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.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Toda Matsuri

A group of elementary school students endlessly air-drum beneath the festival's dashi. They don't want to miss a note during tonight's performance. At Toda Matsuri, most of the musicians are children who have spent the last month of music class in preparation. 

The audience is made-up of parents, proudly poised with digital cameras, and younger siblings who run freely through the shrine while grasping cotton candy. Sure - it's not a large crowd, but there's something so pleasant and comfortable about the small-town atmosphere in Toda that I catch myself singing The Gilmore Girls' theme song aloud to no one in particular. 

I spend the afternoon at Hachiman shrine with a festival organizer, Mr. Yamada. Even at seventy three, Mr. Yamada climbs through the three-floor dashi with ease.

He is excited to speak English, share the shrine's history, and show off his fresh surgical scar from kidney surgery. Asahi beer cans, plastic containers of curry, and cigarettes line the edge of the 18th century dashi, as I climb on board and head to the second floor. The puppeteers are easy-going, but the karakuri ningyo is anything but simple. The puppet’s controls are a mix of strings, handle bars, and the sashigane technique I observed in Yokosuka.

To make things manageable, the puppeteers place brightly colored labels on each handle, and wear battery-operated headlamps during the performance.

Mr. Yamada explains that the puppets suspended above our heads are milling rice. The two robotic farmers rotate the mill with hand cranks, while a miniature acrobat stands on top. After a full rotation, a stage extends from the center of the mill and the puppet leaps into an impressive hand-stand. To Mr. Yamada, this performance captures the essence of Toda. "Rice Milling is Toda's main manufacturing," he says, staring upwards at the wooden puppet. 

A 24-hour automat for uncooked white rice sits outside the shrine and one the most popular fair food this evening is dango (sweet rice dumplings). Rice is Toda's livelihood, and these three mechanical dolls give thanks to the gods who have granted it.

Toda's dashi is not as ornate as those in Yokosuka and Tahara, but they are some of of the oldest I've seen, dating back to 1702. A school teacher announces the performance on a portable karaoke machine, as the students gather into a shapeless circle, shyly hiding from the gaze of their families' cameras. Two grandfathers sit on the edge of the chozuya, or shrine fountain, smoking cigarettes and watching the puppeteer make final adjustments to the karakuri ningyo.

Despite the casualness of the festival, the performance is excellent. The manipulation is smooth and well-rehearsed. And even though the ohayashi is a group of elementary and middle school students, their music reflects the puppets' movements well and creates a unified spectacle.

The kids don't want the show to end. As the audience applauds, they gather around the float with their instruments and continue to play. The puppets join in, waving their arms, milling rice, and nodding their heads to the music below.

My guide this evening is a first year college student named Daiki. We search for the next karakuri ningyo performance at Tenjisha shrine as he tells me about his first semester in dental school. We walk through Toda's dark and narrow alleys with only the light from Google Maps and a few flickering Japanese lanterns. It's one of the first chilly nights of autumn, and traveling the streets, moving from shrine to shrine, it starts to feel a bit like Halloween."Have you seen Gilmore Girls?" I ask Daiki. He never heard of it- but he is a big Bruno Mars fan.  

We catch the glow of a dashi in the distance, give-up on Google Maps, and follow it.

Two rows of children sit behind kotsuzumi drums. The music teacher provides some last minute instructions as a dozen young boys line-up in front of the hanging taiko.

The drums pulse as the karakuri ningyo climbs across a set of monkey bars and hangs upside down from his knees. Like a magician rolling up his sleeves, the last bar rotates outward with the swinging puppet hovering above the ground, revealing the absence of strings or rods. The karakuri ningyo returns to his original position as the boys make their final blows on the large taiko drum.

At Zuyumia shrine, Daiki introduces me to dango, a sweet rice dumpling that is lightly seared over flames and covered in a Japanese molasses.

It's only 100 yen and the line is short, so I go back for seconds, promising Daiki I will floss after I get back to my apartment.

