Golden Week let me experience a couple fun firsts.
I woke up early. As early as I typically wake up for work, which is a great start to any vacation. I just adore not sleeping in.
But it was worth it. In my tiny village, a school just recently closed down in the second biggest part of town. Over there, a festival was being thrown with omikoshi, those big portable shrines that people lug around to bless different places in town. While I had felt distanced from this school, I still felt like I should support the part of town. They like to see foreigners experience Japanese culture and I like to experience it, so it’s a nice symbiotic relationship. I’m like those fish that attach themselves to the bottoms of whales. Are they fish, actually? I’m not really sure.
Everyone and their brother’s wife was telling me to not drive down and instead catch a ride with a coworker or ride the bus. Apparently there would be a lot of partying and drinking. I’d been in a parade before, wearing traditional Japanese garb, and at least around here it’s traditional to drink sake at every pit stop. Sacred, or something.
Christianity has Jesus-blood alcohol. Shinto rituals have sake. Although in the latter, they don’t beat around the bush—it’s as much sacred as it is to have fun and keep everyone happy. The gods are apparently attracted to parties, which makes sense, so having a bunch of inebriated people carrying a shrine is the best way to increase god attendance.
I originally had plans to visit some friends in the north, so I’d sworn off all alcohol due to Japan’s 0.00% BAC limit. In laymen’s terms, you can’t drive if you have any alcohol in your system, compared to the 0.08% limit from where I’m from. But when my plans were changed so that I wouldn’t have to leave until the next morning, I still didn’t drink. I was just being lame.
I approached the temple where the festival was already underway. Everyone was dressed in traditional clothing while I had an orange shirt and jeans, standing out in spite of the flashy clothes around me. So it was even more awkward when the teacher explaining things to me urged me to come forward and pray with everyone else in uniform.
It’s basically like the normal foreigner experience—everyone’s doing everything one way, so it’s even more apparent that you don’t immediately belong. The Japanese people didn’t seem to care, so I stifled my inner embarrassed self. With the praying finished, the twenty or so men picked up the omikoshi and started hauling it towards some unknown-to-me location.
I sat out of the first leg of the trip in order to get changed into the appropriate clothing, as much to blend in as to “show me another part of Japanese culture”. I was happy, in any case. When we caught up to everyone, they’d all put the shrine down and were drinking cans of Asahi beer. You know—god attracting.
In order to get to the next location, it would require a drive, and to my surprise everyone let me ride in the back of the pickup truck with the shrine! It was as much of an honor as it was stupid and dangerous. I swore we were going to clip other cars driving by with the wooden beams tied to the omikoshi, but we managed to survive the short trip. We got out, had a drink (just juice for me), and prepared to carry the shrine.
I don’t know why I’d thought it would be easy. I guess seeing huge, bear-like farmers around me made me feel like I wouldn’t have to do much work. They were all strong, right? I was just there like seasoning to add some spice.
Holy heck was this thing heavy! Like, from the get-go I thought I would be dropping it soon, heavy. Little did I know that the end was nowhere in sight.
My First Wasshoi
Our first run of the omikoshi was up a small street. It was uphill, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that there was a guy with a drum shouting “わっしょい” with all of us practically throwing the shrine in the air and then catching it again every three seconds. That’s not an exaggeration. How fast can you say “wasshoi”? Basically, say it twice, and that’s the frequency with which we tossed this thing. Like a car with hydraulics. If you know science, you know that every time that two-ton shrine comes down, it takes a whole bunch of energy to reverse it back up into the air.
Why couldn’t we have just carried it on our shoulders!? But then, where’s the fun in that?
This is what role-playing is all about. Getting into your community. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one masking their excruciating pain under a laughing, わっしょい-cheering face. In fact, I know I wasn’t, as one of the guys next to me kept screaming about how much pain he was in to many laughs. One thing is for sure, though: I should have been drinking.
When we made it to the top of the hill, the man with the taiko drum went into a roll, signaling us to spin around, blessing the place. We did a 720 degree spin, so, this place was double-blessed. I don’t know why the guy next to me complained about the spin though—having a break from throwing the shrine up into the air was a blessing in itself. No matter where you go in the world, you can’t escape the complainers, I suppose.
We got back on the truck, driving back to where we started. Aside from me, the women, and the driver, everyone was even more drunk than before. Upon lifting the shrine, it started to sway ever-so-gently, like a boat on a lake. I figured it was from the inebriation, but it could have well been the collective muscles getting progressively more tired.
That didn’t stop the drummer from keeping up his fast beat. We continued throwing the omikoshi up into the air, but the tiredness was becoming more apparent. Before long, there was no air time, just a bobbing, finely-crafted mini temple moving up-and-down.
