Sunday, March 30, 2008

Burning the Evidence - Morning

This was the morning we had been waiting for all year. We wanted to make Bacchus proud. It was the day of Sagicho. Sagicho is my favorite festival and the best one that we have been to here. It has all the elements of a truly epic party. There are crowds of people, lots of booze, and to top it all off there are huge amounts of fire as the cherry on top. All this and giant floats decorated with rats created out of dried food crashing and banging together, who could ask for anything more? Let’s go!

We headed off after a quick breakfast bound for the mountain. All the action would take place at or near the shrine located at the base of the mountain. Each of the different districts in the town of Omihachiman had been working to build a giant wooden float to parade around the streets near the mountain. The floats take months to build and they are crafted with care. Each year there is a different theme that rotates on a twelve-year cycle along with the Chinese Zodiac. This being the year of the rat all floats were to be decorated with rats. We hoped to find some of the floats on our walk to the yama like we did last year. We managed to walk all the way to the base of the mountain without catching sight of one of the illusive three-ton wooden behemoths.

We decided to wander around the back streets around the area. We managed to find one of the floats as finishing touches were completed before the parade began. We had a good time watching the folks make sure that every little detail was perfect for their walk. After seeing this float we were itching to see more. We started to wander back in the direction from whence we came. Rather than take the same path on the return we decided to walk along the canal. The canal was a pleasant place to walk along until we realized that we were on the wrong side and were unable to climb back up to the street level. Logan had really enjoyed walking along the little path that sits less than a meter above the level of the water. We found that we were stuck on the path and we needed to climb up a short rocky path to get where we wanted to be. We managed to scramble up the rocky path and made it up to the street where we were able to cross over the canal on the bridge to the other side.

Once on the other side of the canal it seemed to be a good time to enjoy some of the lunch we brought with us. We wandered down and found a bench where we took advantage of the spot to rest our bones while we ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apple slices. We enjoyed our lunch and then it was off to find more of the gargantuan floats.

We sojourned back in the original direction we came from. Logan was scared that we were going home but we soon turned off the main road and found more of the floats. The first one we found was nice, but it was the second where we really had a lot of fun. One of the guys who worked on building this float is a member of the adult class I teach on Thursday night. Yasohiro was very glad to see us. Then he brought over his father and his dad’s friend to meet us. We had a great time visiting and hanging out with them. Yasohiro’s dad made a very good observation that Sagicho is not a festival it is a carnival. As it is a carnival it must be treated as such, and he handed me a beer. He also gave Jenny and Logan a can of fruit juice each. We then saw Koji, another member of my night class. He was getting ready to help carry the float on his shoulders. We took our leave and headed off to see some more.

We managed to find our way back to the main street just outside the shrine entrance. The street was now closed to automobile traffic, but not to pedestrians or giant wooden sculptures. This was a blessing because there soon would not be enough room for anything other than the mammoth creations and the people bearing them. The first of the floats that came down the street was the kids’ float. Children from all around the city create this float and though it is smaller than the rest it is still quite large and heavy. There were many children carrying the float, including three or four that I recognized from school. Two of the larger boys were students from my junior high, and from the grimace on their faces I knew that they would be sore the next day. They carried the float along the street, yelling and screaming and cheering their way along. They stopped in front of the tori gate that marks the entrance to the shrine area. Here they proceeded to dance their float. They first lifted it high into the air. Then they spun it around in a circle. Next they moved it a bit forward and spun again. Last they set their massive float down in an out of the way place in order to watch as others were brought in.  

