaoke, mostly) and other outdoor entertainment, various food and knick-knack stands, a raffle, and carnival-like attractions like Ring Toss or Knock Down The Bottles.

Lastly, here's the *cover* of this week's issue, featuring the fireworks that always closes the festival on Sunday night.  This is a good time to admit that all of these photos and most of the work on the magazine was done by my wife, Yuko. At this time she was in the Planning and Public Relations Department at Aya City Hall. So it was her job to make the weekly magazine and to do that, go to all the town events and take pictures. So we and our best friends went to the roof of the City Hall and enjoyed the fireworks while Yuko was trying desperately get a "good" shot. If you've ever tried to photograph fireworks, you know it isn't easy! Good job, honey!

See you next week for our regularly-scheduled "Russell's Ken-Bun-Ki" column!

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