Sunday, December 11, 2016

Yasuko Senda and Her Goodwill Mission

On August 8th of 2016, the entire island of Japan paused to watch Emperor Akihito address the nation from The Tokyo Imperial Palace and urge parliament to pass legislation that would allow him to abdicate. Fifty years earlier, the world watched on black and white newsreels as Emperor Akihito, then a prince, married Empress Michiko. It was a fairy tale wedding. Emperor Akihito met Michiko Shoda on a tennis court, and now she was the princess of the longest running monarchy in the world. To celebrate the wedding, Japan's prime minister, Shinsuke Kishi, established the first Japanese Youth Goodwill Mission and sent 79 Japanese youth across the Pacific to share Japan's rich culture and offer goodwill onto the world.

Yasuko has just returned from Turin, Italy, where she gave a lecture on Bunraku at the Incanti Puppet Festival. As I watch her sip her cold beer over books on Japanese Kagura and international puppet magazines, it's as though Yasuko is still on the Emperor's trans-pacific mission.

Today, she is a chancellor for UNIMA-Japan, directs an organization, Minerva Group, that hosts cultural events between foreigners and Nagoya residents, and is responsible for assembling the only international tours of karakuri ningyo. Her lifetime of cross-cultural exploration has shaped an insightful, valuable, and global perspective. In conversation, she moves from Edo period parade floats to Poland's experimental theater scene to recalling her time with Swedish theater-maker Michael Meschke.

In 1984, Meschke brought his adaptation of the Ramayana to Japan. The production combined musicians from Thailand, puppeteers from Japan, designers from Europe, and a classic epic from India to create a multicultural tour de force. Meschke's Ramayana illustrated the ability for puppetry to move beyond language, to preserve culture, and to celebrate our collective humanity. It also represented Yasuko Senda's pursuits as a cultural liaison. And in many ways, it was this show that changed Yasuko Senda's trajectory from enthusiast to champion.

Yasuko Senda, then 22, was one of these fortunate citizens. She was selected to visit The United States and spend three months meeting American leaders and fellow young adults. She traveled to dozens of American cities stretching from Los Angeles to New York City. She remembers New Orleans the most vividly, especially because it felt the most exotic and exciting. She recalls this remarkable journey while sitting in her cozy apartment in Imaike, Nagoya, surrounded by books about Italian Opera, Punch and Judy, and Chikamatsu Monzaemon.

(Michael Meschke, Yasuko Senda, Elizabeth
and Daddy D. Pudumjee, 2013) 

While in Japan, Michael Meschke's curiosity led Yasuko Senda down a path that would change her life. The theater director was no stranger to Japanese puppet theater, mounting a Bunraku inspired production of Antigone in 1977. During his 1984 trip to Japan, Meschke's passion for international performance led him to seek out more marginalized forms of traditional Japanese theater. He came to Yasuko Senda for help. With her fiery generosity and passion for cultural exchange, there was no better person to ask. Yasuko recalled a conversation she had with a local TV producer regarding unusual robotic dolls performed at festivals. She decided to investigate further, scouring through the producer's documentary footage. To her amazement, these puppets were still being performed all over Japan. One of the main footholds of the traditions was Aichi Prefecture, her home province. This discovery brought thrills, but also shock and alarm. How had she spent her entire life so close to these mechanical puppets without knowing a thing about them? And why was there such a frightening lack of information about this art form?

The same year Yasuko Senda discovered karakuri ningyo, The Japan Arts Council and Ministry of Education reopened the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka. While Japan's government made a major commitment to sustaining and celebrating Japan's traditional puppet theater, karakuri ningyo was widely overlooked. Similar to the puppet rituals of Awaji island, karakuri ningyo was considered low art and less refined than Bunraku. Yet, as leadership curated its national art forms to include Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku, Yasuko Senda was impelled to research and document the elusive karakuri ningyo.

For the next six years, Yasuko Senda visited Japanese festivals, compiled research and photographs, and eventually published one of the first books about karakuri ningyo in modern Japan. She also organized the first international tours of karakuri ningyo in 1984, bringing master Tamaya Shobei IX, Chiryu Karakuri Ningyo Theatre, and Hekinan's karakuri ningyo across the globe. Subsequently, she has organized tours to Slovenia (’92), Poland (’98 / ’12), Croatia (’02), Australia (’08), Sweden (’09), and Spain (’16). In 2013, she self-published an English text on karakuri ningyo, contributing to her role in preserving karakuri ningyo for both national and global communities.

