What does a sore shoulder, the smell of sweat and a heavy float in the heat have in common? Fun of course! Or something called Omatsuri in Japan.
Omatsuri is a practice in which a shrine is carried around town once a year to allow that town's deity to venture outside of the stationary place of worship. This would fall in line with the Shinto side to the Japanese religion. But I think the major point about omatsuri is not necessarily the worship side to it, but rather the community building omatsuri requires of the town. I was once told by a good friend of mine that omatsuri is a metaphor, a good metaphor, of Japanese culture. You see, it takes a tone of people with endurance to lift and carry these floats and if a few people slack, everyone else can feel it. Even food and water (and of course sake) providers have their role in helping omatsuri carry out. Everyone must pitch in and together they achieve something grand: Carry a heavy float around town in the heat.
The fun part about today is that I got to participate in it, and I had not a clue I was going to when I first rose from my bed at late-o-clock on my much needed lazy Sunday.
I started to hear a parade of sorts marching down the street not far away while I was in the shower, of all places. Because usually being in the restroom is the signal for important things to happen, like that phone call you had been waiting for, or ya know, some crazy Japanese parade you can't see because you're in the bathroom. So it passed. And I didn't get to see it. But I knew I heard something, so rushing (with clothes on, please give me credit there) with my camera I was able to catch up to the music I could hear.
At first I was tentative to get close, being the foreigner and all I was unsure how much I was accepted into this parade. An Australian friend of mine told me he annually participates in omatsuri, but one can never know the full situation of when crashing a party is appropriate. So I stalked, and played the “Dur, I am visiting foreigner taking pictures, don't mind me” card. Ah, I do love playing the clueless foreigner card in Japan. It lets you pass go on many mistakes.
But eventually they caught on to my stalking. I guess walking behind them for twenty minutes or so warrants suspicion. An elder guy started talking to me (in Japanese) and I was able to handle the conversation mildly. Next thing I knew, I'm being poured sake and encouraged to drink up. I faked drinking, not being able to tell them no (since that's sorta against Japanese culture to refuse a drink). Heh, sorry mom and dad, but I still just can't get myself to drink alcohol.
Shortly after, I was pushed towards the float and given a position to help carry it. It was actually a lot of fun. I think what I enjoyed the most about that moment was being a part of the group and helping everyone. After all, I am living in this town, so while I'm here I am a part of it. And carrying that float, despite all the hard times of being a stranger in a strange land, this one golden moment, I could just be a part of the group. I could forget that I was a stranger.
Granted I kept stepping on the heels of the person in front of me and my clothing was sorely out of place. But I did my best, and I meet some nice people. From an elder man who escorted me around and lent me his happi jacket and obi (sash) to a girl my age who I swear is a real life version of Rukia from Bleach. I must thank the elder man, effusively, because of his generosity and inviting me into the parade (actually there were about three elder men that encouraged me to participate, but one made sure I was ok and acted as a host for the whole day).
I still hear the shouts and chants of the group, everyone shouting out to help raise the spirits of those carrying the float. I can still feel the weight of the float on my shoulder (certainly my shoulder is still complaining) and the times we'd have to retrace a few steps back because we didn't reach our rest point in a straight line (indeed the foreman/woman would tell us to go back three or four times over because we did not reach our rest point in a straight line). I can certainly still smell the sake that was literally sweating out of everyone.
Towards the end, as the float reached the shrine, I was told to step back because of the danger. Things get a little dangerous as people “fight” for the position near the nose of the float. Though at one point I got dragged back into carry the float, near the front of all places, and I swear it felt like a Three Stooges doorway jam moment. Everyone was squeezing in and it was no longer the float that hurt, but the people sandwiching you. I think next time I'll just stay away towards the end, thanks.
But it was very fun, and I was glad I was able to experience this fascinating part about Japan. I've even been invited to two more of these, but we shall see what my shoulder says in the morning.