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.