The Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s three largest, has officially started. And it’s pretty safe to say right off the bat that it’s going to kick ass. Rather than attending class as usual today, Dylan, Kier, Harrison and myself headed downtown for a day of mikoshi-buildin’. What’s a mikoshi, you ask? It’s a TWELVE TON portable shrine, constructed without the use of a single nail just as it’s been done for over 1,500 years. Each board is carefully joined by wrapping layer after layer of hand-made rice husk rope (which is quite a rash-causing rope, I might add) around the joints. These shrines are what will be pulled…by us…through the streets of Kyoto for Sunday’s main event of this month-long festival.
That’s right, I did indeed say “by us.” We’ve been officially informed that we’ll be allowed to help pull the mikoshi in the Gion Matsuri. How awesome is that?
Well, except maybe for the fact that what we’re pulling is a 24,000 lbs pile of wood drawn by rice ropes as wide as my arms, and that we’ll be pulling it nonstop from 7am to 2:30pm (no restroom breaks) while wearing traditional yukata and abrasive straw sandals. We were warned to expect significant bleeding on both our hands and feet by the end of the day. Plus the sandals are made for Japanese-sized feet, meaning that mine stick out by more than an inch off the back.
But that’s OK. How many people in the WORLD get to say that they’ve pulled a float in the Gion Matsuri!?
My guess would be not very many.
Anyways, back to today. We all got up and left the dorm at around 9:15 to find that it was raining outside, but a quick translation of the day’s instructions assured us: “game on, rain or shine.” And as you can see from the pictures, we SUPER-lucked out because before we even reached our destination the rain had stopped (and didn’t restart for the entire day, a real rarity over the last month or so).
After our arrival, my fellow gaijin builders and I were promptly escorted to a nearby restaurant (which in this case meant a super high-class, 100% traditional, full-tatami establishment where we were greeted by five to ten gorgeous kimono-clad women and served cold tea). There we waited for the remaining stragglers while performing our regular ritual of marveling at how awesome Kyoto is. Once the group was complete, we were each given a T-shirt with the name of our neighborhood’s float, escorted outside, and construction began.
Now before I continue I should probably comment on the giant tree sticking out of the top of our float. Each neighborhood’s float is actually different, each with its own “distinctive feature.” One of them has an enormous spire sticking up over 7 stories high, one is shaped like a boat, one has a tree sticking out from the top, and so forth. We got to work on the tree float, one of the larger ones in the festival. Apparently (I’ve never even noticed this) no power lines pass over the main streets in downtown so the spires can be pulled freely between the neon-lit skyscrapers.
After a few hours of construction we received our second surprise of the day (after the free T-Shirts): really, really nice Obento (box lunches). I’m not sure what 90% of the stuff in there was, but I do know one thing. I liked it.
As the day drew on quite a few people began to stop by to watch the construction process, including one or two school groups, a very distinctive feature of Japan that I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned.
The reason school groups are so “distinctive” is because as you can see, they’re a) large, b) identically dressed, c) cute as hell, and d) love gaijin. See how they’re all smiling and making the peace sign? All Keir and I had to do was walk up and take out our cameras, and before we knew it they were all lined up and ready to go.
And to add to the cuteness factor, because of the extreme humidity the whole group was walking around with identical fans tucked in the back of their belts (which unfortunately you can’t see in this picture, but just take my word for it. It was hilarious.)
There, that ought to do it. Seriously. How cute is that?
After several more hours of construction the float at last began to take shape. Notice how enormous it is in comparison to the two-story building to the right and even the five-story one to the left.
Our part in the building process ended at around 5:00pm when we once again headed into the restaurant, this time to write a short essay in Japanese on what we thought about the experience. And that was our fee. That was the cost of the wonderful meal, shirts, and (another) one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Afterwards the rest of the crew headed back home and I went down to Starbuck’s for a bit of last-minute studying. Keep in mind that I’m still right in the middle of finals (I literally have a test or essay due every single day this week, plus we’re performing with our shamisen for graduation next week and we have to present our nihon kenkyuu projects on Wednesday).
But as an old buddy used to say, “No rest for the wicked.”
Aside from today not too much action has been going on over the past week, mainly I’ve just been prepping for finals and summer vacation. Believe it or not I have actually finished locking up all of the summer travel plans, and it looks like it’s ALL going to happen. Starting on August 8th I’ll be on the road for just under six weeks, taking nearly every mode of transportation available including plane, train, bullet train, maglev train, cruise ship, river boat, bus, uhh….wait….no cars. Well a lot of modes of transportation! 🙂 I’ll be crossing an entire new country off of my life’s To-Do list, meeting up with four friends from the US and my dad, and covering what I hope ends up as a good portion of Japan. And most likely I’ll be spending more than one night sleeping on park benches or mountain trails. Man, I can’t wait.
Wish me luck on finals! ~~