Matsuri Down The Block
July 14, 2003
Last weekend we drove by our local shinto shrine - and saw signs plastered all over advertising a Matsuri, or festival on the 14th and 15th of July. Why, that's this Monday! we cried, and resolved to go to it. That Monday, while I was waiting for the bus in front of my school, three of my students came skipping up, and struck up a conversation. We chatted cursorily about how they were, their cell phones, and then one asked me if I was going to the festival. I was surprised, but said yes. Then they asked me for directions! It was easy to tell them, because after all, it's just down the street from our house. I thought gee, maybe this thing is more of a big deal than I thought… Justin and I met at home, and then we walked to the shrine. The closer we got to the shrine, the more people there were- mostly high school students, young women in yukata (lightweight summer kimono), and families.
When we went through the torii gates, we saw that the usually tranquil paths to the shrine were filled with concession stands. We saw Ooki Yakitori- balls of breaded, fried octopus - Extra large size! There were stands selling okonomiyaki (cabbage and pork pancakes), Yakiniku (grilled chicken), Fried Chicken, grilled corn… There were stands with choose-your own flavor sugar syrups that you drizzle on top of cups of ice and enjoy as a refreshing summer drink- Booths with paper fans and plastic masks, scoop your own goldfish and turtle pet buckets… Everything under the sun. There was even a place selling pizza, with a thin, tortilla like crust and strange toppings. Justin had to have some cold Yakisoba (fried buckwheat noodles with sauce served with pickled ginger). We bought some and were ushered into the booth's dining area- most foods you have to eat standing, but this place was relatively fancy. Picnic tables were set up under a makeshift tent, on the uneven mud, and we squeezed into a seat. I looked around. All the people serving food looked like cheerful gangsters, and were wearing sports clothing. Justin hypothesized that they were like circus folk, traveling from festival to festival in the summertime.
We went back into the crush, and immediately started running into our students. As we squeezed through the crowd, we kept hearing the inevitable intake of breath, released into a gasp and followed by whispered shrieks of Sensei! Sensei!!! At that point we would stop, determine which of us the students knew, and try some elementary small talk, usually along the lines of, Are you having fun? Have you eaten anything? Etc. We kept pressing forward, and I got caught into a line for Jagabutta (Buttered potatoes). I stood in line behind three girls in yukata, and wished I was wearing mine too. Eventually it was my turn to hand over my money and take a potato. The guy doling out the potatoes looked extraordinarily bored as he slopped each new potato into its paper plate. The guy who took my money told me they actually didn't have butter, but there was mayonnaise- was that ok? After standing in that line, I wasn't going to change my mind, and figured one fatty substance was like another, so I went all out and squeezed some Japanese mayonnaise on my potato. Japanese mayonnaise is different than American- it doesn't have the same vinegar tang, it's more yellow and creamy, so to my surprise it tasted pretty good. Just as I got out of my line, Justin said, Smile! Here are some of my students! And we chatted with them for a few minutes, before they vanished into the crowd.
Next two of my students from English club squealed and stopped to talk to us. They were wearing yukata and looked absolutely adorable, so I said hey! Let's take a picture together. You never have to ask Japanese high school girls twice- they are always ready with a beaming smile and victory sign. After that we went off to a picnic area where I finished my potato and Justin took some photographs. Then we went back into the madness, where it had gotten to be, quite literally a crush. We slowly pressed forward with the crowd and gradually made our way to the actual shrine, where things thinned out a bit as soon as we climbed the steps. Families were purifying themselves at the water basin at the entrance, pouring water over their hands, and in some cases practically bathing and drinking with it. Justin and I just rinsed our hands and dried them with the little cotton hand towel we take everywhere. All the paper lanterns were lit along the higher steps, and it looked so festive. Two high school girls in yukata were leaning against the wall below the lanterns, making a beautiful image of youthful summertime, and Justin tried to take a picture, but they got embarrassed and turned away when they saw him and his camera, giggling nervously.
We walked up the steps and who should I run into but two of my dear second year students, that I taught all last year. They were really excited to see me, and were extremely sweet- saying, Come take print club pictures with us! Oh, please come and visit our classroom sometime! We miss you! It was so touching, and I remembered all over again why I had such a hard time when they changed the teachers and students on me abruptly at the beginning of this year. We kept going towards the shrine- now we could see the temple maidens, dressed in their orange wrap skirts and white tops, manning booths selling good luck amulets and shrine charms. We peered at some of them, and heard bells ringing- men in teal men's kimono were coming down the path towards the shrine. Meanwhile the shrine's plaster Hello Kitty was emitting all kinds of noises and announcements. The whole atmosphere was lively and cheerful, but we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves, so we walked into the left courtyard.
