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.

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