Last Sunday (the 16th) Maeda-sensei (language aside: sensei is the Japanese word for “teacher”, if you are a teacher it is also used as an honorific ending) invited me to his community’s annual Danjiri festival. He does not live in Daito. He lives in the city above Daito, Shijonawatei. I do not know all of the cultural relevance of the festival, but danjiri festivals usually occur at the start of fall. My guess is it is a harvest/purification festival. It involves lugging a massive cart (the danjiri) to a Shinto Shrine, where it is blessed. The Kami (ancestral spirits) ride on the cart. In the more well known festivals people shake the carts violently because the Kami are said to enjoy the roller coaster like ride.
The danjiri cart that I helped push was made of solid wood. It was beautifully carved, but still SOLID wood. The cart resembled an ox cart with a fabulously carved temple on top. It looked horribly top heavy if not for the massive wheels. The wheels were trees that had been cored so an axel could be inserted. The wheels were soaked in water all year round so they did not become hard. They needed to be soft so that the cart could be revolved around the wheels (without them actually spinning). Whenever a drastic maneuver was called for we left a smear of semi-soft wood on the ground. The cart easily weighed a ton. It was around 200 years old, or about as old as my country! Parallel to main cart juts out two long polls. Perpendicular to these poles (but parallel to the ground) are the beams you actually push. There was enough space for three people to push each beam between the two poles, plus an additional two on the outside. In the front approximately 15 people pushed the cart. In the back (where I was) approximately 12 people pushed the cart. An additional two people are in the cart playing the taiko (drum) and a Japanese symbol that resembles a top hat. The musician sits facing the concave side. The walls of the “hat” or the top of the “hat” can be tapped each producing a distinct sound. There were an additional two to three people on the roof of the cart throwing salt (important to Shinto beliefs of purity) and also moving electrical wires out of the way! I assume the wires were hot, but they grabbed them and moved them away so the cart would not snap them. There were another three to four people riding on the cart waving and helping to chant.
They attached a rope to the front of the cart and had all the elementary school students pull on the rope. It was very cute and the kids were really into the rhythmic chanting. I don’t recall the word (because it changed as people become more intoxicated (more on that later)), but it translated roughly to “I’m not tired!” The kids yelled it with zeal; I try not to lie.
We lugged the danjiri down a hill, across a street, and then up a foothill of a mountain to a Shinto shrine. We then had lunch, lugged it back down the foothill, over the main road, and past the train station. I don’t know where they were taking it because I left early. I was picked up at 7:30 and I left at 1:30. The pushing part of the festival ended around 4. I was too beat up, exhausted, and was not interested in lugging a two ton cart around for another three and a half hours. If this action offended my own ancestors: sorry about that. The best part was although this was clearly a parade type event, they didn’t close off the streets! So we had cars and motorbikes passing us as we lugged this cart, approximately the width of a car and twice a car’s height, around town. At one point we had a city bus and about 5-7 cars stuck behind us. We pulled over to let them pass.
One of the most demanding moments, other than the climbs, were the turns. If we needed to do a very sharp turn the front and the back pushed in opposite directions, pivoting the danjiri about its center of mass. But I guess this is a little dangerous, so we rarely did it unless it was absolutely needed. In most cases when an extreme turn was required we in the back jumped up onto the poles and cross beams and the front pushed. The back provided a stabilizing weight while the front did all the work. But hanging like a towel over a clothes hanger on the pole was not the most comfortable position I have ever been in.
We made numerous stops along the trek, though I found them to be not very well paced. I could have used a stop right before the big climb so that I could steal myself or at least feign an “old football knee injury”. During the stops people consumed sake. Maeda-sensei said it was to purify you. So at the first stop I drank some. It tasted like good sake, but I am still not fond of. I drank it very fast to “get it over with”. My large shot of sake didn’t make me too keen to go about pushing a giant cart in the sun. We also ate some rancid food, mostly whole small fish that had been dried. I eagerly drank a little more sake to wash the taste out of my mouth. When it became clear that we would be “purifying” ourselves every stop, I found the tea truck that the kids were being served from. I can say that a lot of the guys pushing the cart got very heavily “purified”.
I found the whole experience to be mesmerizing unsafe. When we were getting the cart out of its holding pen it nearly tipped over on an incline. We had to brushed power lines and tree limbs out of the way or else they would be snagged on the roof of the danjiri. People were getting increasingly “pure” throughout the day. We were literally a few inches away from hitting parked cars, peoples’ homes and bystanders. The fact that this cart could carry monumental momentum even at low speeds and had an epic moment of inertia made hills terrifying. There was at least once when I honestly thought we lost it. The one real safety measure taken was when we were going down the hill we moved the kids to the back, so they would not be run over if the cart got away from us.
Despite all my complaints, I did really enjoy myself and found it immensely valuable. I was given a look into the workings of a culture and allowed to participate. I am very grateful and lucky to have been given such an opportunity. The people were also really great, particularly the kids. I had one boy who knew only the word “Hello”. So he would come up to me and say, “Hello. Hello. Hello. He-llo. Heeee-llllloooo. Hello. Hello.” And any permutation on how you can possibly say “hello” as you can think of. Other kids spoke more English and I we asked each others’ names, ages, birthdays, and do I like natto. This is The Standard Food Question™ in Japan. Natto is fermenting soy beans, and unlike miso soup (which is ground paste) natto are whole beans. So it is soy beans in a fluid roughly the consistency and color of clear snot. Yum-a-dum-dum. I have not tried natto. Japan is the only country that I know of that values food that can only be described as “slimy”. We were in an izakaiya and Mat ordered some natto, the owner of the place said something to the effect of, “Good choice, it is really slimy today!” Damien is now a real slimy food connoisseur thanks to Japan.
I feel like someone beat me up. I am sore all over. I have taken to consuming ibuprofen (for Katie: “Vitamin I”) to help beat the beating I took from the cart. I also take a shower to clean myself, then fill the tub with really hot water and soak. It doesn’t help for long; but while in the heat my body thanks me.
See the fabulous pictures on my flikr site