To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Down-home Japan


Hi, all,

       I wandered into something very down-home Japanese tonight. I'd been driving and hiking in the mountains all day, and I was starving. On the way back to town, passing near my school, I saw a small crowd walking into the woods along a shrine path, and a lot of cars parked out in the street. I could see lights near the shrine, there were banners in the street, and I could hear an old man chanting: festival! I have to admit that my first thought was not, "Cool! Japanese culture!" but "Cool! Festivals have cheap, fresh junk food!" Indeed, on the path from the street to the shrine (these are usually set back, half in the woods, so most neighborhood shrines look like a couple of small buildings in a forest clearing), there were a couple of stands selling festival food: fried octupus-in-dough balls (stay away from the octupus balls), sweets, and bean paste baked into an inch-thick pancake. I got the bean and pancake thing for ¥100. When I got closer to the shrine, I could see the whole thing. It was really just a neighborhood affair, a lot of the older folks and families with young children. There were a few electic lights strung from the trees and a couple more food and game booths along one side of the clearing. On the other side, there was a huge bonfire. Families were milling around, children charging around, and quite a few people just sitting watching. In the middle, in front of the shrine itself, about thirty people, mostly older, were dancing in a circle. Most of the women were wearing simple kimono, although a couple of them wore farming outfits with noh masks. Everybody wore the typical conical rice-straw hats, but folded slightly and covered with all sorts of garish colorful things: Christmas-tree tinsel, party-color fake fur, feathers, flowers, fake flowers, etc. There was no music, only a singer, an old man half singing, half chanting, the same very simple melody, over and over, but always different words (and slow enough for even me to mostly understand--it was mostly about children, though just separate injunctions, not a story). I looked for a priest--Shinto priests have outrageously, almost Popishly ornate outfits, topped by a hat that looks just like the shoe hat worn by Sam's mother in the movie Brazil--but I couldn't find one. The singer turned out to be an old man in regular work clothes and a farm-equipment baseball cap; he looked just like a farmer from Indiana. It was just a neighborhood thing, a bunch of people out on a fall night dancing and socializing in front of a bonfire. Great atmostphere. It's wonderful to see something traditional that's still real, being done for whatever it's original purpose was and in it's original mood rather than for show or self-consciously to preserve tradition. I even met some of my Manyo students.

O genki de,

Peter

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