In this countryside town, the number of older folk vastly outnumber those with futures. As we carried the shrine, jii-chans and baa-chans came to watch for what was probably the hundredth time. Japanese people are pretty old is what I’m getting at. At each collection of retirees, we did another 360 degree shrine-spin, probably helping them live another couple decades.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally finished. It had been almost three hours since I’d gotten there in the morning. I’d estimate that we’d spent at least half the time holding the shrine, throwing it in the air, getting drunk, spinning, and giving our muscles a reason to scream at us.
I wasn’t the only one excited to have the blessings over with. Going to the community center, we all undressed and redressed while the mass of older women got the food ready. I sat with some of the teachers I knew as well as some random people I’d never met.
Japanese parties are always very rigid. Everyone sits quietly, talking amongst themselves, neither eating nor drinking in spite of food being in front of them. There’s a schedule in front of everyone, always beginning and ending with an opening address and closing remarks. I’ve never seen one that’s strayed. Those words aren’t random either—nine times out of ten, the speech is planned. For a party, the communal “cheers” is usually shortly after the opening, and luckily it was second on the list this time.
If you’ve been to any Japanese drinking party, you’d know that you never pour for yourself, and especially not at the kanpai. So everyone is trying to pour for everyone else, and quickly enough as to not delay the actual group cheers. I drank Calpis along with the other non-drinkers. After our cheers I also tore into the tamakon and dango in front of us. It wasn’t exactly a full lunch, but it did keep me alive.
The party was accented by occasion performances, such as a bunch of old ladies dancing followed by community members doing their best renditions of famous enka songs. They had important people do personal introductions, and since I was a teacher / the resident foreigner, that included me. I spouted a few seconds of gibberish in Japanese and then, because I couldn’t be showed up by the teacher doing somersaults and backflips that went before me, I spoke a little English. Apparently speaking English is the equivalent of amazing acrobatic skills here.
As the party winded down, I tried leaving before they flagged me down to do some singing myself. Enka wasn’t my specialty, but I can sing a mean “ABCs”, so I let them have it. Avoiding the roses they threw at me on stage (at least, I think they were roses—they were red anyways), I ducked out and planned to head home. I was tired as all heck, but in a good way.
But when my student came up to me and told me that it was his birthday today and that I was invited to his house, well, I couldn’t turn that down.
Birthday Party Time!
Well, the party wasn’t to start for another four hours, but I still ended up going to his house. In America, while home visits happen, I’ve never done one before, so it was another first.
Both my 5th-grade student and his 1st-grade sister adore me, so it was tough trying to play with both of them when they were doing disparate activities. Pretending to eat my student’s sister’s mud onigiri while discussing the fine intricacies of Pokémon with him was as fun as it was tiring. When we finally moved on to playing some strange rule-shifting variation of soccer together, it became easier to manage both of them.
Due both to my tiredness as well as needing a reason for why I drove, I told them I had to go and that I’d be back later. I hopped in my car, went back home, and sat down for a couple hours of Sengoku Basara.
When 5 o’clock rolled around, I grabbed the phone to dial the mother to pick me up. I felt like I was in grade school again, being picked up to go to a kid’s birthday party. Why didn’t I drive back you ask? Well, the mother figured I’d be drinking, so I shouldn’t be driving.
Drinking at a kid’s birthday party? More on that first in a moment.
My student kept reminding me to bring my Pokémon Y with me when I came back, so when he came with his mother to pick me up, he immediately jumped into the back seat and started trading Pokémon with me. It was painful. He kept wanting to trade his mediocre Pokémon for those great Pokémon I’d learned to love. I agreed, knowing I was done with the game anyways. It was like when my friend cut up his 1st edition holographic Scyther card to signify he was done with Pokémon. It was painful, but it needed to be done. He’d enjoy the heck out of having the legendary Pokémon from my version.
Gah, he’d better not erase Death Wing. 😦
Anywho, I got to his house and his mother handed me a beer. The sun was setting and other people were there, grilling up a storm. Japanese grilling, anyways. Lots of meat on sticks. Before long I’d had a second beer and a third, and then maybe some wine. I wasn’t the only one—the parents and the other people (many of them teachers) were also drinking a bunch.
It’s funny, getting progressively drunker while hanging around kids. On the one hand, it’s probably a bad idea. I mean, safety goes out the window. But it does stop me from getting tired like I usually do. When the kids wanted to keep doing the same games, I kept being perfectly fine with it. It was actually really fun. I don’t know if I can recommend it in good conscience, but it was an interesting first.
Come to Japan! Drink with parents! Play with their kids!
This is a wonderful country.
The Rest of Golden Week
I woke up the next morning thinking I’d made a fool of myself in Japanese. No matter. A fellow teacher was sleeping on the floor, having forgotten his key. When he finally got his door open, I left for adventure, seeing old friends and visiting new places.
But I mean, adventure can’t compare to holding heavy things and consuming poison around youngsters.