Sometimes the titles of my posts just makes no sense to non-Japanese speakers. Let me explain this one: Ogano (小鹿野町) is the name of a little town in Saitama prefecture just north of Tokyo, Harumatsuri means Spring Festival (春祭り), and Kamicho Dashi means a Dashi (山車, a portable festival wagon) belonging to the neigborhood of Kamicho (上町) inside Ogano town. There!
I took these photos at the springfestival of Ogano Town. The little town is rightfully very proud of its festival and it was great to see how almost everyone took part. The town being exceedingly remote (by Japanese standards almost isolated) made for very few tourists like myself but I saw a handful of foreigners. It is in towns like this you get as genuine and experience of the country and its people that is possible, very seldom have I been so warmly welcomed even though I was hiding behind my camera as usual.
The town has four districts, Kasuga, Kamicho, Koshinone and Shinhara and each one manages one of the giant Dashi. Two of them are normal dashi representing the female, while in this town they also have two other dashi representing the male! I learn something new everytime I visit a festival. These dashi with the long stage part is very typical of the Chichibu region of which Ogano town is a part. I have read that the design is from the early 18th century (about 300 years old) and has since spread to other parts of the country. According to local tradition the Dashi represents the female, and in this region they are always paired up in even numbers with a “male” hanagasa type of dashi that are much rarer. Although you can’t see it in these photos, the rear of the Dashi is very richly decorated and is said to imitate the obi (the sash or belt) of a rich woman’s kimono. I will post photos of the rears, and the hanagasa dashi later. Another interesting details is that the stage area is set to be the same size as three tatami (Japanese floor mats), not much smaller than my first room in Tokyo where I lived for four years! These richly decorated Dashi are fiercly protected by the people of the Chicibu regions and have been registered as especially protected cultural assets of the region. Still, they are paid for and maintained by the townspeople themselves, typically costing about 300 000 USD, I think that these Dashi are much more expensive due to the unusually rich decoration. Some Dashi last hundreds of years so you are lucky if you ever see a new one!
Operating the Dashi is the job of all generations. The kids of the neighborhood take up the front and the rear: the girls are up front in colorful dresses pulling metal staffs, they are called Kanabouhiki. At the rear (no photos in this blog post) are the (mostly) young boys playing flutes. The young men of the town pull the wagon and steer it, which is no laughing matter with these wagons! It takes all their strength to steer it even an inch to the left or to the right, leaning, pushing and shoving the wagon in the direction they want it to go. They are directed by Yakubito which are the experienced or the older men, who ride on top of the wagon, guard the wheels (accidents do happen, almost in every festival) or direct the whole procession from the front. Inside the wagon there is usually a musical troupe of performers called Hayashi. To pull the Dashi from one part of town to the other is a massive effort that requires skill, planning, cooperation, food and water, countless artisans, musicians and dress makers. The purpose of course is to build a community, a functioning unit of people who learn to work and act as one, together for the good of the people. Friendships are made, skills are developed and quite a few children are made during these festivals. I envy these communities for their cooperation!
Of course, this intense community building pays of in times of real need: fires, earthquakes, tsunami, and even the day to day hardships of life.
More of the fantastic ladder acrobatics as performed by Saitama prefecture firefighters at the Kawagoe Harumatsuri (Kawagoe City Spring Festival) opening day at the end of March 2014. The ladder is simple and handmade out of hemp rope and bamboo poles. The only thing that keeps it upright is the support of the hooks and bills applied by the team members on the ground. The method allowed firefighting teams in the Edo period of Japan to quickly and safely raise the ladders anytime and anywhere in matter of seconds, regardless of conditions. Ladders were not used only to scale walls or buildings, but also as mobile observation platforms to find fires and routes in the densely packed wooden cities of Japan. The traditions are being kept alive by the modern firefighters although in those days the positions were often hereditary and passed down through special families of samurai or commoners tasked with keeping an eye on fires. The official system that we can see in these performances was introduced in 1720.
Tokyo, or Edo as it was known then, was famous for its many fires. People in other parts of Japan even made fun of Edo by coining the saying 火事と喧嘩は江戸の花 (“Quarrels and fires are the flowers of Edo”, in Japanese to be the flower of something is the be the pride and joy, the finest and the best). During the 267 years of the Edo period (1601-1867) there were 49 massive fires in the city, ten times as many as in the other large cities of Japan. If you include smaller firest there were a couple of thousand during the Edo period. The number of fires increased as the population growth and the inability of the Shogunate government (the feudal ruler of Japan) to handle the growth of the city is part of the reason why the Emperor was able to regain government control of the country in 1868. Without the many fires of Edo this blog could have been called Edobling. The greatest fire of Edo was in 1657 when 107 000 people were killed (about one fifth of the total population). Compared to the 8 official deaths of the great fire of London 1666 it seems even larger. The worst months of the year for fires was in January, February and March, when strong winds, cold and dry weather mean that even small household accidents could easily sweep the entire city if left unchecked. People were so afraid of these fires that many men who had relations outside of the city sent their wives to the countryside in these three months.
Of all the photographic subject available in this fantastic country few beats the ladder acrobatics for photogenics! These teams of gravity defying fire fighters are really something to see. I took saw the Saitama prefecture Kawagoe city team at the Kawagoe spring festival opening last week. In the old days samurai families tasked with fighting fires in the cities of Japan developed a technique of quickly and safely raising ladders using not much beyond bamboo, ropes and hooks. The bravest would then race up the ladder and quickly be able to locate the source of the fire and the direction it was likely to travel in. A low tech solution to problems faced by firefighters in many cultures. To keep their skill up the teams would practice on the ladders in a form of acrobatics that is now the “hashigonori engi” (梯子乗り演技). There are different traditions but most of them center on a dozen core positions centered around where on the ladder they are performed (up, middle or moving downwards). Most teams follow the traditional 69 positions although very few of them are every used be the individual teams. Can you spot the position called the “sea turtle”?
There are even some extremely scary looking two man positions that I have never seen in real life (not to be confused with bigger ladder teams where two or three men do their own routines on different parts of the ladder at the same time). I took so many photos of their three different performances on this day so I will a second bunch of photos for later. Enjoy!
The third and final part of the grand Hiwatari Matsuri, or fire walking festival, at Tokyo’s holy Mount Takao last weekend. After having spent quite some time trying to contain the fire and dousing it with clear water and burning the votive sticks, the shugenja would line up for the final fire walking test. Before that two of them would take part in a ritual cleanings ceremony involving showering themself with near boiling water which they beat out of cauldron with a bundle of tree branches. After that the shugenja and lay followers of the shugendo sect would start the fire walking, first stepping on a mound of pure white salt which has a further purification symbolism.
There were several shugenja performing the ceremony and when they were done they took up positions around the dojo to chant prayers while the ordinary people started the fire walking. In the last photo you can see the what it all looked like after several hours into the ceremony. The line snaking around the dojo continued up onto the hill where I took the photo, went around the hill and down onto the other side. By the time normal people get to do the fire walking any remaining embers would have died out and there should be barely any heat left at all. The significance in the ceremony is not the physical challenge though, it is the ritual purification that is the important part. I didn’t stay to see all the ordinary folks performing the ceremony but the shugenja must have spent many hours of continuos chanting and drumming!
Standing so close to many shugenja (a rare treat!) gave me a grand opportunity to take plenty of photos of their gear close up. I have included some of the photos in this post.