The next few floats entered in much the same way, only on a grander scale. Everything was bigger about the next floats. They were carried by bigger people, towered higher in the air, weighed more, and took more time to process to the entry tori. By the time the third and fourth floats were getting ready to enter the area at the base of the mountain there seemed to be a traffic jam forming. There was not going to be enough room for two floats to progress across the bridge at the same time. One would have to allow the other to go first. The real question was how to decide who would have the honor of being the first and who would be relegated to the second position. Now in a normal situation I would say that the proper way of settling any dispute here in Japan is by relying on the age-old method of Rock, Paper, Scissors. I have seen it time and time again. When there is a conflict to resolve the Japanese resort to the game they call Janken and we call Rock, Paper, Scissors. Winner takes all. When we flip a coin to decide; they Janken for it. But this was a contest between two giant floats created using dried food and wood, and these floats had no hands to create the signals for rock, paper or scissors. There would be only one way to decide a winner and that would be a grudge match.

The two massive creations of logs and mosaics of dried food were set down on their pedestals on the pavement. The two floats faced each other like two sumo wrestlers facing off in the ring. Giant logs crisscross through the float sticking out in front and behind the float by about two meters and on the side by about one. These giant poles give the people carrying the float something to lift the float using. Now they would serve the float in much the same way a bull moose uses it’s antlers during spring. The poles in the front of the float began to move up as the ones in the back were lowered to the ground. The men who were toting the float through the streets now took places at the back in an attempt to brace, support and push the float forward. Meanwhile the other team was completing the same procedure and was getting ready to push their float forward. Both teams began to chant and cheer their team on as they began to surge forward. The floats crashed into each other with tremendous force. We could feel a slight tremor in the earth beneath our feet as four tons of wood collided in the street. They pushed forward into each other with tremendous force. Neither side wanting to give an inch to the other as the long sticks in the front tangled and intertwined forming a massive bramble of sticks.

In the back of the float the men fought to make sure that their team gave no ground in a colossal shoving match. This was float sumo. Sumo is a sport of brute strength where two massive men attempt to push the other to the ground or out of the circle. The first to fall or leave the circle loses the game. The rules were the same here. The first to go down is the loser and must give way to the champion. After much jostling one finally did give and came crashing to the ground. This is a dangerous sport and lives are on the line. There have been instances when these gargantuan floats have crushed the men responsible for them. People run as they topple to the ground. It was amazing to watch them struggle and fight. Then one began to tip. Moments later it crashed down to earth and the participants were left to resurrect the beast.

We began to watch the people. Everywhere we looked the people were as colorful as the floats. The men carrying the floats were often more made up than the women watching. Multicolored hair is almost expected to match and coordinate with the bright colored happi coats and wild outfits. We saw one middle-aged man with giant hoop earrings and enough makeup to shame a streetwalker. Another guy was wearing nothing more than black stretch pants with a strategically placed flower and a Mexican wrestling mask. Another guy was wearing a tiger mask that in no way seemed out of place. Girls were dressed in their most fun outfits and the guys were wearing their flashiest duds. I felt only a little out of place in my normal everyday clothes. I am not sure if I would have felt comfortable wearing something more elaborate. Then again when fueled with enough sake anything is possible.

The sake and beer flows freely during Sagicho. Each float is followed on the parade by a smaller cart that houses the booze. The booze cart is there to refuel and keep the party flowing. This is the biggest and wildest party this city sees all year and everyone gets into the swing of things. This is a no-holds barred event. As we watched the first of the floats crash into one another on the streets we spied a dog sleeping on the sidewalk. Not more than two feet from his resting muzzle lay an empty beer can. Later as we walked through the area where all the food stalls are located we saw many of my students wandering. A clutch of junior high school boys was only able to giggle, say my name, and giggle some more. When I asked two girls from school what they were drinking they held their beer cans aloft and said in unison, “juice.” The sake keeps all the adverse elements at bay. The weather is usually cold, the floats heavy, days are long and well we just want to have fun.

In order to keep things fun we decided to head home and take a break before things heated back up in the evening. We left one party to find another. As we approached our apartment complex we saw that about twenty people had gathered for a pre-party. This is the way it is. Sagicho is a true party. And after a short respite we would be heading back into the fray.

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