Just last month, The United Nation's UNESCO inducted Central Japan's dashi and karakuri ningyo onto the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It's a remarkable victory for the craft. Today, with growing support and interest, it joins the ranks also inhabited by Japanese Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku.

When I travel with Yasuko Senda through Japan's matsuri celebrations, I always have trouble keeping up. As I try to follow her swift saunter in and out of the crowds, it's easy to imagine 22 year-old Yasuko fueled by curiosity, criss-crossing the streets of the French Quarter under the spell of a foreign land. Fifty years later, Yasuko Senda's passion and her generosity has cast a spell of her own, turning back history, and preserving a piece of the Japanese spirit.

Yasuko Senda's 2013 English-translated text, Karakuri Ningyo. Japanese Automata, is a fantastic reference for puppet makers, historians, and automata enthusiasts. It includes mechanical drawings, historical background, and descriptions of many karakuri ningyo festivals in Japan. With maps and calendars you won't find online, Karakuri Ningyo. Japanese Automata is also a great reference for travelers seeking festivals off the beaten path.

To order Karakuri Ningyo. Japanese Automata (English / $30 / €28), please contact Ms. Senda directly at:

Yasuko Senda's Japanese texts include:
Treasurehouse of Karakuri Ningyo [ 1991 ]
Karakuri Ningyo Maker Shobei Tamaya IX [ 1998 ]
World of Karakuri Ningyo [ 2005 ]

Friday, November 25, 2016

Takayama Matsuri, A 350 Year Old Puppet Show, and Glover, Vermont

As I head to Kyoto Station from Otsu Matsuri, I have a deep suspicion I'm not going to make it to Takayama Matsuri. I’m certain I'm on the wrong platform, even as I watch the corresponding trains pull into the station. On the bus from Nagoya to Takayama, I convince myself I missed my stop and I'm actually headed to Hokkaido's most northern tip. What if I lose my wallet? Or the train never shows up? This anxiety was anticipated. I am headed to one of Japan's most legendary karakuri ningyo shows, and it's only performed on one day of the year. If I miss this - that's it. But I'm in Japan - where wallets are usually returned and a late train is a mythical legend. Of course, I arrive in Takayama right on time.

As I make my way through the thousands of tourists to my ryokan near Hachiman shrine, the city puts me at ease. Despite the crowds, Takayama's beauty and charm is intoxicating. The city feels wonderfully timeless, combining Edo Period architecture with sprawling glass storefronts that reveal ultra-modern wooden furniture and stainless steel home goods. Glossy Post-War diners with Art Deco signage share the streets with 16th century sake breweries. Despite Takayama's blend of contemporary style and historic buildings, nothing feels out of place. If anything, Takayama reveals the ageless aesthetic of Japan's minimalism and its influence on modern design.

As night falls, the dashi, or yatai as they are called in Takayama, parade down Yasukowa Street. A coalition of fantastical lions leads the dazzling cavalcade. The mouths swing open and snap with electrifying cracks that complement their wiry hair and devious grins. 

The lions' heads and bodies are manipulated by teams of teenage boys, who balance wild energy with perfect harmony. Despite the frenetic energy, the puppeteers are possessively committed. 

Unlike other festivals, where teenage participants are celebratory and carefree, these young puppeteers are focused. In their dedication, you can see their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers who once performed the same custom. They don't just carry the the paulownia carved lion masks, but the weight of Takayama's history.

The eleven yatai stretch across the main street and greet visitors with magnificent grandeur. 

The ohayashi and kajikata gather around the floats to prepare for the evening procession, as awe struck tourists travel from yatai to yatai.

The illuminated floats are hypnotizing. The amount of resources needed to create this timeless wonder is staggering, and set against an international crowd of over 100,000 open-mouthed onlookers, it feels like a World's Fair. 

It's the the pursuit of aesthetic pleasures against the logic of an economist. But it pays off. As the floats journey into Takayama's historic neighborhoods, their beauty grows even more enchanting.

