From: Peter Rivard
Date: Sun Oct 13, 2002 11:51:49 PM Japan
To: Newsletter
Subject: I heard you like to drink too much

Hi, all,

Well, for the second and probably last time, I marched in festival today, helping to carry the shrine. This time, I joined a festival out in the boonies, near Go-chu. Last week, I had been eating in a restaurant/bar there (run by the family of one of my favorite kids), and after a few drinks the regulars persuaded me to join this festival. Accordingly, I rode up (and up, and up) to this village and rolled into the bar at around 11. Mrs. Mizoguchi handed me my outfit, and I changed into it: this time, no robe, just white shorts (flyless boxers), a white mock turtleneck, and white tabi (socks with thin soles and with the big toe separate from all its friends). One of the guys I'd met before gave me a ride over the temple, and there, for the finishing touch, someone wrapped a long red cloth around my waist.

Overall, this was a lot more fun than the festival I marched in two years ago. First of all, I can understand a lot more Japanese now. The main reason, though, is the people. This is a very small community where everyone knows each other well, and I was not only the first foreigner ever to join the festival (I'm generally "the first foreigner to" do everything I do out there), but I'm also someone they all know about through their kids, grandkids, siblings, and neighbors. It's a lot more intimate. It was also a lot more drunken. After eating and drinking at the temple, we sent the kids off with their much smaller shrine, then we had our speeches and blessings (in the form of drinking sake that had been blessed to ward off injury) and picked up ours (I'm the blond head under the arrow). Although it's a lot smaller than the one I carried before, it also had a lot fewer people to carry it, so the load per person was heavier. It also didn't have three shifts to switch off carrying it. We'd carry it a few hundred yards, shouting our "Wasshoi! Wasshoi" every step (not "Oh, shit! Oh, shit!" as I'd thought the last time I did this) to where the neighbors had set out food and drink in the street, spin the shrine around a few times, toss it in the air three times, then set it down while we rested and were served squid, octopus, and fish jerky; sake; beer in tiny cans; juice; and whatever the local granny considers her specialty. Of course, as time went on, the stops got closer together, the spins slower, and the tosses much lower. Before too long, we swerved off the road for the first time (it is hard to direct this thing, and the roads are far too narrow), sending the carriers on one side into a rice field. Eventually, the two sides effectively went to war, each using all its energy to send the other into the muddy paddies, into drainage canals, into shrubbery, and, once, off the edge of a seven foot drop (into a muddy rice paddy). The rice paddies are set below road level, so getting back up to the road can be hard, and a couple of times when the whole shrine went into the rice, we just trudged it across the paddy for some distance. Although they were harvested a while ago, they're still muddy and even flooded in places, and I still wondered about all those poisonous snakes (our footwear being pretty much just socks).

Another interesting custom sets in after a few booze stops. I'd noticed a lot of dents in the metal siding put up over the straw walls of a lot of the older houses and storehouses. Now I know how they got there. After accidentally bumping one house (I think it was an accident), we started intentionally ramming anything with metal siding--we'd even make another run if we didn't leave a big enough dent the first time. Very, very strange. Here we are ramming a hill for no reason I can fathom, and here we are trying to keep the damn thing from crashing into the ground after heaving it up in the air.

At one point, we even managed to lose our policeman--he went straight and didn't see the parade he was leading break off to the left behind him. To tour the outlying villages, we marched the shrine straight onto the back of a truck, then all climbed on and rode a mile or so, still chanting "Wasshoi! Wasshoi!" Finally, as we approached the point of physical ruin--it took longer and longer to pick ourselves up each time we stopped--we made it back to the main shrine, somehow bullied the portable shrine up the long gravel-covered stairs, and survived to enjoy the waiting kegs.

From the pictures, you can also see an obvious physical problem--while my companions mostly carried it on their shoulders, I was too tall for that. I carried it all sorts of different ways, and what with the battles, ramming, unexpected agricultural detours, and just the carrying, heaving, and catching, just about every inch of my body hurts. I have huge bruises everywhere. And, from carrying a heavy load over gravel and rocks almost barefoot, my feet scream for mercy every time I even think about standing up. And a lot of the other guys are in much worse shape. But much fun was had by all, and I'd gladly do it again if I were going to be here next fall (second Sunday in October, if you're passing through). I had a lot of fun talking to everyone, and seeing some of my kids out of school. It was also great to run into some former students I'd liked a lot, including one girl I initially took for a woman in her early twenties until I thought, "hey, that looks like...."

The father of one of my students approached me and invited me to shower at his house then go to a gathering after the party. Although she'd seen me earlier in the day, his daughter definitely didn't expect me to drop by for a shower. The grandparents were also quite surprised--they followed the old custom of bowing several times, their heads all the way to the floor, when they met me (I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with that). Three families in the village had hosted American boys visiting with a boys' choir, and that night they were meeting to portion out the pictures, and they asked me to read the letters they'd just received from the boys. It must have been a heck of an experience for the boys, because the families they'd stayed with didn't speak much English, and the boys didn't speak any Japanese--for four days! One of the families includes a student of mine who speaks English extremely well, but her mother told me she had been too shy to say much to them, as could be seen on the video we all watched (she had also been too shy to tell me about the visit, though at that time she had been working with me alone for four hours a week practicing for a speech contest). Mr. Tanabe, the man who'd invited me, tossed my bike in the back of his van and drove me home after the meeting, which was nice.

I'd brought a disposable camera to get pictures, but without pockets I'd had to leave it in the bar. Someone handed me the pictures I linked to in this letter just before I came home. I'm hoping more pictures will filter in over the next couple of weeks. I'd really wanted to snap one of the shrine being trudged through a rice paddy, with the mountains in the background, but no camera, no picture. Oh, well.

I'm off to heal.

Peter

Best lines of the day:

While I was talking to some older kids, beer and plate of food in hand, at the end of the day, one of my elementary school kids said, "Jeez, your personality is completely different from in school." Well, duh....

A little later, an older guy came up to me and said, in slow, trying-his-best English, "I heard you like to drink too much" (which ain't what he heard or what he meant to say, thank god).

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