Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Burning the Evidence - Evening

The afternoon began to wear on and our siesta time was drawing to a close. We moved down the steps to the party waiting in the parking lot and prepared to sojourn back to the mountain. We gathered with a collection of people that were also ready to go and see the action. We had been there to witness the sport once in the day already but most of our neighbors had not. It was a pleasant opportunity to walk once again with excellent company. Logan was able to feel like a king because he got to hold Mr. Mark’s hand on the way. We arrived just in time to see more of the floats bashing and crashing into each other.

We stood and watched as the monstrosities collided with great force on the street. It was not long before we decided to heed the call of dinner. We weaved our way through the crowd looking for a nice booth serving up some tasty treat for us to fill our empty bellies. Jenny and I decided that we wanted to eat the okonomiyaki, which has become one of our favorite treats. Okonomiyaki is sometimes called a Japanese pancake or Japanese pizza, though in truth it is neither of these things. It is flat like a pancake, and it is as common to Japan as pizza is to America; but truth be told, it is what it is, and it is delicious. Logan decided on yakisoba, and we all sat down to eat. We ate and watched the growing party. Everywhere were looked we saw people walking, sitting, eating, laughing and having a good time. We saw many of my students. They all made a point to come over and say hi to us, amazed that Kebin-Sensei is eating Japanese food and drinking beer. We sat and enjoyed our festival food dinner as the sun began to set and dusk began to settle.

With our food gone and our bellies full we decided to find a spot to claim as our own. We realized that the best location would be an elevated one. We decided to ascend to the top of the rock wall that surrounds Hachiman Shrine. The wall is about five feet tall and plenty wide enough to provide an excellent viewing location. Unfortunately we were not the only people to make this realization. The crowd on the wall was growing and we knew we must act quickly or lose our opportunity. We clambered up the piled rocks to the platform where we would be able to peer over the heads standing on the ground.

We watched as the commotion grew more and more raucous with every moment. Floats were entering the ground and being paraded around what on a normal day is a parking lot but today is a parade ground. The shouts of “mase – mase” and singing of the Sagicho Matsuri song grew louder and more frenzied. We watched as the floats were once again carried into the area, and once again the great colossuses were set to push and shove in their oversized sumo matches. They squared off to in a very important match this time. Last time it was for entering rights. Winner gets to go first, loser gets to follow behind. This time it was all on the line. Loser burns. This was the beauty contest. No swimsuit competition to determine the winner. The losers would go up in flames first; the winners would have the honor being allowed to live a little longer.

This is the essence of Sagicho. The floats are created to live the span of one short weekend. Committees from around town, one for each ward of the city, meet to build the float for their neighborhood. The floats are paraded, bashed, crashed, and eventually set ablaze. This is all then set to repeat the next year. This being our second Sagicho we had a small inkling of what the weekend held in store for us. We had the smell of the smoke lingering in our olfactory senses from last year. The entire point of the weekend is to let off steam and celebrate the fact that spring is approaching. The culmination of this celebration is the burning of the evidence.

This ritual burning was setting to commence soon. I was growing impatient as Jenny and Logan had left me alone so they could seek out restrooms for Logan. Soon the first float would be torched. The first every year is the children’s float. This allows the children who travailed so hard to create to take an active part in its destruction. There is a procession out of the shrine where the guest of honor carries out a lit torch. The torch is then presented to the float. This presentation is the beginning of the end for the float. The papers and streamers flowing off the top ignite first, followed closely by the dried food that creates the mosaic zodiac design. All this acts as kindling for the wood of the body of the float. The float burns down to ash in a matter of minutes. It starts the day as a towering beast standing twenty feet in the air and ends the day as a pile of ashes that get raked into the gravel of the parking lot.

I watched as the sun set and two floats paid tribute to the orb of fire that was now drifting to sleep in the west. Moments later Jenny and Logan came to rejoin me standing on the top of the wall bearing gifts. The best gift that could be offered at a time like this, Jenny held in her hands two cups of sake. That is what this festival is all about; fire and wine. I dropped one sealed cup in my jacket pocket and popped the top off the other one and look a sip. I handed Jenny the camera so she could snap a few pictures. Logan and I jumped to the ground to get closer to the action.

The evening was growing colder and the heat from the fire of the now slowly burning children’s float felt good. Standing on the ground with the sake warming me from the inside and the fire warming us on the outside Logan and I stood watching as burning embers from the streamers floated across the sky like magic butterflies. We watched as the participants danced and sang in the light of the bonfires that were their hard work and dedication. They ran in circles around their floats drinking sake from paper milk-style cartons. They passed the carton from person to person, urging each other to drink faster and more. Some danced because they could no longer walk straight. Some danced because they were caught up in the heat of the moment, possessed by the fire spirits. This is the essence of Sagicho.

Logan and I watched as the people cavorted and frolicked in the burning joy. We walked and watched as the people partied the night away. Soon enough though the time for us to take our leave and go home had come. The sun had set and the air grew colder. Logan’s eyes began to get that unmistakable look of tiredness that signals his need for sleep. We knew that our night was drawing to a close. Logan and I went back to the rock wall to collect Jenny and make our way home.

We all wandered towards the exit to get back to the street and find our way home. We walked away from the burning fires and towards our home. As we got nearer to the tori gate that marks the entry and the bridge that crosses over the canal we turned and took one more look at the amazing sight behind us. We looked forward across the bridge and saw that there were still floats there fighting for the right to enter the area and which would go up in flames first. We walked the dark streets from the excitement of the base of the mountain to the quiet and solitude of our home. Sometimes a party is nice, but it is always great to be able to come home.

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