The boroughs of Takayama are magnificently preserved in Edo architecture. Exposed running water straddles the streets, vending machines are obsolete, and hundreds of paper street lamps illuminate the road by flame. You are experiencing the town and festival almost the same way a visitor would have 350 years earlier.


The next morning, on my way to the fall festival's karakuri ningyo performance, I am met with Takayama Matsuri's procession, or keitoraku. In the procession I discover the generations of lion performers.


Takayama's karakuri ningyo performance is over 350 years old. It's performed only one day a year, during this Hachiman Festival. It's also one of Japan's longest karakuri ningyo performances, running about 25 minutes. Like the puppets at Otsu Matsuri, Takayama's karakuri ningyo are operated by strings that run across a narrow overhanging stage, or toi. However, with over three dozen strings and more intricate movement, the manipulation is even more demanding.

Because they're primarily operated by strings, Takayama's mechanical dolls are often translated to marionette, but in Japanese they are called karako. There's an air of secrecy in the rehearsal and set-up process. 

A large embroidery shrouds the yatai's bottom tier and the response to foreigners trying to get an inside look is tepid to say the least. However, a few young boys come and go with the privileges of VIP. These are the future puppeteers, who drink juice boxes, and hang their feet over the edge of the yatai admiring the large audience.

The yatai is docked at Hachiman Shrine, and two hours before the performance, there are already at least three hundred spectators crowded around the 3 story float. I am lucky to receive a seat at the very front of the performance. Despite the enormous audience, people are careful not to stand in front of the sight lines of others. At one dramatic turn of events, the entire audience grows silent as a gentleman walks in front of the crowd and sets up a tripod. A few members start to shout. They've waited an entire year for this performance, they booked their ryokan months in advance, and they arrived three hours early to get a good seat. An irate audience member tosses his tripod, another man shouts, and eventually the photographer is escorted away from the scene by a friendly police officer. It's the first time I've ever witnessed a fight for seats at a puppet show.

The performance is packed full of miniature stunts that culminate in a grand feat of pure puppet glory. The god of good luck, Hotei, greets the crowd from the toi. An acrobat flips his way across a trapeze, and then hops onto the shoulders of the gregarious deity. Another acrobat follows behind. At the end of the show, Hotei dances around the track with the two acrobats on his shoulders. Once you think things couldn't get much more wild, Hotei spins in circles, opens a fan, and releases confetti to the crowd below.

I stick around Takayama for a few more days to explore the city's karakuri ningyo museum. The gallery offers daily karakuri ningyo performances. There is an over-sized calligrapher puppet, two robotic dolls that sword fight while balancing on columns, and an acrobat who swings across the stage. 

But like a "best of album", these shows lack a certain magic. When watching a traditional festival performance, you're in a rambunctious dialogue with history, the city, and performers. Like the young lions dancing through Takayama's historic downtown, context makes these experiences more wondrous.

Is there anything in The United States that comes close to the rich interplay between community, history, and performance? Often, American parades and festivals feel like they run on borrowed time. The institutions remain in control, instead of allowing the festival to roam freely. This prevents festivals from creating a type of celebratory other-worldly escape. In the U.S., a city festival usually means your town’s most notorious realtor is waving from a pick-up truck while a few puppets parade around the local library. But we can’t help it - for the most part, we lack a historical context for festival performance.

There are a few exceptions - Mardi Gras for example.

Perhaps the most notable exception is Bread and Puppet, which I thought of frequently while attending Japanese Matsuri. Like Japan’s festival tradition, Bread and Puppet obscures the lines between community and performance. 

(Tahara Matsuri, Aichi Prefecture, Japan. 2016)

Many of the puppeteers live on the Vermont farm, performing communal duties and engaging in a strict rehearsal regime. Like the matsuri communities, the Bread and Puppet farm and theatrical spectacles work in tandem. The shows feel as organic as the Vermont forest that surrounds you. Bread and Puppet has also been around long enough to draw from a substantial history. The theater group developed its own unique language of iconic characters and physical gesture. It keeps aesthetic guidelines and holds on to its historic traditions while remaining political. This makes it feel timeless, and, like the Japanese matsuri, ritualistic. 


