There is a ramen shop down the street from our apartment. My husband, Matthew, and I have lived here for about a year. Our Japanese is basic at best and the owner and patron’s English consists only of a few phrases. But after many broken conversations and late-night shochu parties (traditional Japanese liquor), we’ve all created a very special bond.
On one such night, we found ourselves chatting with our friend Yuri. She is from a small town in the mountains in Gifu prefecture where we live. She told us that there was a special festival being held in the town that weekend and asked us if we’d like to join in the festivities. Of course we said yes, and of course, we didn’t really understand what the festival was and what that would entail.
Upon arriving in the town on the morning of the festival, we were whisked into a small traditional home. Yuri pulled a paper bag from the closet that looked like it might burst open at any second and placed it in my arms. “Put on,” she said. I pulled out articles of clothing printed with hugely intricate patterns and wrapped in on themselves like a giant ball of yarn. Matthew was handed a similar bag and so we struggled to wrap ourselves in the traditional garb. When we were finished, Yuri grabbed my hand and led me to the streets. It was early in the morning but I was already starting to hear drums and chanting. She led us down back streets and alleys. We turned the last corner and stopped.
“Sore wa nan desu ka?” – ‘What is that thing?’ I asked.
“Hana Mikoshi.” – ‘A portable flower shrine.’
If you’ve never seen a portable shrine before, it’s very impressive. As the name suggests, it’s a shrine that’s been placed on a palanquin so that festival-goers can carry their gods down the streets of the town to celebrate them. But this mikoshi was even more special. This town is very famous for washi (handmade paper). Sticking out on top of the mikoshi were long slopping branches like a willow tree but instead of being covered in leaves, they were covered in tiny pink and white handmade papers. Thousands of these little papers covered the branches and gave it the look of cherry blossoms fluttering in the wind. Yuri smiled and said, “We carry.”
Twenty minutes later. Matthew had been sent away with a wish of good luck to the men’s mikoshi. I stood with the women preparing to lift our own. Yuri was holding an old wooden bucket with a spout on its lid. I gave her a looked that asked what it was. She smiled and nodded. I took it to mean, “you’ll see.” The leaders of our women’s team approached us, some holding the same buckets and some holding drums. Looking around, I realized I was the only Gaikokujin (foreigner) in the group and that everyone seemed to understand the instructions being given except for me. It seemed simple enough though, carry the mikoshi. It looked heavy but it couldn’t be complicated, right?
“Oisa!” the leaders shouted. “Strength! Power!”
“Oisa!” shouted the group.
We lifted the mikoshi. I felt every muscle in my body strain and pull. “Oisa!” we chanted and began to walk down the streets. We walked and chanted for what felt like hours. The streets began to fill with people, children, street vendors, and musicians. All through the streets was the sound of drums and mikoshi-carriers’ chanting. My body felt sore but my eyes were wide and my heart was pounding with adrenaline. Yuri ducked under the paper flowers with her bucket. She took her bucket spout and unceremoniously, shoved it into my mouth and tipped the bucket. It was filled with sake. “Oisa!” she shouted with a smile before ducking away again.
When we reached the center of the town, I could feel my body starting to tire. To my horror, I felt the mikoshi start to slide to the side. Panicking, I started to pull with all my strength to keep the mikoshi from pulling to the right. The mikoshi started to sway back and forth. ‘Everyone is tired.’ I thought. ‘We’re going to drop this thing.’ I looked up. I realized in front of me was thirty more mikoshi, each one swaying from side to side, their colorful branches dancing back and forth. We weren’t dropping the mikoshi, we were dancing with it! Just then, whistles began to blow through the town. The mikoshi’s started to dip and bob as the carriers pumped their mikoshi’s up and down. A final whistle and we lifted our mikoshi with a powerful “Oisa!” over our heads and began to spin through the streets. The whole town cheered.
We lowered our mikoshi and made to continue our procession. Hearing a drum, I turned to my left and saw Matthew. He’d been given a drum by one of his group’s leaders and was pounding it while walking with the parade.
Laughing, he said, “I have no idea what’s going on.”
“Me neither! Oisa!” I replied.
“Oisa!” he answered and disappeared into the crowd. I smiled and knew that moving to Japan was the best decision I’d ever made.