I have taken part in an ancient pagan ceremony celebrating the passing of summer and welcoming the coming fall. It was pretty awesome. Saturday I had sukiyaki with the host family. One of the sons is married and has a kid, who cried shortly after meeting me despite my gift of pez. In the evening we put on special festival shirts called happi, went to the local temple, and placated the spirits by drinking lots of beer.
There were two of these mobile shrines called mikoshi, one pulled by the kids and one by the men. Women get to supervise the kids and hand the men beer at the stops. Some younger guys rode in the shrine and pounded on the drum while everyone else pulled the shrine around with ropes and by the big logs. In old times the things were carried like palanquins, and in some places still are, but ours was a smaller local festival so there weren’t enough people to carry it. It was still really heavy.
To the rhythm of the drum, everyone shouted out “yoyasa” in call-and-response fashion which means something like “make us healthy”… or something. There was a major language barrier and it’s not in my dictionary. Every now and then we would stop pulling it and everyone would sit on one side to pick the bottom of the drum up so it would be louder and the chant would change to “hitochi, hutachi, mitchu yoyasa!” (one, two, three yoyasa). More beer would be drank as we sat and shouted for a while, and then we’d ease it down and continue on. After three stops we returned back to the temple and one of the mid-20s guys pounded out a special rhythm on the taiko while everyone clapped out some other pattern and everyone yelled something.
The next day we did the same thing again in the afternoon, except this time they let me in the mikoshi and bang on the taiko for a while. When you’re at ground level it’s so loud you can feel it punch you in the chest, but when you’re in the thing itself it isn’t nearly as loud. It was terrific fun, and I was very very lucky to be invited to do it.
After that round was finished, we went back to eat dinner and then once more to the temple to make a final round. The last time, all the younger men went to one side of the mikoshi and the older men to the other, and we picked up the thing and bounced it up and down while chanting something else that I couldn’t understand but was more rhythmic and changing and awesome. After doing that like ten times we did the taiko thing once more
I had homework to do so I didn’t really want to drink, but they said that I had to have one to make me strong. After that they kept refilling my glass. I think America really needs holidays that endorse and encourage public drunkenness. I feel like it rings false and overly reverent when I say this, but the drums and feats of strengths and ritual drinking (I wasn’t lying about placating the spirits) and shouting I could sense something that was awesome, moving, and very, very old. Something very like this has been done for god only knows how many generations, stemming from primitive man screaming back in fear and defiance at the wind and the rain. This festival is by far the coolest thing I’ve done here.