Back in Takayama, I watch as the floats are loaded back into garages throughout the city, and look for a spot to grab a cup of coffee. Many of the restaurants and souvenir shops are closed and have taken a well-deserved holiday. Even though the streets are empty, its the kind of place you don’t want to leave. 

Like the yatai hibernating in their garages, I feel like sticking around till Takayama’s spring matsuri but instead, I’ll just have to take another train. Chances are high I’ll get back on time.

For more information on Bread and Puppet please visit: 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Nagoya Matsuri, Avidya: No Lights Inn, and 11/9

On the day of Nagoya Matsuri, I walk the streets around Nagoya Castle with my mentor, Yasuko Senda. Traffic has been redirected due to the festival, so today this iconic Japanese landmark feels more like a sanctuary and less of a major urban attraction. 

(Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

On a typical October afternoon, taxis line-up with eager tourists as young men stroll the grounds cosplaying as Edo era samurais. This theatrical fad has sparked admiration from teenage girls, who often come out in large groups to take photos and interact with the sword wielding thespians. This trend of Edo era recreation is mirrored by the castle itself. The majority of the historic monument was reconstructed after being demolished by American air raids during World War II.

(Creative Commons, Wikipedia)
The attacks didn't just destroy the 17th century castle, but a quarter of Nagoya's structures, thousands of human lives, and countless cultural artifacts, including the dashi and karakuri ningyo puppets that were the hallmark of Nagoya's original matsuri, Toshogu Fetival. 

During the Edo Period, puppets were recognized as a bridge between the human and spiritual world. Bunraku stems from the shinto ritual of ebisu-mawashi, where puppets serve as vehicles to eliminate impurity and grant good fortune. Karakuri ningyo puppets, operated on top of 6 meter dashi, are considered channels to the transcendent. These performative practices wade through darkness to reach the intangible. However, in 1945 the human world rendered these devices spiritually and physically powerless. After World War II, one of Japan's oldest festivals, Toshogu Matsuri, was discontinued and ritual puppetry went quiet for decades.

In Nagoya, the destruction from War World II was paved over by large efficient highways, modern skyscrapers, and pachinko parlors. Compared to Japan’s other major cities, Nagoya feels extremely new and many signals from the past are difficult to discern. It's easy for outsiders to spend weeks in Nagoya without recognizing its trauma from World War II. 

Yasuko Senda was a young girl in Nagoya during the Amerian air raids. There's a part of me that wants to ask about her experiences - but the issue always feels too complicated to broach. Instead, we talk about puppets, and spend the afternoon watching Nagoya's karakuri ningyo performances.

One month later, I am sitting in rehearsal for Niwa Gekidan Penino's original production Avidya: No Lights Inn when I read the results of this year's election.

The play is the creation of psychologist turned theater director Kuro Tanino. On the stage, a blind man, Matsuo, played by Hayato More, nervously makes a cup of a tea for the Inn's newest visitor, a three-foot itinerant puppeteer named Kurata.

"Some say the blind are closer to the mind's eye." Matsuo tells Kurata.

I stare at my phone as anxiety sets in. I grow hot. My heart races.

Kurata lights a cigarette. The actor, Mame Yamada, captures a lifetime of unsettling melancholy with a single puff. The clouds of tobacco rise across Tanino's highly detailed and Kafkaesque set. I think about my mom, who admired Hillary more than any other public figure. For my mother, she was a symbol of self-worth, and the pursuit of a dream in the face of ridicule. She would have looked to Clinton’s victory as a reconciliation with unjust pieces from her own past, and in many ways, I looked towards the election to reconcile some of the grief from my mom’s passing.

It didn't come.

"What will you do when you see it? Your spirit?" Kurata asks Matsuo.

Matsuo is caught off guard. He drops his cup of tea against the table.

"Just see it, I guess."

Often, I look at this fellowship the same way. I imagine there will be answers to plaguing existential grief waiting for me at Ise Shrine, or a farm village theatre in Tokushima. These opportunities bring me to new worlds — I discover new ideas. 
But instead of resolve I once expected to find, I'm met with only more questions, and perhaps that is the only resolution I should expect.

In Avidya: No Lights Inn, Kuro Tanino has created an unsettling world. The suspense digs into deep-rooted feelings of anxiety. The play is pushed inside a magnificent oversized dollhouse, where actors appear in highly-detailed rooms like distressed fish in an aquarium. As I move between my phone and the play, my reality blurs between the two. The show spills from the stage and illuminates the dread that's been lurking this whole time.

