Going to a local festival is one of the best ways to experience Japanese culture today – as anyone living or traveling in Japan can tell you. Cities have festivals that display their own unique history and traditions, and little neighborhoods will hold their own festivals.
I recently had the opportunity of participating in one of these small neighborhood events. For the past few years the foreign teachers in the city of Yurihonjo, Akita prefecture, have been invited to join other members of the community in playing the taiko and flute for a local matsuri. This being my first year in Yurihonjo, I was excited to join in on this experience for the first time.
Two weeks prior to the festival, we began practicing and preparing. All of the neighborhood men knew the taiko rhythm and flute melody like the back of their hands – having participated in the festival from a young age – and they watched and gave us guidance while we practiced.
It took a while for us gaijin to learn the drum and flute parts correctly – and sometimes our drumming and flute playing was bluntly criticized – but when the festival weekend approached we were prepared.
On a hot Saturday afternoon, in mid-September, we all gathered in the local community hall: men and women from the towne elementary children who would be dancing and playing drums on another float, and the group of teachers and students playing the flute and taiko. A priest conducted a short ceremony, giving his blessing over the food offered to the deity, as well as over the festival and all its performers.
After that, we all put on dark blue hapis – a light coat worn by festival participants – and got on our way. Within moments I was hammering away at a taiko drum fixed to a cart that was being rolled around the neighborhood. Someone else from my group kept a steady beat on the smaller taiko, and our drumming was punctuated by the rest of the festival members yelling “Sore!” with each accented beat and playing a melody on traditional Japanese flutes.
When we returned at the end of the day we were offered beer and food – the men who had been watching us practice filled up our glasses and treated us like old friends. The pressure of practice was over and the fun had begun.
We reconvened at 8am on Sunday morning, for a full day of walking all over town and performing. The festival organizer said a few words, and then shots of sake were handed out. A shot of sake at 8 in the morning? That was definitely a first.
With the drink warm in our stomachs we got going, playing the melody on the flute and pounding away at the taiko. Further behind, men from the towne carrying the mikoshi, a portable shrine that symbolically houses a deity who is important to the neighborhood. In exchange for the blessings bestowed to the neighborhood by this shrine and our taiko playing, people from the community gave us little envelopes with money and donated bottles of sake to the festival organizers.
After half an hour of playing we reached a house where we were welcomed into the garage to enjoy a breakfast of onigiri and beer. It wasn’t even 9am yet, and we were already one beer and one shot of sake in. This would be a memorable day.
Every half hour after that we stopped for more food and drinks, offered to us by people around the neighborhood. There was watermelon, yakisoba, onigiri, and seemingly endless amounts of sake and beer.
We performed in front of an old age home, along with young girls from the neighbourhood who danced along to an AKB 48 song, and boys who played drums on a float. Around 4pm we stopped going around the town and came back to the local hall for one last bite to eat and a few more drinks.
While we were lazing on the tatami floor of the community hall, surrounded by the local men drained with sweat from carrying the mikoshi, a fellow ALT looked over at me and said, “For 90% of our time here we are treated as foreigners. This is one weekend where we are treated as if we really are locals”.
It was an incredible feeling.
We chatted some more with all the men from the festival, relaxing after carrying the weight of the shrine all day, and filled each other’s cups. It was blissful. This was hands-down one of the most authentic Japanese experiences I’ve had.