As the night falls, teenagers come out to enjoy the festival food, watch the performances, and snap photos. But, without the presence of tv crews and tourists, the festival never gets overwhelming. No one is worried about applying enough sunscreen, a crowded train ride home, or squeezing through people to get a better spot for the next performance. With the fall breeze and natural small-town coziness, there's something about Toda Matsuri that feels unexpectedly nostalgic.

But the festival never gets overwhelming. No one is worried about applying enough sunscreen, a crowded train ride home, or squeezing through people to get a better spot for the next performance. With the fall breeze and natural small-town coziness, there's something about Toda Matsuri that feels unexpectedly nostalgic.

A Chinese calligrapher stands at the top of the dashi at Zuyumia Shrine. Not an actual Chinese calligrapher, but a puppet Chinese calligrapher wearing a grin that suggests he knows exactly how impressed you're about to be.

He removes a pen and starts to write on a suspended piece of translucent paper. The audience can see the ink soak through the paper as lines take shape. If you watch carefully, you can even catch the subtle movement of the puppet's head following the pen's tip.

After the final stroke, the paper is revealed to the audience from the front. I'm not sure what it reads, but the penmanship is flawless. I have to remind myself that it was written by a puppet operated by a 17th century method of strings and wooden rods. 

The crowd of teenagers, children, and parents applaud as the puppeteer emerges. He wears a grin not unlike the puppet, as he removes the paper and holds it above his head.

The audience cheers as he tosses the paper into the air. It floats to a young woman, hands outstretched. She shows her friends, smiling contagiously, and then passes it to a young boy by her side.


"What did it say?" I ask Daiki.

"Akizora," he replies.

"What does that mean?"

"Autumn sky."

Monday, October 10, 2016

Yokosuka Matsuri

Fried food might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the Shinto religion, but today the smell of yakitori, halumaki (spring rolls), and tempura permeate Yokosuka's Atago Shrine.

A large line forms at the entrance, as two local news reporters enthusiastically wave to the festival goers. Broadcasting live from Owari Yokosuka Matsuri, they call me over to hear my opinion about this year's festival. Growing nervous in all my excitement, I choke out, "Wakarimasen [I dont know].  Wakarimasen [I dont know]” as I notice the large monitor broadcasting the channel’s feed overhead.  

There’s such little information about this tradition in the West, it's surreal to see these puppets transmitted on live network television. In Japan, people know these wind-up dolls well, and surrounded by camera crews and a thousand festival goers, these puppets  continue to play a major role in Japanese life.

We travel from Atago shrine through the narrow streets of Yokosuka, where vendors fill the path selling grilled squid, toys, and the chance to win stuffed Anpanman by knocking over empty aluminum cans.

As the crowd grows larger, our guide, Mr. Jino, leads us to a small tent near the city center for a quick respite. We are treated to cold beer, sushi, and one of Yokosuka's specialties: boiled peanuts.

City officials wildly gesture over trays of octopus as the conversation grows more rambunctious - and not just because of the flowing Asahi. In November the city finds out if Aichi Prefecture's dashi tradition will be granted Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO [United Nations' Educational Scientific Cultural Organization]. It's on everyone's mind: in one month these floats might join the honorable ranks of Bunraku, Kabuki, and Noh Theater.

Well fed and rested, Yasuko-san and I are ready to head back into the crowd and watch the first performance.

An enormous audience gathers at a narrow intersection, as the musical ensemble, ohayashi, plays from the float's bottom tier. Although it's one the first days of fall, the humidity is ruthless. The tight cluster of spectators doesn't make it any cooler as a PA system amplifies the sound of the flutes, shamisen, and taiko drums. In Tahara, the puppets and musicians performed together, but here in Yokosuka, the first twenty minutes belong solely to the ohayashi.

I can't say for sure if the crowd is enjoying the music. All around me, audience members stare upwards, hands shielding their eyes from the sun, waiting for the karakuri ningyo. The ohayashi have rehearsed every day for three months, Mr. Jino beams, as the woman next to me fiddles with her camera. 