            (Photograph by Shinsuke Sugino)

Avidya is a Buddhist concept that translates to “ignorance." It's a refusal to accept the world's impermanence and our fixed state of anguish.

I stare at my phone, my Wifi reception spotty, as I refresh the news feed over and over.

Kurata and Matsuo sit naked in the inn's hot spring. Surrounded by rocks and flickering candles, Kurata whispers to Matsuo, "The spirit you seek, does not exist".

Suddenly, Kuro-san turns to me from the house seats. "Trump?" he asks. "Trump?" he holds up his phone with the United States colored in red swatches.

In order to reach Buddhahood, Matsuo explains, you must surrender your ignorance and face the darkness.

I fear returning for opening night. But I do, and with a couple hundred other people, we confront the dark together.

Avidya: No Lights Inn takes us into a world in-between reality and a dream. Here, transcendence isn't pleasant. And although it’s theatrical, bizarre, and in another language, Avidya holds more truth for me than the last two years of news, history books, or commentary from political pundits combined. 

                                                                               (Photograph by Shinsuke Sugino)

After the performance, a group of American spectators ecstatically compliment Kuro Tanino on his show. At the after-party, festival directors are pleased, the cast is excited, and the drinks are plentiful, but Kuro Tanino looks shaken. As actors joke over shared dishes of spicy tofu and Chinese noodles, he keeps returning to the chair next to mine. "Where does America want to go?" he asks over and over. "I don't understand."

I can't answer. Not because I don't know the language, but because I just don't know.

Kuro Tanino created a show that wrestles with darkness and swims around in a wonderfully dreadful dream, and yet the American election left him clearly troubled. 

But theater never promised answers like our political system. Instead it creates a place to linger in fleeting transience. 
It takes us into the dark, where we'll momentarily relinquish our ignorance, and stumble around, hands out-stretched, fumbling to find each other.

For more information on Kuro Tanino and Niwa Gekidan Penino, please visit:

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Otsu Matsuri

“So how many puppeteers operate the karakuri ningyo?” I ask Mr. Yamada.

Karako” he corrects. "Four."

“And the karakuri ningyo’s age?” I ask.

Karako” he insists.

Karako was the only name these mechanical puppets went by in Toda, and it seemed by Mr. Yamada's insistence that calling them anything else was blasphemous.

It was an easy enough word, karako, but I had to forget what I previously spent hours practicing. Before I arrived in Japan I rehearsed my bow in the shower, trying to bend at a dignified 45 degrees, and repeated the Japanese words for "mechanical doll" over and over. "Ka-rakuri ningyo, kala-kurri ning-yo, ka-da-kuri ning-yo".

At some point I got a handle on the phrase and now when I tell people why I came to Japan I don't have to move my arms like a robot while saying the word for "doll" over and over again. But the more festivals I attend, the more I realize that every matsuri has its own vernacular. Karakuri ningyo only gets me so far.

The terminology is not the only difference. The puppets' mechanics, the performance techniques, and the design of the dashi are just a few of the distinctions you'll come across in each city. There's no place you'll experience these differences more vividly than at Otsu Matsuri. 

According to my mentor Yasuko Senda-san, until the 1980s outsiders were not openly invited to attend Japanese matsuri. While we imagine the "outsider" as a backpacking Westerner, during the Edo period when many of these Matsuri developed, an "outsider" could be anyone who didn't live in the town. It was considered a disservice to the city, the shrine’s deities, and ancestors who participated before to pull influence from other matsuri and homogenize the ritual, language, and performance methods. 

This is one of the many paradoxes I have experienced in Japan. It's a collective society that fosters uniformity, while also maintaining extreme examples of individuality and uniqueness. Japan is known for it's ubiquitous school uniforms and well-dressed salary men, but also for the extraordinarily unique fashions of Harajuku. 

Lucky for me the mechanical puppets in Otsu are called karakuri ningyo, however, instead of dashi, Otsu Matsuri's floats were often called hoko or yama. The hoko look similar to other festival dashi, but they have an additional front wheel and a top tier with wooden benches that criss cross the deck. Instead of playing on the first floor of the float, the ohayashi surround the karakuri ningyo puppets on the uppermost stage. The benches provide space for the musicians to sit, their heads peaking over the edge like a passengers on a riverboat.


