Friday, September 24, 2010

Natsu Yasumi

Well, if the weather isn't any indication (it's been rain all week!), September 23rd signaled the Autumnal Equinox here in Japan, and thus the official end of summer.

Here's what mine looked like...

A trio of samurai astride their impressive mounts clop (and occasionally plop) along the streets of Hachinohe City in Aomori during the July festival. Thousands of onlookers, some traveling from as far away as Fukuoka, camped out along the streets for hours before, munching on onigiri, pretzels, and carmel corn in the afternoon sun.
Performers dressed in tiger costumes are popular during matsuri. They typically stalk the edges of the crowd looking for willing participants who offer their heads to be swallowed by the tiger's jaws. This is considered a sign of good fortune, ensuring better health in the year to come. (Do not attempt with real tiger!)
Colorful dancers twirl and whirl through the streets, often playing a set of taiko, or the fue.
Matsuri are incomplete without the splendid decorative floats that parade down streets. All of them have some combination of moving parts, light or smoke effects, and hand-played music to draw spectators. Each of them represents some neighborhood or section of the city it comes from, and many are pulled through the streets by festival goers from those same neighborhoods.
Tanesashi Beach in Hachinohe. Other local ALTs and I went with Sawahashi-san, our supervisor, to spend the day touring the coast.
The cliffs adjoining the beach in Hachinohe. 
In early August, I was privileged enough to join a couple kouko-gakusha (archaeologists) from the town office I work at and go with them to a site they are currently excavating. Their research leads them to believe that this site was occupied by an early pre-Japanese culture living in Aomori around 1,200 years ago. The test pit I'm digging into here has a layer of ash (the light-brown soil ringing the bottom) that was left after a volcanic explosion.
"You wanna dig how deep?"
Here I am setting my spade to work, (and wearing an expression that suggests I may have just ripped my pants for all my efforts). A pleasant cadre of hired laborers, curiously most of them middle-aged to elderly women and one out-of-work college male, are fanned out behind me working on the opposite corner of the trench.
Still August, but now in Towada, here's a picture of the All-Japan High School Sumo Tournament.  These big boys put on a great show, some of the hits they landed causing participants to wrap their heads from minor bumps and scrapes. It was interesting to see how not every sumo wrestler was of the expected sumo-size. Some of them eschewed the added body weight in favor of agility and a speedier technique. Some of them were smaller than me! (I didn't envy those ones.) 
Here I spare you from the delightful "crack shot" to give you a lateral view.
Now the last week of summer in September, a crowd of Oirase's best gather round to watch the first few marchers kick off the Momoishi matsuri parade. Oirase is made up of two smaller towns that merged a few years back: Momoishi and Shimoda. Both halves of the town have their own matsuri. The rope you see on the ground rests slack as we wait our turn to enter the parade grounds by pulling the float behind us.
Undeterred by the rain, a squad of traditional dancers precede our float along the parade route.
A look ahead as the dancers pass.
A fancy headdress of a black cat, eerily creeping down the center of the street, flows back to where a few children guide its long black train. The children's own sways and moves seem to be dictated by the performer wearing the headdress.
A lucky tiger comes to plant a health-inducing bite on the onlookers, while an NHK cameraman films the action.
A float comes to a stop and opens up to reveal a mythical tale woven into Japan's cultural past. The float leader pauses during these moments to sing a traditional song as the taiko drummers play.
This is definitely NOT the way you want to end up riding through the parade. (Or the way you want to end up period!)