Sat Sep 16 22:41:35 2000
To: chris, dad, anne
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Hello, friends, 9/16/2000
Well, I did my part to uphold (literally) Japanese tradition yesterday. I helped carry a shrine in a big parade around town. I showed up at the Soja shrine at 12:30 and caught the tail end of lunch and drinking-the penalty for not being able to read the kanji on the postcard they sent me, I suppose. I paid my ¥2000 (gaijin discount-the Japanese men paid ¥5000) and collected my outfit (me, Blanchie, Andy, Tom): white socks with a divider between the big toe and the rest of the toes and a thin sole (this was to be my only footwear for the day), a pair of white shorts, a yukata (sort of a traditional robe, looks like a short dressing gown), a bandanna to tie around my head, a belt, and a four meter swath of white cotton about half a meter wide. After putting on the shorts, I was directed to a man who took the bolt of cotton and started wrapping my midsection-tightly. He pulled so tight he almost yanked me off my feet a few times, and he occasionally braced the palm of one hand against me while he pulling against the excess cotton with the other. At least one guy actually had his dresser plant a foot in the small of his back and yank the cotton tight with both hands. It was about twenty minutes before I could breathe comfortably. I also have to admit that, although there were much fatter men than I at this thing, I seemed to have the smallest yukata-to-body ratio. Mine closed in front of me but with very little overlap, so that I spent much of the day showing a bit more skin than I had intended. Geoff, a man of 6'5" doing his best Southern belle accent, kept giving me a stage whisper behind his hand: "Peter... (mouths the word) Nipple."
We had three teams of about fifty men each to carry the mikoshi (portable shrine). The mikoshi itself seemed to weigh a bit less than an American ton (I was one of ten people who helped carry it, minus most of the carrying timbers, into storage at the end of the day), and the timbers used to carry it on parade-a grid of 6"X6" lumber big enough for fifty people-added quite a bit more weight. Also add another 300-400 pounds for two guys riding it. I figured out later that the tight body wrapping was akin to a weight belt--it gave a lot of back support and probably kept hernias from popping out in a few guys. Each shift carried it for a little while (a littler while as time wore on-the parade lasted about three hours), then started tossing it up and down for a minute or so, then, just as group collapse was imminent, people rushed in and slid sawhorses under the thing and we put it down for the next crew to take over. By the end of the day, we were getting maybe 50 meters from each shift. You don't just solemnly carry this thing in a straight line down main street-you sashay it from side to side of the road, bounce it up and down a few inches constantly, once in while spin it very quickly, and occasionally dance it with the women's float (which is MUCH lighter). The entire time, you shout "seiya seiya" in as lively as possible a manner-it doesn't mean anything, just a shout to make the work easier. When you start tossing the thing (from about lower rib level to about as high as the average Japanese guy can reach up), you shout something else, but I was never able to figure out what it was, and I got conflicting answers from everyone I asked. It sounded to me like, "OH SHIT! OH SHIT! OH SHIT!" and as this was a godawful strain on every muscle in my body and as I was always sure I was going to end up with a concussion or a mouth full of smashed teeth (imagine you are in the middle of the grid, in a square just larger than the span of your shoulders [since you are stupid enough to be a lot bigger across the shoulders than this thing was designed for], and you are heaving a six-inch thick slick wet beam up and down, and when it comes down it takes fifty men to stop it, so if it's coming down on your face or head you cannot hold it back)-at any rate, "OH SHIT" seemed perfectly appropriate to me so that's what I shouted every time. It was almost as dangerous when this tightly packed grid of men started running in circles. Amazingly, I don't think the injury list amounted to more than a few bumps and bruises and a bloody nose or two. To keep us cool, all the residents and shopkeepers we passed sprayed water on us with their hoses. I kept running up to small children asking to be sprayed, often asking them to spray my feet (remember, we were doing all of this on very hot pavement in just socks)-I think my friend Chisato got a picture of some tiny kid pouring water on my feet, then another of him blasting me with the hose. Some people sprayed a fine mist over the crowd, others just shot a full power stream head-high into the bunch of us, and a few tossed bucketloads of water over us. Despite the danger and the hard work, I had a great time. I spent some time talking with the four or five other foreigners in the parade (we were all on the same team), and maybe a bit more time out walking with the other people, just exchanging a comment or two every couple of minutes, shouting "seiya seiya" twelve thousand times, and clowning with the kids by the side of the road (this is not a solemn event, so slapstick wasn't disrespectful).