During the pre-festival afternoon, the kajikata pull the hoko through Otsu's narrow streets. There's no room for the kajikata to dramatically rotate the floats, but there's still plenty of drama as the men haul the hoko up steep slopes to the musical encouragement from the ohayashi. Sure, there's flat roads and wide streets in Otsu, but at a Japanese matsuri, decisions are rarely made out of convenience.

Traffic lights are rotated out of the way of incoming hoko by teams of police officers clutching neon rope, while spectators are forced to squeeze against walls to let the floats pass. As children hang one-handed from the 5 ton hoko and a dozen musicians cram into the 50 square foot stage, it's clear you won't find phrases like safety hazard, capacity limits, or sight lines in the festival handbook.

Unlike the festivals in Aichi Prefecture where the dashi are stored in enormous towering garages, the hoko are dismantled and reconstructed every year. There's over 300 pieces to these 19th century floats, and it takes at least a week to restore just one. The hoko are kept in well-organized storage rooms where you won't find a single screw or nail. The floats are built through a century old technique of interlocking joints. 

That's right, no nails were used in the making of this hoko.

The night before Otsu Matsuri, the hoko line up in the town's narrow alleys and are adorned with hundreds of luminescent Japanese lanterns. 

At each float, visitors are met with cauldrons filled with warm sake, live music, and delicious red bean mochi. 

There's only a few vendors, perhaps because of the lack of space, so the homes facing the festival streets open their garages and offer visitors warm matcha and snacks at makeshift picnic tables. 

The cool breeze, hospitality, and warm tea makes for a cozy evening - but I should enjoy it while it lasts. The sun won't just bring a new day, but about a thousand extra visitors to the tiny streets of Otsu.

At 10:00am, visitors fill the sidewalks near Tenso Shrine. This is the first stop for the karakuri ningyo before they take their annual procession around the city. I feel terrible as I crush an elderly woman with my backpack as the police physically push spectators into ultra-snug clusters to make room for the first hoko.  As the giant float approaches, onlookers race to find the best view. Some have waited hours for this performance and everyone is primed for the show. The ohyashi surround the karakuri ningyo as one young taiko drummer peers over the float and down at my sweaty face with both pity and bewilderment. 

With the release of a loud creaking sigh, the hoko rotates completely away from the audience. Some of the spectators murmur in confusion as the karakuri ningyo face the shrine's entrance disinterested in the crowd's affection. The only audience that counts is the gods, as each puppet show is performed for the unseen deities.

I spend the morning chasing down the hoko with my camera, crawling through crowds, looking for short-cuts around traffic, and trying to get a good view of the karakuri ningyo performances. Traveling through the unfamiliar tiny streets, following music, and trailing behind clusters of people, I'm reminded a bit of Sleep No More, or the one time I sped through Connecticut's Bradley International Airport trying to catch a glimpse of Jennifer Anniston. 

As mentioned previously, the karakuri ningyo at Otsu festival is remarkably different than those in Aichi Precture. Some of the puppets are human-scale with more realistic design. They are often combined with whimsical small-scale puppets that appear from secret compartments.

This use of contrasting scales and fantastical creatures moves the performance in-between reality and the imaginary. The Japanese author Murasaki Shikibu sits at a desk writing The Tale of Genji. Suddenly, her words come to life as miniatures spring up from the bottom of the stage and rotate around her on a mechanical turntable.

Accorrding to Yasuko Senda-san, karakuri ningyo's use of the rotating platform is one of the first examples of the theatrical turntable in Japanese theatrical performance. It was later adopted on a larger scale by Japanese joruri performances.

Besides the difference in scale and aesthetics, the manipulation is Otsu Matsuri is also distinct. For each performance there is only one or two puppeteers who manipulate the puppets from the hoko's middle tier. This area is kept covered by large ornamental embroidery. Instead of operating the puppets directly below the figures, like a conventional rod puppet, the puppeteers use mechanical tracks and strings. As a result, the puppets' movements are more robotic and precise, sort of like a cuckoo clock. These mechanical tracks, or toi, are a trademark of Otsu's karakuri ningyo. 