These twenty minute concert introductions to each short-lived karakuri show help emphasize the role of tradition and ritual as an essential part of the celebration. Even in the sun, with hundreds of sweaty people standing shoulder to sweaty shoulder, there aren’t any short cuts. The ohayashi play on.  
In the West, our attention is always being fought for. It’s odd to attend a performance where this isn't the case. I keep half-expecting the shamisen to start plucking out Don't Stop Believing as someone grabs a microphone, jumps on the dashi, and shouts:

"You all ready for some karakuri ningyo?! I said, Are. You. All Ready. For Some. 

Instead, an intercom announces the family name of each musician as the karakuri ningyo puppets slowly take their place. In the first performance, a young boy hoovers above a large ceramic kettle and, expectedly, falls inside. The pot's creator must rescue the boy by destroying his own creation. The cauldron splits open, the boy emerges, and the crowd cheers.

At the end of the show, a three foot mechanical shrine attendant, or miko, appears on the float holding two white gohei. The miko performs a purification ritual, swinging the gohei towards the horizon. The puppeteers emerge from below and mimic the robotic priest, throwing white confetti across the sky as the dashi rocks back and forth on its rear wheels. 

The young men who pull the dashi, or kajikata, shout in unison as they rotate the 5 ton dashi 360 degrees. This is the crowd's favorite moment; they cheer ecstatically as the street vibrates with the beat of the taiko drum, and confetti falls in an endless paper-white firework. As the dashi heads directly towards the onlookers, the crowd parts on its own volition, and the theater rolls right through the audience. 

On top of the float, above the countless golden details and wood trim etched with dragons and wide-eyed tigers, the puppeteers raise the sashigane above their heads, joyous and victorious. Half the spectators follow behind, while the others turn around to prepare for the next dashi's entrance.

Yasuko-san preps her camera. One of her favorite karakuri ningyo is about to perform. It's a sanbaso puppet, wearing a golden hat stamped with a blue moon. Without warning, the puppet nods his head and starts his remarkable transformation. His limbs turn and twist in unexpected directions, transforming into a miniature Atago shrine before turning back into Sanbaso

The puppeteers emerge. The five young girls help each to the top platform and wave to the audience surrounded by falling white confetti. Yasuko-san and I both look at Mr. Jino bewildered.

In most districts it is forbidden for women to enter the dashi's puppeteer platform, let alone manipulate karakuri ningyo. However, Mr. Jino explains that given Japan's declining population rate, particularly in more rural areas, the city has invited females into the tradition for the first time in half a century. According to Mr. Jino, there are only three female karakuri ningyo troupes in all of Japan.

The final puppet performance this afternoon is a world premiere. Last year, Owari Yokosuka Matsuri commissioned the leading karakuri ningyo maker, Tamaya Shobei IX, to recreate a traditional scene. The robotic doll will string and shoot a miniature bow and arrow at a target a few feet away. The audience stands poised, iPads in the air for the upcoming feat. The archer puppet is approached by his assistant, who holds a collection of arrows in a quiver. The archer removes an arrow, places it in his bow, and pulls back. The crowd grows quiet as the mechanical doll releases the arrow and it hits the red target. While this seems like more than enough to delight the wide-eyed onlookers, the target opens like a music box, and a tiny puppet glides out on a track. His head nods to left to to right, greeting his human visitors. With a delightful grin, the tiny puppet plays the cymbals towards each side of the dashi. When his ritual is complete, he returns to his small home, the door closing behind him.

This is my favorite moment from the dashi performances. It was unexpected, bizarre, and a great example of karakuri ningyo's mechanical magic.

As the sun sets, participants start to adorn the dashi with hundreds of beautiful Japanese lanterns. There's not a single electric candle in-sight as one man lights a wick and then passes it to a woman who delicately expands a paper lantern. A third person carries the flickering lantern to the dashi, where a teenager carefully hangs it from the float.

