Where The Streets Have No Name: Chapter 7: The Kawagoe Festival.

- "Yeeeeeeh?"

- "Yeeeeeeh?"
- "Fuck You!

- Exchange between revellers at the Kawagoe Festival

In between the trips to Germany, just as I passed the first anniversary of my arrival in Japan, was the Kawagoe Festival. The Kawagoe festival dates back several hundred years, and involves each "cho", or village in the town dragging its "dashi" ( a large, extendable, two storey cart with a doll on the top) around the town to celebrate the harvest. For the duration of the festival, the spirit of a benevolent lord or landowner is transferred into the dashi from the temple where it normally reposes, and it is in his honour that the villagers play music, and chant as they tour around their village and visit the other villages. When two dashi come together, the upper decks are rotated to face each other, and the musicians play to entertain the spirits. The supporters of each dashi then try and shout down their opponents, and whichever group of musicians loses their rhythm first must back down and let the other dashi pass.
Of course I didn't understand any of this, but it looked like fun and there was free drink. My junior leader, Komata, had invited me to take part, so myself, Eamon and his friend Patrick arrived at Komata's house on Sunday afternoon, and I changed into a traditional Japanese costume of a pants with a split crotch that crossed over at the back, and a kimono. For the first time I wore the split toed socks called "tabi" and the “setta” straw sandals that seem to be designed specifically to hurt your feet. We then set off to the headquarters of that cho, where the dashi and a literal mountain of "sake" awaited. I was given a position at the front of the rope used to pull the dashi (in with all the children), and a decorative steel pole to carry. Eamon and Patrick went off to find their own fun. As I walked around the town, I remember feeling a sense of pride that I had become involved in this, and at how much I had grown in the year I had been in Japan. Looking back now that seems ridiculously naive, but I was enjoying myself at the time.
Soon after we set off, Komata pulled me off to the side and suggested we take a break, pointing to a vending machine. Two cans of beer were rapidly consumed, and we rejoined the parade. We pulled the dashi around town for about three or four hours, and then broke for a meal. The evening session started after the dashi had been fitted with lanterns and the children sent off home. The absence of children and the growing presence of alcohol made the interaction of each dashi increasingly vigorous. As the musicians played above us, we held our lanterns up and shouted to drown out their music, while the young, drunk supporters of the other "cho" did the same to us. Inevitable friction can occur, with fights sometimes breaking out. Towards the end of the evening, I was getting increasingly tired, and when a young guy from another "cho" started a shouting match with me (literally shouting "yaah") I responded in kind but only half heartedly. After about 4 shouts each, he changed tactics to shout "FUCK YOU!", and my distinct lack of a smile caused one of his friends who was behind him to hurriedly drag him away. It wasn't that I was offended or would have picked a fight with him, I was too tired for that. I was just so surprised by his outburst (which I presume was completely free of malice, I think he was just trying to speak what he thought was my language) that I did not know how to respond.
Once the evening session of towing the dashi around was over, everybody went back to the head quarters and the real drinking started. Being the only foreigner there I was a novelty, and many people came over to say hello and ply me with "sake". I do not remember getting home that night. I watched the second day of the festival as an observer, with a slightly sore head and sorer calf muscles.
At the end of it all I was tired but I was hooked. In the years to follow I would always be found at the festival, but only as an observer. When my interest in photography took off, I would easily shoot of ten rolls of film at the festival each year, and learned a lot more about the history and traditions involved. In recent years I have started taking part again.
Another festival in October is Halloween. Japanese people can't get to grips with this one though, and only recently has it become a high profile event, mainly in department stores. Back then one way the foreign community of Tokyo celebrated it was with a clandestine party on the last two carriages of the Yamanote Line (the loop line around Tokyo city centre) train which leaves Shinjuku station in Tokyo just after 9PM on a Saturday night. Given the time it started a lot of people showed up already drunk, and the party must have had a reputation because the night I joined in, the platform was crawling with police. There were way too many people in the last two carriages, some even resorting to lying in the luggage racks. At one station I saw a foreign woman in fancy dress helping a frail old woman, who looked somewhat shocked, out of one of the carriages, assuring her everything would be alright. As the train made its way around the circular Yamanote Line, someone who was looking out of a window got splashed in the face by a stream of something from the carriage in front. I later heard from a friend that they had observed someone pissing out the window at about the same time. In the years since, I have come to realise that there is something about living in Japan that causes some people to think that if they are not going to fit in no matter what they do, there is no point in trying, and this becomes the justification for any kind of behaviour. I decided I was not enjoying what I saw and got off to go drink somewhere more sedate.