In one memorable performance there is an external toi that takes the shape of a Japanese tree branch reaching over the hoko and above the audience. A hanging fruit opens to reveal a fairy. The fairy makes his away across the tree branch, and happily dances above the audience. 

In one of my favorite performances, a Japanese flute calls forth a lion. A secret compartment opens on the stage to reveal the adorable mechanical beast. The lion frolics across the toi to the applause of the audience below. 

This lion and fairy performances remind me of the countless colorful characters that appear everywhere imaginable in Japan. Warnings, instructions, and city logos are transformed into big-eyed moments of delight: an endearing amphibian reminds me to avoid putting my hand in-between the elevator's moving doors and an owl dressed like a police officer greets me as I activate a cross-walk signal. 

It's a lot easier to remember to turn off the lights when you leave your apartment when you're prompted by a picture of a deer wearing a kimono. As I watch the Shisa hop across the toi to an adoring crowd, it's clear that Japan's kawaii aesthetic can be traced back to Japanese's rich culture of performance and folklore. 

I want to stick around Otsu to discover the other characters that will unexpectedly emerge from the colorful hoko, but I have a train to catch. Takayama Matsuri starts in just three hours and it's 200 miles away. 

As I slip out of the crowd surrounding the Shisa's float, my vacant spot is quickly filled. I trace my steps back to Otsu Station and pass a couple racing through the back streets, trying to bypass the human congestion to get a good spot for the next performance. The way we race through traffic and nudge through crowds just to gawk up at these characters you'd  think they were celebrities. But they're not. These mechanical actors don't care about our adoration or applause. In fact, I'm certain they'd still be here, with or without us, performing for the gods.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Tsushima Matsuri

It's almost midnight when I arrive back to Nagoya from Toda Matsuri. It's Saturday night, and while groups of young people head out for a night in Naka-Ward, I take the elevator to the eighth floor of my apartment building, eat green tea ice cream and fall asleep without flossing.

At 9:00, I put on my headphones, turn on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and take the train from Nagoya Station to Tsushima. I keep Google Maps open on my iPhone, but it's impossible to miss the stop. The dozen or so dashi tower above the Meitetsu subway line and can be seen from a mile away.

A chorus line of golden floats greets the arriving visitors to Tsushima in a vast concrete parking lot. Like royalty, they remain fifty yards from the crowd, protected by barricades, cameramen, and police officers. Unlike Toda and Tahara Matsuri, this is the type of well known festival that gets pictures in Lonely Planet guidebooks and shows up on the top of Trip Advisor message boards. There's 13 dashi, each with karakuri ningyo, and an additional fleet of six majestic 18th century floats that ferry enormous taiko drums. Embellished in silver plating and detailed cypress accents, these smaller floats look like miniature trireme ships with the main mast shouldering rows of Japanese lanterns.

Groups of Japanese twenty-somethings surround the floats in matching matsuri uniforms, trading jokes and greeting their friends with cold beer. They announce the start of the festival with fierce thumps on the taiko drums. But these thumps don't stop - they continue in rapid succession, shaping the rhythm for the next two hours.


As the music picks-up, it becomes more infectious. The men start to jostle each other towards the taiko drum as the girls hammer on Japanese cymbals known as chanchiki. In Yokosuka, the Japanese flutes and shamisen were stars of the festivals. In Tsushima, they're discarded for the thud of the taiko. 

The cries of sports whistles joins the ensemble as the drums hasten. I'm convinced the sounds are about to reach a final coda, but like a musical magic trick, the drums loop into a never-ending crescendo. Men wrap their arms around their neighbor's shoulders and fall over each other in a musical daze. Perhaps the barricades aren't to protect the dashi from the audience, I think, but to protect the audience from the musicians.

As I watch a girl with purple hair extensions drink an enormous bottle of sake, it starts to feel like I'm watching a party from the front lawn. The mood inside is feverish, pulsating, and exciting - out here, beyond the barricades, it's just kinda hot.

