Last weekend, I headed northwest to the Heike Mountains, or more specifically, Nishimura, with Sam, Kyoto and several of his friends, for the Yokagura.
Relating to the festival we saw last weekend in Shiba, this all-night event celebrates the tale of the Genji and Heike clans. Although the story remains somewhat vague, from what I’ve been able to piece together, the two clans, the Genji and the Heike, were bitter rivals fighting for power over the lands. The Genji proved to be the more powerful of the two; thus the Heike, when realizing their ultimate defeat, retreated to the mountains of Kyushu.
The Yokagura, or Banquet of the Gods, is the Heike celebration of their lives in the mountains, their good crops, their continued growth, as well as their continued protection from the Genji.
The festival we were about to see has taken place for many generations, though, sadly, I discovered that this particular event is slowly becoming a thing of the past as the youth raised on the mountain are “looking for greener pastures” in the urban centers. Presently, I’m told, there are only 38 families remaining on the mountain and every year that number grows smaller. As a result, the Kagura dancers performing the 33 storytelling dances from dusk until dawn, are primarily men in their 50s and 60s.
It was just before sunset when we arrived at the festival and a strong winter chill was already setting in as we lay our tatami to the left of the stage and surveyed our surroundings. There was a small but lively crowd of about a hundred people, ranging in age from newborn to near death, drifting from one group to another, or huddled by the various fires strewn around the entire circumference of the stage.
Before I even had time to take it all in, an elderly gentleman approached me with a thick, bamboo pole as long as himself, carved out to serve as a pouring vessel. He motioned for me to find a cup and upon my doing so, he tipped the pole as steaming shyochu (a local distilled beverage made from sweet potatoes) spilled into my glass, warming my already numbing fingers.
I thanked him, we toasted, “Kampai” and off he went in search of another soul in need of warm spirits.
The Kagurayado (stage) was set beside an old school that had been abandoned some ten years prior, as residents on the mountain began to dwindle. In search of a bathroom, I entered the dimly lit building, peeking into rooms here and there, letting my imagination hear the faint echo of school children’s laughter, followed by the sweet, but stern voice of a young school teacher calling her class to order.
The old building smelled of a place forgotten.
Musty and forlorn.
Yet at the same time, there was a palpable sensation of life around every corner, as the mountain flora and fauna began to reclaim the building.
A single, bare bulb cast a ghostly light down a long, dusty hallway. Still on a mission, I saw this as a sign that I was headed in the right direction, so down the hall I went. Each step I took along the warped and weatherbeaten floorboards creaked and groaned and resonated all around me, as if to announce to the shadows that a stranger had arrived. About halfway down the corridor, I saw a flash of colors through some dirty panes of glass, so I walked into a tiny classroom where, still hanging on the wall, I found a yellowed and cracked map of the world.
Without hesitation, I reached out a finger and placed it on the tiny island of Kyushu.
Beside the map were old pictures of what I assumed were famous faces and legendary events.
It was as if the stories themselves were passing into oblivion, as was the mountain culture just beyond the old school’s walls.
Right next to these dim relics was a beautifully abstract wood carving which, unlike everything that surrounded it, was mysteriously free of spiderwebs, layers of dust and, for that matter, decay. Closing my eyes, I reached out and rubbed my fingers across the delicate engravings. Eager to reveal some message in its form.
The wood was warm and smooth to the touch, undoubtedly from the many fingers both past and present, which like myself, were inexplicably drawn to the carving. Deep in thought and touch, I was startled when I suddenly heard a loud, steady drum beat begin outside.
The sun was setting.
The dances were beginning.
And I was reminded of my reason for being there.
With one last, lingering glance around the abandoned classroom, I turned and wandered very slowly back through the old schoolhouse trying to remember every quiet, dim detail.
By the time I had “completed my business” and located Sam and the others, the stage (which represents a shrine to the Gods) had on it four dancers. My companions had begun to prepare some hot soup over a small burner, so I snuggled beneath a blanket, deeply breathed in the smell of the broth simmering and turned to the stage to watch the first of the many dances to come that night.
As I was told, each dance tells of a different legend relating to the history of Japan – from the creation of the Gods to the birth of mankind. The dancers’ costumes were simple, white kimono which were altered ever-so-slightly (adding a mask, a coat, a scarf, a sword) when a new character arrived or a new tale was being told. Apart from an occasional prop, such as a basket or chair (and the golden shrine – which remained stationary at the back) the staging was also very simple and all parts – both male and female – were performed by men.
For the first dance, the performers held in their right hands white fans – on each, a symbol of the sun. With graceful, sweeping motions, they made the sun rise and set at their bidding. In their left hands were tree-shaped instruments made of brass bells that clamored louder and louder the more lively the dance became.
For the most part, the Kagura is slow and methodic, like a spider spinning its web, but depending upon the main character who takes the stage, the dance can range from reverential to comic.
The Good Wife took the stage and told her tale.
The Fox entered and departed as a Princess.
The Gods followed.
The further the evening progressed, the more men from the audience began to reel alongside the stage, mirroring the motions of the dancers.
Desperate to stay warm as the mountains enveloped us in a dark, raw chill, we huddled together and, at the sight of hot shyochu approaching (despite the inevitability of one nasty hangover in the morning), we raised our glasses toward the bottle – or the pole – and partook in one drink after another. Strangely enough, as the evening wore on, I was surprised at how remarkably sober I remained and could only attribute it to the cold mountain air and brisk, wintry winds.
Every now and then, I turned my attention to the audience to watch the faces react to the scenes on the stage and the events transpiring around them. With several layers wrapped around me and still chilled to the bone, I observed a pretty, but silly young woman dressed in shorts, shivering by the fire.
