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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Fall Festival Kyoto


In my area of northwest Kyoto, the third Sunday of October is festival day. We give thanks for another harvest, drag out the mikoshi (portable shrine), and drink and carouse as much as possible in eight hours. Within a small radius as many as four festivals are taking place. The drums reverberate from festival to festival, calling the neighbors and tourists out to watch.

The mikoshi at my festival weighs two tons. It is decorated with golden shimmering pieces of intricate design work. We lash two long poles to the bottom, and then 30 men on both sides shoulder it up into the air. We carry it for as long as five minutes at a go, screaming and yelling and sweating. Then we drag it on a cart to the next "village": until recently Narutaki, Omuro, Fukuoji, etc., were true villages. Today they are urban and suburban neighborhoods in Greater Kyoto.

The climax takes place in at Ninaji Temple, the former summer home of the Emperor that was built in the early part of the 9th century. After dragging and carrying the mikoshi--and walking miles--since early in the morning, we are exhausted but expectant. Hundreds come out to watch as we arrive just after 3 pm. The screaming takes on a primal edge; when we hoist up the mikoshi above our heads, the smell of 60 bodies is profound. The drummers set up in front of the main gate of Ninaji pound out an eight-beat rhythm. After 10 minutes of weaving back and forth, we ascend the steep stone steps of the temple. Inside the vast grounds we lurch to and fro, heading for one of the inner sanctums of the temple (and a UNESCO World Heritage site).

There the head priests of Ninaji Temple and Fukuoji Shrine, where the mikoshi is stored, bless the shrine and the festival and us. They chant under deep blue skies. After, we head out again, purified and mad. In front of the crowd--which is not permitted into the inner temple--we erupt. Drenched in sweat, spent, we run the mikoshi back and forth in front of the temple gate. A few of the young "wakachu" (those who carry the shrine) dance.

On the way back to Fukuoji Shrine, where the shrine will pass another year, a fight breaks out. A legendary prick from another village has been egging on one of the leaders from Omuro since early in the day. The leader attempts to brain the guy with a megaphone. Unfortunately, three cops intervene.

A perfect matsuri.

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