Like a sail rising from the mast, the ebony floats unfurl embroidered canopies and cruise down the main street towards Tsushima Shrine. Groups of adolescent flute players gather on the dashi's first tier and strike up their orchestration, as the floats start their journeys towards the other end of the street. But this half-a-mile stroll is no intermission - it's the main event: a two hour celebration filled with twirling dashi and roaring music. The entire street is filled with lines of spectators, as the 5 ton dashi are rotated 360 degrees over and over in looping madness.

At one intersection there's a dashi turning competition, known as a donden, where the floats are spun six, eight, then ten times in a row.

The men spinning these ornamental mammoths never rest. I see one grab hold of the side in an exhausted stupor, while another lets out a scream as though possessed. 

One man stands on top of a float and tosses what looks like brightly colored mochi into the crowd. People are going crazy, waving their arms and shouting for his attention. This must be some delicious mochi. One is thrown my way as an elderly woman knocks me out of the way, effortlessly seizing it between her hands. It's not mochi - but a bright yellow towel. Oh dear, I exclaim, as I have a disturbing flashback to a Pittsburgh Steelers game.

At the gates of Tsushima shrine, the taiko drums and chanchiki have reached a new stage of intensity. I watch as a laughing teenage boy steps forward to seize a bachi and take the helm of a taiko drum. His face transforms into stony-faced attention as he skillfully pounds away and feeds the hungry participants.

By 16:00, I'm starting to feel a bit weary, but the musicians and kajikata aren't showing signs of slowing.  A man hangs from the float, clanging a chanchiki close to my hear, as I try to spot the closest bathroom. It's clear, Tsushima Matsuri is way more punk rock than tourist attraction.

The karakuri ningyo performances will take place inside of Tsushima Jinju. The shrine's main tenant is the deity of pestilence and blessings, Gozutenno; however, it also houses over 100 smaller deities throughout the sanctuary. The bright red torii provides a breathtaking backdrop, as each dashi moves center-shrine one-at-a-time to offer its show to the jinju's spiritual dwellers. Similar to the set-up at the train station, the audience watches the karakuri ningyo from about fifty yards away.

Each dashi has a puppet that stands on the lower tier and waves a shinto gohei prior to the performance. The floats have remarkable details. The roof on one dashi ascends from a trap door, magically revealing the top tier's karakuri ningyo .

In one show, a woman dances across the stage as her face transforms into a orangutan, back into a woman, and then a orangutan again for good measure.

One of my favorite performances was created by Tamaya Shobei V in 1887. Two puppets stand upstage as another moves center and transforms into a boat. Like a Toy Theater show, two-dimensional waves extend from the bottom of the stage and rock back and forth as the boat's miniature sail flaps in the wind.

In one karakuri ningyo performance, an entertainer cheers up a despondent emperor with... a karakuri ningyo performance. 

In the final karakuri ningyo act, a shinto priestess, or miko, approaches a cauldron that sits on the end of an overhanging eight foot rail. This is one of the first dashi I've seen with an external track, or toi, that lets the puppets move outside of the float. It's incredibly effective, as the miko waves a palm branch towards the audience in a cleansing ritual. At the end of her ceremony, paper flies out of the cauldron in a magical burst. But as I watch the confetti fall to the empty ground below, there's a part of me that wants to be closer.

During the thirteen performances, my thoughts drift to American politics, ice cream, and health insurance. I watch Tsushima's calligrapher puppet and compare it to the one last night in Toda (not nearly as impressive). I start to shape a to-do list for the upcoming week when I realize my problem - the physical distance between me and the floats have made it easier to take up residence in my own head. I remind myself to be present. Most of the karakuri ningyo are marvelous, and I feel lucky to have attended. But it's worth noting its the first time I've felt like spectator instead of a participant. 

What I usually love about karakuri ningyo and Japan's matsuri culture is the blurring between audience and performance. The theaters physically move through the crowds and travel through narrow streets. They're indifferent to where you stand, and don't mind if you gawk a few feet away at their ornamental beauty. As the oyahashi and kajikata spill past, you're impelled to follow behind.

It's never felt like these towns are hosting the matsuri; the matsuri hosts the city. This ambivalence towards an audience and simultaneous invitation to join-in gives the viewer no choice but to participate. When you're standing inside of a crowd, chasing after a roaming theater, watching mechanical puppets perform magic tricks while the person next to you gasps with delight, it's easy to forget about the stuff inside your head. You're invited to the party.