Although ritual is prominent in every aspect of Owari Yokosuka Matsuri, it continues to pulsate with fresh new life. The sound of the ohayashi still echoes in my head as the candlelight illuminates the float's golden trim and the painted eyes of the cypress carved dragons appear to glow.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Preparing for Ota Festival

I climb the steps to the second floor of the town home in Yokosuka. The young puppeteer gestures towards an aluminum door adjacent to a small tatami room holding a dozen festival organizers. I open the aluminum door, and teeter over a 16 foot drop into a vacant garage. My stomach flips as I survey the drop. Soon enough I realize that this is the doorway to the top of the district’s 6 meter festival dashi; but today’s ornamental float sits in in the front yard, surrounded teenaged boys sipping ice coffee as they greet passersby. 

The puppeteer zips across the 4 x 6 mesh floor with ease, locating two large wooden crates. It's the perfect place to show off the Ota Festival Preservation Society's karakuri ningyo. Crouched inside the suspended platform, my mentor and guide, Ms. Yasuko Senda, and I explore the puppet's mechanisms and movements. The puppeteer sets the three-foot mechanical actor on the ground and gestures for us to take photographs. Yasuko-san translates:

"We used to keep this secret. But not so much anymore," he expresses with a shrug.

I notice a similar sentiment later in the day. While at rehearsal for another district's karakuri ningyo performance, Yasuko-san and I gather in a tiny rehearsal room, as puppeteers nonchalantly illustrate the karakuri ningyo's once-mysterious mechanisms.

Unlike Tahara Matsuri, where the puppets are operated by strings, these characters are manipulated through handcrafted rods, or sashigane, adorned in multi-sized hooks and sleeves. The sashigane moves in and out of the karakuri ningyo during performances, releasing or igniting the puppet's internal mechanisms. The sashigane works together with the dashi's internal framework to create these karakuri ningyo's magical robotic feats.

But knowing the secrets is inconsequential. The amount of precision, practice, and complexity I observe only further fuels my fascination.

You hook that where? And rotate it here? While guiding that? 

If anything, it appears even more impossible. In translation, the sashigane is frequently mixed-up with the English word weapon. It's quickly corrected to “rod." But rod doesn't give the tool justice. Weapon works - the shashigane is wielded with careful deliberation and power.

Back at the garage, the puppeteer's younger brothers, cousins, and friends stand around the towering float, laughing and doing their best American accents. Eight of us practice lifting the 5 ton dashi. Specific positions are called out by the group's director, and the young men move in and out of the dashi arms in synchronized efficiency, balancing the 18th century float atop our shoulders. The act of pulling the dashi is an art in itself. It requires rehearsals, dedication, and superb calf muscles.

"And this is without the musicians and team of puppeteers on board," I think, red-faced and out of breath. My mind travels to Tahara Matsuri, where a cooler of sake and cold beer followed the dashis like a golf caddy through the city streets. I hope this group has the same amenities, but I can't bet on it. It's clear Ota Festival is very different than Tahara Matsuri.

For one, the dashi looks surprisingly distinct. Built in 1826, hand-chiseled dragons in cypress wrap around the float, framing the tiers in ornamental grandeur. On the second tier, a miniature proscenium protrudes like a majestic memorial. The dashi is a temple on wheels.

In the puppeteer's cabin, a large wooden track, or toi, helps guide the karakuri ningyo puppets up and down the dashi stage. The toi can also slide across the width of the dashi, moving the puppet left to right with graceful deliberation.

Unlike Tahara, where a ladder carried me up to the second tier, climbing up Ota's dashi isn't easy. My hips lodge in-between the cypress supports as I hopelessly pull myself through the unforgiving wooden beams. The puppeteers look around nervously, unsure if they made the right decision allowing me join their rehearsal. At the top, I grip the sides tightly and let out a whimper as the float is tilted into the air and the puppeteers next to me try to recall the English phrase "scaredy cat".

The puppeteers carry the tradition in their blood. Their fathers and uncles used to ride the same dashi, skillfully manipulating sashigane from puppet to puppet. Today, the youngest puppeteer is thirteen and the oldest twenty-five. Despite their youth, they take the job seriously. As I clumsily put my shoes back on and fumble with my camera, they cluster around the majestic dashi, shouting, laughing, and calling out to their friends with an envious natural hipness. I walk away from the waving teens in disbelief: in this town, it's cool to be a puppeteer.