The people riding the floats take off their yukata and lead the shouting--the women just have their white body wrapping extending a bit higher than the men. In addition to the men's and women's shrines, there was one for what looked like ten-year olds, and one, carrying Doraemon (kiddy cartoon character) instead of anything religious, for what looked like four-year olds (I think there were wheels hidden under Doraemon). The tiny kids carrying their shrine were just unbelievably cute.
After the parade, as I'm sure you've guessed, came a drinking party. I'd hoped to keep the outfit, so I was a bit disappointed that they asked for all my clothes back, but as I walked back into the main hall in my boxers with a bunch of other men, someone grabbed my arm and asked me to join him and his friends. They were a lot of fun, all about 40, and as they were already pretty drunk and clowning around like junior high school kids (you're never too old to put a friend in a headlock and give him a noogie in Japan), I was able to keep up with conversation, at least as much of it as was directed at me ("you see Kiyoshi over there [gestures to really tan guy with perm]? He's African." Kiyoshi replies, "stay away from him. Very crazy man. Chinese mafia. He'll steal your car"). Only one of the guys spoke English, so I stayed in Japanese for two whole hours, though occasionally asking for a word or definition from the English-speaking guy. From two hours of this, I learned a few new words, and they learned about caucasian body and facial hair, apparently a topic of some interest. It was a lot of fun to meet these guys, and I'm looking forward to being able to have more interesting conversations as my language skills improve.
After the party at the shrine, I was going to meet my JET friends to (yes, you guessed it) go out drinking, but I was kidnapped by a couple of men I recognized from the parade who wanted to (yes, you guessed it) take me out drinking. They saw me waiting in front of a bar for my friends, and they told me they had been talking to the other gaijin and had agreed that everybody would meet at a different bar around the corner. OK, fine. They opened the door of the second bar, and just as I was thinking, well, this place is far too small, these guys are lying to me, they gave me a gentle shove in and said to wait, they'd be back. Oh, well, I figured, I came here to have adventures, let's go with it. A woman handed me a plastic cup filled with sake as I went in. The bar was one small room with a couch along one wall but mostly just about twelve people sitting on the floor around huge communal beer bottles and trays of food-it seemed more like a private party than a bar, but after about ten minutes I started talking to the people around me. Eventually, more people joined the conversation, and people started speaking to me more and more in English, so, since they wanted to speak English and, what the heck, I'm pretty good at that, I switched (with great relief) to mostly the mother tongue. After about two hours, the party broke up, and when I went up to the hostess to pay my share, several people told me it was their treat. I made a few polite tries to pay, but of course wasn't allowed to. It turns out the bar is run by a Filipino woman-there's a roman alphabet sign near the bar with the more important polite Japanese expressions and their Tagalog equivalents.
After that party broke up, I went to find my friends who (you guessed it) were in the first bar, drinking. At that point, I'd had enough, so I didn't have drink much more there, but it was great to relax completely in my native language-even speaking English in the last bar, I always had to be attentive to whether or not I was understanding properly or speaking slowly and simply enough to be understood myself. I almost went on to a party in the next town, but as we were rushing to catch the train, I realized I had left my backpack in the bar (the bar with the other gaijin), so I missed the train to go back for it-I hadn't been that enthusiastic about it anyway-and I ended up closing out the evening at Number Eight Ramen ("Hachiban Ramen") with two other JETs.
Now, it's 10 pm on a Saturday night, and I'm going to (hah! you guessed wrong) go to bed so I can get up early tomorrow. I'm catching a 6:43 train to Kyoto to meet up with my former fiance and her new husband on their honeymoon, so I have to be on my bike by 6:20 or so.