A stage had been set up with curtains, and several elderly ladies in kimono came out to the sound of traditional Japanese music. They began slowly dancing, with their knees bent and their arms slowly extending. They kicked, and slowly pranced, almost, but not quite in unison. Several times it looked like they might just fall right over. People around us clapped politely, and it was sweet, to see these nervous elderly ladies smilingly performing. Meanwhile, right next to them you could see rebellious teenage boys in their school uniforms rolling around in the gravel and messing about. Boys are the same everywhere! Justin and I agreed.
We wandered down the many steps, away from the shrine, and slipped into the crowd heading towards the street. The only thing was, it had gotten later and now the paths weren't just crowded, they were packed with people like a tin full of sardines. We followed the crowd as it slowly flowed forward, but it just got slower and slower, until the crowd stopped entirely, and the only moving was when people from behind us pushed. People tried to push their way through, but got stuck and just wiggled futilely against impenetrable walls of arms and shoulders. I started to get a little edgy, especially when a creepy old man started trying to push his way past us, and Justin and I got separated. I reached out and grabbed hold of Justin's shirt and just hung on, pushing back when people tried to push forward. I wrenched myself through and against Justin, at which point creepy old man put his hands forward like a triangular battering ram against my shoulders. I shook him off, and shoved my way in front of Justin, at which point creepy old man battery rammed Justin. The crowd seethed forward a little bit, and we decided to get over and out of this jammed mess, even if it meant heading away from our house. We pushed our way right in front of people going towards the shrine, apologizing in Japanese. 'ohhh!' said one girl, 'Nice girl, Nice guy'- which means she recognized we were foreigners and (probably) thought Justin was cute. We darted down the new path, with a flood of people following from the crush with the same idea. Somebody was pushing my shoulders, so I started jabbing my elbows backwards from side to side like a wiggling eel, and then we were out of the crowd. It was still crowded here, but it was possible to move and have a little space around you. I darted over to the goldfish and breathed a little bit, and then we started walking back to our apartment- the long way down the path. We passed more food booths, but they all seem to be selling the same stuff after a while.
At the entrance, I spotted my high school's uniform, and sure enough, a huge group of girls from my school were all standing and sitting by the entrance. 'SENSEI!!!' they cried excitedly, so of course I had to chat with them a little. We went out of the shrine space, and saw lots of high school students lounging about, sitting on the curbs chatting with their friends, smoking, or just looking cool. It seemed like such a good night to be alive, to be young, to have friends- I thought, this is the lifeblood of high school and summers in Japan. Even though Justin and I are relatively grown up and dull, I felt the happiness in the air and had to smile.
July 15, 2003
On the morning of the second (and final) festival day, when I left our apartment to go to work, I was surprised to see that the street was closed to traffic. Booths were being set up right in front of our apartment, and along both sides of the street. It had the hushed air of a carnival before it opens, and I was sad to have to hurry to work. That afternoon as I hurried home, the station was definitely more crowded than ever before. There was a buzz of excitement in the station, and also a grey film in the air- but that was because of the remodeling of the station shopping center. I turned the corner, and there was a Japanese summer festival, livening up my normally boring walk home. Enterprising shops along the street were open, and offering special festival take-away food outside. Places that I'd never seen open before (because they keep such particular hours) were suddenly bright and welcoming, with lots of souvenirs for sale outside. We blinked at the salted fish being grilled over charcoals in front of our apartment stairs, and went home.
We watched a little t.v., and then I decided that since they'd gone to all the trouble to bring this festival to our very door, I should get dressed up in my cotton summer yukata, and Japanese sandals, and go out in it. I'd been hesitant to dress up in it for festivals in Tokyo, where I'd have to ride the train and get gawked at for being a foreigner dressed up in Japanese clothing, but this festival was so close! I pulled out the paper illustrations explaining how to put on the yukata. People dress a corpse with the right side of the kimono on top, so I definitely didn't want to make that mistake. But who knew how complicated it would really be! First you put on a plain cotton slip that folds over in front. Then you put on the cotton robe itself. The yukata is purposefully very long, so you have to pull it closed and fold it up at the waist, and then cover that with the obi sash, tying cords around to hold it. I tried to do it myself, and then Justin tried to do it for me, but he tied it like a bathrobe so I had to mess about with it to get it straight in front. We finally got me covered, and then we had to figure out how to tie the sash. The instructions were as cryptic as origami, but the fabric seemed infinitely long. I enlisted Justin and between the two of us we got it wrapped around me with a long tail sticking up, which is meant to then be tied into a large bow for the back. But the confusing thing is, you tie the bow in the front, and then turn the sash around so the bow is magically in the back. We fought with the stiff red and yellow fabric, wrinkling it horribly before we got it to resemble anything like the bow in the picture. In the end, it was a little on the small side, but it was definitely a bow, and we proudly turned it to the back and I tottered off to put on a little makeup. I grabbed my little stringed purse, shoved my feet into the ridiculous plastic sandals which came with the yukata set, and we went out the door.
