Monday, October 17, 2005

Taiko festival

please click on any pic to enlarge

Yesterday I woke up at around 2 am, met some friends at three, and we all headed up to a shrine at the foot of the mountains to watch three neighborhood taiko floats be carried up more than 100 stone steps into the woods to be blessed by a Shinto priest before sun rise. Thousands of people showed up. The scene was ghostly, haunting, and exciting, dreamy, definitely dreamy, ethereal. Each taiko is a two and a half ton drum float costing about 500 thousand dollars and representing a storm; the dome at top is the sky, the checkered pattern is the sun and space, the white tassels are the rain, and the drumming is the thunder. Two golden dragons (made with real gold thread), male and female, are in the 69 position, representing ascending and descending powers. One dragon has his mouth open, representing the “ah” syllable, which is the syllable for the beginning (we say it when we are born) and the other dragon has his mouth shout, representing “um” or end. The whole festival is to thank god for a plentiful harvest.
The drums looked like glowing golden ghosts ascending into the dark forest in order to attend a secret spirit meeting. Watching these glowing things bob up and down, slowly carried by 150 to 200 screaming, shouting, sweating men into the dark forest, up the hill, to the shrine, a full moon overhead, was magical. This is the opening ceremony for the three-day festival.
After daybreak, the drums returned to the ground, and the exhorted men rested, enjoying beer and miso. Some friends and I went to Jesse’s for breakfast, then we went to an onsen or hot springs bathhouse, and then we had a picnic in the mountains and went hiking. Exhausted, I finally made it home in the evening, had a quick rest, met some other Jets who were in town for the festival, and we all watched another event. THEN, I ran home so I cold talk to molly and my family over the Internet using our i-sight cameras.

This afternoon I went back to the base of the mountains with one of my teachers, Mr. Inami to actually help carry one of the taikos. I was directed into the center of the float, and, because I am so tall, I had a hard time carrying it, for most of the time we just carried it on our shoulders, but I was so much taller that I had to bend my legs a great deal. Anyway it wore me out. Great excitement though, especially when we would all heave the taiko above out heads, and then throw it a few inches into the air. We also had a contest to see which group could hold their taiko up the longest. We only lasted 4 min. The winners did it for 5. I felt this event was very dangerous though. When we were moving around the arena with the other drums, turning it around in circles and whatnot, we were stepping all over each other’s feet. If anyone had tipped, they would have been trampled. The festival is totally dangerous. Someone dies every year.
I saw, for the first time, a police force standing behind the crowd.
When we were done we all drank beer while baking in the hot afternoon sun.

At night, I went Mr. Inami’s house to celebrate. We had a feast. He told me taiko festival is a lot like thanksgiving. It is thanking god for our food and health. We watched the evening festival live on TV, which took place in the narrow streets by the train station. During this festival the taikos battled. This means that they angle the taiko upward and charge each other, trying to harm, or even puncture the other group’s taiko. The yakuza is usually involved in this one. Keep in mind that by this time everyone is pretty drunk. Personally I am glad I didn’t go to this event. It looked extremely dangerous, deadly, silly, ridiculous, crazy. Nuts. I can’t believe they do it.
I saw an ambulance arrive shortly after one of the battles ended.

Only men are aloud to carry the taiko (traditionally women couldn’t even touch the taiko) and it is even called the “Masculine festival.” The origins of the festival date back to the tenth century when they would just parade around the neighborhoods. The festival took its modern appearance about 300 years ago. 41 taiko floats live in Niihama, each one corresponding to an area or neighborhood.

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