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Kichijoji Omatsuri


If you ever travel anywhere, from a neighboring county to a faraway country, will you find yourself a native? Put down your AAA Travel Guide and ask a local where to go, where to eat, what to do.

Thank you, Kyle Cleveland, Professor of Sociology at Temple University-Japan, for being just that for me. An American who woke up and found himself a longtime resident of Tokyo and avid researcher into Japanese culture, he has been instrumental in guiding my travel, experiences and decisions here in Japan.

It was he who directed me to Kichijoji Sunday morning. One of Tokyo’s most desirable suburbs, Sunday was the conclusion of the district’s annual Fall omatsuri, festival. There, one of Cleveland’s former bilingual students greeted me at the train station, poised to be my very patient tour guide for the day.

A day after a busy trip to Yokohama, I was unsure how I would receive a day of central Honshu’s heat. We found a centrally located set of drums, beaten by traditionally-garbed Kichijojians and surrounded by onlookers. This was its beginning.

From there, my smallish, Americanized Japanese guide Megumi, with bobbed black hair and a warming laugh that she used to hide her curious eyes, took me to one of Kichijoji’s several shrines. Walking passed stands selling takoyaki, fried octopus, and boasting small carnival games, she explained her understanding of the omatsuri.

There were eight or more Kichijoji neighborhood groups, each of which would carry their omikoshi, portable shrine, from its home (sometimes in a temple or garden) to the town center, where all the groups would chant and show off their omikoshi as the omatsuri’s conclusion.

Traditionally it was believed, Megumi said, occasionally gauging my understanding of her English (which was far better than for which she gave herself credit), that a Shinto god lived within the omikoshi.

With Megumi translating, I found from her mother and others who were carrying an omikoshi, that much of the religious meaning had been lost for the participants. Seeming surprised by my interest in the traditional meanings of the festival, Megumi’s mother echoed all of the other participants I questioned in assuring me that it was a social event for fun, nothing more. It took my passing a few drunk drummers to get the message.

At first I was a little disappointed. But then I remembered something written by Donald Richie, acclaimed American author who has called Japan his home for half a century. (MEET DONALD RICHIE IN MY THIRD EPISODE)

“Visitors to Japan are… hoping for something more Japan,” Richie wrote in The Image Factory, but, “new Japan is now continually in your face and [changing].”

Sometimes Westerners want to see the Orient as a place untamed and unlike the homes of our memory. A place where polytheism reigns, you eat with sticks and the alphabet just seems pretentious. It is jarring to see a block party with drinking and young people disillusioned with the religions of their grandparents. A mirror is a troubling thing.

This changed nothing. Tradition is a passing of message and importance. I regret that at this time on this day in this place I do not know what my family name means. I do know that it meant something to someone at sometime in someplace, and that is from where my pride in it originates.

Megumi’s mother laughed when, through translation, I asked her if she was proud to be carrying the omikoshi. It didn’t appear in the translation but it did appear on her face and in her eyes and I saw it as it billowed out of her Japanese ears. She was proud of carrying the shrine, not because she thought a Shinto god was trusting her middle-aged shoulders, but because she knew there was a time when there was meaning in it all and something done indirectly is done just the same.

Megumi and I followed one of the omikoshi parades. She and I slicing through the sweaty crowd, a singular body that managed to expand and contract in every direction, simultaneously fighting us and pushing us towards the omikoshi, a two foot by four foot box adorned with ornate gold, intricate carving and simple paper cutouts, an appropriate dichotomy for the beer-guzzling, Shinto-supporting events around it.

Late in the afternoon we met all of the omikoshi and their human conveyances in one overcrowded explosion of celebration and confused awe.

The groups answered their leaders’ chants, all in competition, while rhythmically hoisting the omikoshi skyward and dancing to music which seemed to have no origin. There was clapping and whistling and singing and more, all of which came from everywhere and nowhere all at once, as I fought sweat from overtaking my voraciously consuming eyes.

As quickly as the celebration rose to its greatest height, when leaders climbed on top of the platform in front of each omikoshi and gave even more pointed direction for my glare and camera lens, it came to a halt. A wild scramble for every watering hole and beer-infused cooler in Kichijoji.

For her own part, Megumi’s mother took me to one of her favorite bars; a bar which, through her daughter’s translation, I learned would be closing in December. She bought me a Sapporo beer and some yakitori, chicken kebabs, and was surprised when I told her I was a proud American who didn’t eat McDonalds and didn’t drink Coca Cola.

The bar was more a window sill opened to the sidewalk where nostalgic festival-goers were drinking and eating while lamenting the bar’s impending demise. Smoke billowed from its small opening as chicken and corn cooked over grills, and I had a conversation couched in charades with an omatsuri veteran.

After Megumi’s mother learned my diet was based on brown rice, she insisted I take a bag of chicken breasts and an admiring smile, as I wandered once more to a subway station. I stumbled over a traditional Japanese phrase of thanks, as I tend to do, and got on a train that would return me to the normalcy of a megalopolis thousands of miles from my home. A smile stubbornly fixed above my satisfied chin.

Jaa ne:

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