“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.
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.
This lion and fairy perform
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.