I'm living in Kusatsu-shi, Shiga-ken for an undetermined amount of time and teaching English as a second language at a local high school. This journal is to document my experiences, thoughts, and to stay connected with others at home and abroad.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sagichou Festival 左義長祭り

Omihachiman City(近江八幡市), about 15 minutes north of Kusatsu by train on the Biwako Line, has the best festival I've been to in Shiga. It is similar to the Hikiyama event in Otsu that I participated in last October, but with much more alcohol, violence, and fire. I don't think it could get any better.

Every year different communities get together and construct a dashi (山車), or a float. With a cornucopia of kelp from the lake and dried beans harvested the year before, people in the community construct a centerpiece with features the current year's avatar of the Chinese calendar. This year is the boar, or inoshishi (イノシシbecause I am turning 24 this year, and there are 12 different animals that rotate according to the stars, I realized that I am a boar! THIS IS MY YEAR!!!!).

This is where things start to get crazy. Around noon all of the floats gathered at the main temple by the base of Omihachiman Mountain. From here they would choose an opponent, agree to battle, and crash into each other like sumo wrestlers until one of the floats gets either a) slammed to the ground, b) speared and possibly has their boar decoration marred or decapitated, c) mounted and simultaneously speared, which is a pretty demeaning combination.

This is definately a) getting crushed under the Yokozuma Champion. The dashi on the left got hit hard and shoved into the gravel. I guess this is where the numbing powers of alcohol come in handy, because the left-hand side team definately got jolted and probably fell during the strike.

An unfortunate case c) the left float mounted and gouged the right one with one of its logs. Ouch, he's going to need some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Band-aids.

This is Katie, Tim, and some of the carriers of the dashi that won best-looking. I don't know how, but through my own special photography genius, I took this photo of the dashi's rear-end, defeating the purpose of showing off its amazing looks. But, on any account, we were all in agreement that the prettiest float is the one that is actually getting stabbed in face in the picture above––unfortunately it is going to need a facelift after the beating is took.

These guys were the senior organizors of the dashi from Uaichou (I think, the kanji 魚屋 had an irregular pronunciation I didn't know). You know they were important because they were in charge of steering the sake cart, and riding on top of it when the time came. We talked with and hung out with them a good bit of the day. It was hard to resist. They were so welcoming and insistent on giving us beer and food and teaching us about the festival. The center fellow in the photo here even reprimanded the other teammembers who spoke English to us, because as he said something along the lines of, "They're here to enjoy Japan and the festivals, this isn't their job where they speak English all day. Let's let them experience." It was honestly one of the first times I've ever heard that reaction from someone in Japan, but he was absolutely right. It sometime can be awkward to stand out so much in Japan, especially when your job is, for the most part, being a tool for Japanese people to adjust, slowly, to the rest of the world. Playing the foreigner, especially during a community celebration, can separates me even more than my physical differences already make me, and it makes the situation difficult to enjoy. He read into that in a second, without us saying anything, and insisted on accepting us as teammates, and treating us like them too, which is an incredibly wholesome and inspirational feeling. And the end of the night he asked us to meet again next year for Sagichou again.

And the FIRE! Who could leave out this arsonists wet dream. Because the centerpieces were held together with bundles of straw, then doused with sake and singing, when the time came to torch them they burned in a flash. Even at 20 paces the heat was enough to make me shield my eyes and reach for the chapstick. But that didn't stop guys, gals, and kiddies from forming rings and dancing in an orbit around the outside of their burning dashis. The wrecklessness without an acclaimed lawyer in sight, what rapture, what passion these people have for living! I even heard from a teacher that someone died at this festival, I don't remember when, but it isn't hard to imagine. They have enough love not to worry themselves into cages. These towns are very rare in the rest of Japan, and America absolutely. I think it's apparent enough that my enjoyment of Sagichou isn't in the superficial triumvirate of booze, bonfires, and bashing-–it's in the untrammaled celebration behind those mirrors that usually arrest people's attention.

I have much more I want to share about this day, but my inadequate planning has left me short of time. I should briefly mention a few more highlights of my day.

-Talking with Katie and Tim over a Chinese brunch about science and religion and the needleeye in between.
-Not needing to make complete sentences to communicate. Teaching English has taught me that well.
-Katie, Tim, and I went and took a break between the midday clashes and nighttime finale in a bamboo forest. We played a few rounds of hide n' seek (kakurenbo, ), and I have to say if you've never run full speed through a mountainside of parallel, irregularly spaced 75 foot high weeds that are sturdy as oak even though 90% hollow and leave bruises if you slip or don't dodge at the right moment, well, you are certainly missing something in your life. My shoulder still aches slightly though.
-After tackling a few trees our trio found a Liquor Mountain, which, among selling great European cheeses and other free trade imports, also offers free wine tasting within the store from their famous boxed wine collection. We finished whatever of their display had not already been ravished, and then made our way outside, where we wolfed down a chunck of garlic goat cheese and another hunk of blue within about ten minutes. With crackers naturally. We must have had an air of homelessness, but you could have threatened us with a gun and it wouldn't have mattered at that moment. "Transmigration of the soul"--I believe that is a good way of expressing the sentiment we were experiencing, although it's a Poe rip-off.

I think that's a pretty good image to leave the readers with.

Or these, I forgot about these...


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