One major purchase I made for my household that winter was a "Kotatsu", a low, square table with a fan heater under it. Years later I learned much to my chagrin that I had been using this wrongly for most of the time I had it, in as much as one is supposed to put a "futon" or blanket, between the frame and the top so that the heat generated by the heater is contained under the table, and thus keeps the lower half of the body as warm as toast. This leads to the common problem of Kotatsu paralysis, where people do whatever is necessary to avoid coming out of the warm cocoon of the kotatsu to the cold reality of an unheated room. It could be said that the existence of the kotatsu is one of the reasons why most Japanese houses and apartments are so poorly insulated and centrally heated accommodation in Japan is practically non existent. One thing I will admit doing wrong with my futon was leaving it switched on when I went to Munich for a week, although the house was nice and warm when I came back.
I was lucky that it didn't burn the apartment down, because that would have been embarrassing. I say this because of a friend, LeeAnn, who had come over here to stay with her boyfriend Bart, who was working with a company helping Pioneer develop GPS antennas. One night, while Bart was away on business, I got a call from Leann, who was hysterical. She had been deep-frying some vegetables when the phone rang, and spent a few minutes talking to a friend of hers in America. She suddenly remembered the frying pan, and returned to the kitchen, only to find that the wall behind the gas range had been scorched by the flames now rising from the pan of burning oil. The smoke alarm had also gone off, but she had doused the flames by the time that the fire brigade arrived. After they had checked out the apartment and left, the enormity of what had happened suddenly hit her, and she rang me in a panic, wondering if she would be arrested or deported because of what she had done. I managed to calm her down, but the story did not end there. Every year at our factory, there is a fire and evacuation drill, in which people pretend an earthquake has struck and then hide under their desks after which the building is evacuated. Once the evacuation is completed, we are treated to a demonstration by the factory fire team, whose head-to-toe silver outfits always reminded me of the Cybermen in "Dr. Who". After this, the fire chief of Kawagoe would always give a speech, with the same calling every year to be prepared for the ubiquitous "big earthquake" that has been threatening the Kanto region for the last thirty years or so. However that year he also added the cautionary tale of a foreign young woman who had left vegetables frying while talking on the phone and had suffered a fire as a result. Assuming he gave the same speech to all the fire drills he attended that year, I can only assume LeeAnn became quite famous around Kawagoe as a result.
In other news, Japan enthroned the Emperor Akihito, who had taken over the top spot when his father Hirohito died the previous January. Japan counts the years based on the Emperor's reign, So that year, 1989, was "Heisei" Year One. It was also, for the first seven days, " Showa" Year 64. Some Japanese people are not aware of this, but there are coins minted in that year to prove it. To digress for a moment, this system proved to be the downfall of one politician in Japan, whose false bookkeeping was spotted when someone noticed he had payments recorded for June of Showa 64, an obviously fabricated date that betrayed an obviously fabricated ledger entry.
In December of that year, all the FAS graduates took a nationally administered Japanese test, which was normally used for judging language ability of non-Japanese in order to get into university. The test was administered in a women's university in Aoyama, Tokyo, and started at an ungodly early hour. Gerry decided a night in Roppongi was the only way to ensure that he didn't sleep in. The test itself was easy for me, (the hardest part was not letting my mind wander!) and it was a chance to meet up with some of the FAS graduates I hadn't seen in a while. One of them was Claire, a pharmacologist to whom my Dad and I used to give lifts home from the Japanese course in Dublin because she lived fairly close by. As we sat eating our lunches in between the tests, what had started off innocently enough as a discussion of work conditions degraded into a tirade against me for having the audacity to enjoy where I was working. She informed me that we were only window dressing in the companies we worked for and had no chance at a real career. I can only presume she was venting her frustration at her own situation, because she left her company sometime later. 

Read On...


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