As soon as we left the safety of our apartment I immediately felt ridiculous, like a buffalo dressed as a baby rabbit or something, and I kept expecting people to turn and laugh at me because we'd tied the sash wrong. Happily, no one did, and I relaxed and started to enjoy myself. We had no desire to go anywhere near the shrine itself, since it was probably even more packed than the day before. We didn't have to, because the party had spread all the way down the street! Everywhere, people were enjoying themselves, buying food and munching it on the sidelines, walking hand in hand, being swept up by the crowd… We walked along; glad we had eaten a little at home before we went out (because festival food does not make a cheap dinner). Our favorite local tea shop was open, and they had set up a frozen drink machine with maccha green tea, to which you could add cream and sugar to make a cream maccha drink. It was only hyaku en (around a dollar) and so I asked for one. A little tiny boy was manning it, under his dad's supervision, and he carefully doled some out. It was delicious! We kept walking and the crowd got more intense.
It seemed like we were running into Justin's students every five seconds. The girls in particular were excited to see us (the boys had to play it cool, though some of them manfully high fived Justin). The girls said Ohh!!! She's so pretty! So cute! (pointing at me). I think my students must have mostly all been home studying. The crowd was approaching the sardine point, and Justin spied a cotton candy vender, so he dragged me off to the side and negotiated himself a plastic pink bag of cotton candy. I finished my drink, chatted with a few of Justin's students, and then after we'd finished the bag of cotton candy, we started slowly back towards our apartment. We weren't in any particular rush, just enjoying the lively atmosphere. We did see one or two groups of foreigners- one group looked like high school exchange students, and were wearing yukata also. I stopped to admire some pretty painted glass wind chimes. We ran into a really gregarious male student from Justin's school, who seemed pretty confident- he even flirted with me a little. As we walked away I said, Wow, he's a flirt, isn't he? Justin smiled, and said, yeah… He's kind of a bad boy- I think he might be getting expelled this year. Ouch! I thought… It's quite uncommon for students to get expelled, they really have to misbehave to do that… Yeah, Justin said, he told off a teacher. AH, I said, picturing the scene.
We walked some more, and then finally ran into three of my students. I was really glad we did, because they were in Yukata. They begged to take a picture of me and Justin, and then I said, Hey, let's take a picture together, indicating the three of us girls. They beamed and Justin took a picture of us with our camera, and one for them. Honestly they looked so different out of their uniform I don't think I would have recognized them if they hadn't recognized me. But of course they were adorable. We were in front of our apartment, but I wasn't ready to go in yet. Let's buy something grilled! We decided to try the salt crusted whole fishes grilled on sticks- it was right in front of us, after all. We bought one and sat on our apartment steps, munching on the fish and trying to avoid the bones. I tried to avoid looking the fish in the eye. This is a cultural experience, I told myself.
You could hear people chattering, the sounds of the portable generators generating light and power to the booths. We watched the gnarled vendors making food, impassive and like nothing more than battered Japanese circus folk. The okonomiyaki (as you like it cabbage pancake) vendor was cracking hundreds of eggs, and his assistant was crouched next to an automated cabbage shredder. Our fish vendor occasionally turned the fish, or shoved another stake through a fresh one and stuck it into the coals. Another young couple leaned against the cement wall and ate yakisoba with chopsticks. The lights were bright, you could hear happy chatter and see flashes of color as brightly clad women went by. I felt completely at peace- all my restlessness dissipated in the excitement of my surroundings. Justin teased me for munching happily on the fish. He tried to take a picture of me nibbling, but I accidentally did my 'deer in headlights' impersonation instead, so he said he'd have to keep the picture in his mind.
We went up to our apartment after that, but we wanted to see more of it, so we went out the fire escape stairs to the top floor. We would have liked to go up to the roof, but for some reason it is padlocked and the landlords won't let anyone go up there. Instead we stood at the top of the fire escape stairs (horrid, rickety metal things) and leaned against the railing, looking down. It was so bright and cheerful and summery- even though it was unusually cool for July. I could imagine that this was what it feels like, to live in the heart of Tokyo near the shrines and feel the pulse of Japanese life and culture. In the area that we live in, the pulse of Japan usually seems slow and lethargic.
The shops around us are quiet, and have probably been there forever, and it doesn't matter if no one shops there because the shop owners live there and don't pay much rent. But this, this was young Japan. Older people here are always bemoaning the loss of Japanese cultural values and identity. They think the young people have become too westernized, and are leaving behind their sense of Japanese identity. I've never been anywhere where people had such a clear sense of their cultural identity, and such a strong connection with old traditions. Maybe the kimonos are cheap, and printed in mass market factories in Hong Kong, but the young people are still wearing them, after all this time. Girls still enjoy dressing up for matsuri and if they happen to wear yukata with fingernail polish while talking on cell phones, it just means that they've made the tradition their own. This is why I'm here- to see the living culture of Japan- and today, I got to see it right outside of my front door.