Too vain (or too stupid) to wrap herself in the nearest blanket – or friend. Just who, way up here in the mountains, was she dressed to impress?
Maybe the Gods understood.
Besides this, however, I found the people I encountered all through the night to be genuinely warm and welcoming. Like old friends, there was a sense of ease and comfort I’ve seldom felt elsewhere in my life. Each newcomer to the event was treated as if they were long expected and sorely missed. And all night long – no matter how the dynamics of a group changed – the conversations never wavered, but flowed as effortlessly as small creeks spill into a large river without interrupting the river’s journey.
We shared our food, our drinks, our blankets, our fires and the experience as one big, happy family.
The first time I bothered to look at my watch since the festival began, it read 5:15 a.m. I made a brief attempt at sleep, but decided I would be far more comfortable writing and warming myself by the fire. After all, it was only a short time until the morning sun would appear and begin to warm things. And I liked being surrounded by all the unfamiliar, friendly faces.
All my companions had fallen asleep, or wandered to another part of the festival, so I sat quietly, smiling at the sleepy but happy faces that passed my way.
The legend of the eight-headed snake was next. A god danced across the stage, plunging his sword into a giant serpent (made of straw) until revealed to the audience in the belly of the beast was a magnificent sword which would make this God Emperor of Japan.
At least that’s what I think the very sweet gentleman sitting nearby told me.
By the end of the dance, the cold had become too much for my tired and shivering body, so I wandered toward the car and there found Kyoto, who had just woken from a nap. He made up a cozy little bed for me in the back of the Jeep, turned on an auxiliary heater, tucked me in and headed back to the stage area.
What a sweetheart, I thought as I blearily looked to my watch.
It was 6 a.m.
About three hours later, I woke to the sounds of voices near the jeep. The sun and the heater working together made the inside of the jeep so toasty that the thought of emerging from my cocoon and peeling off the many layers wrapped around me brought an actual tear to my eye. Nevertheless, I climbed from the jeep and saw Kyoto just a few feet away, smiling and in good spirits – despite the fact that I had stolen his sleeping arrangements.
Imagining how dreadful I must have looked, following a cursory greeting, I made a quick retreat to the toilets where I splashed my face with icy water from an outdoor tap, rinsed my mouth and for the first time in 12 hours and looked at my reflection in a nearby window.
Only to find that I looked far worse than I felt.
My eyes were sunken, red and swollen.
My unruly “bed-head” was unrelentingly untamable (making me look eerily similar to the Heat Miser).
My lips were pale, dry and cracked.
My teeth covered with slick layers of scum.
And frankly, my breath could have slain that eight-headed snake.
So, I stealthily crept to my bag where I threw on my sunglasses and a cap and eventually made my way toward the stage where the remaining crowd was gathering for the final dance of the festival.
I felt instantly better when I saw that EVERYONE looked as unreservedly crappy as I did.
The next thing I knew, despite my urgent pleas to remain a mere spectator, I was being dragged to the dancers’ dressing room and wrapped in the traditional costume, complete with hat, bells and sword. Feeling how I felt and looking the way I did, I was absolutely mortified by the thought of going out on a stage – let alone having to dance – and found only slight comfort when I turned around to see Samantha being involuntarily volunteered to undergo the same humiliation.
I should explain that we weren’t only picked out of the crowd for our incredible morning beauty, or as is most often the case, for our incredible foreignness. The final dance traditionally gathers participants from the audience. Kyoto and several others from the crowd were joining in, as well.
Our music cue began.
One of the main dancers insisted on my being the first one out the door after him. I wanted this honor about as much as I wanted to pickle my toes and eat them for breakfast, But I had little choice in the matter, as Kyoto urged (more like pushed) me from behind.
We arrived on stage and I immediately felt my face burning red with embarrassment, but in the spirit of the occasion, I did my best to follow the leader around and around the floor. Every once in a while, Sam and I would look to each other and burst out laughing.
For one very strange moment, I had the peculiar sensation – call it deja vu – that I had been in this very place, doing this very same thing before. It was so eerie that I had to stop in the middle of the stage and shake the feeling off.
Standing there, trying to make sense of this very queer sensation, I suddenly found myself being approached by an old man with a large branch in his hand. Laughing, he began to point directly at me and yell, “okii! okii!” (meaning big or large, which I can only hope was referring to my height). He then handed me the tree limb and gestured that I should begin swatting the other dancers with the branch.
I’m still not sure why, but when in Rome…
I headed straight to Kyoto and with a substantial “WHACK” thanked him for that shove into show business I received moments prior.
As if this public display wasn’t enough, another dancer approached me and placed in my hand a large phallic-shaped piece of wood as the crowd surrounding the stage began to guffaw. It didn’t take a genius to realize what this represented, but a mind muddled by lack of sleep and alcohol couldn’t help but ask.
Really sorry I did.
The dancer who had handed me the object, said, “That is the size of your pee-pee!”
I figured I was all in at this point, so I examined the wooden penis carefully (much to the delight of the audience) and then handed it over to Kyoto, whom I felt deserved the recognition more.
Why I became the object of such teasing, especially with Sam so nearby, is beyond me, but I decided that maintaining a stiff upper lip and my sense of humor was the best course of action and, believe it or not, I ended up having a hell of a lot of fun and received a rousing round of applause.
It’ll certainly be a memory I take with me for the rest of my life.
And isn’t making indelible memories what life is all about?
The night I returned from the Yokagura, I was exhausted from the all-nighter and fell into a deep, deep sleep. That is, until I was woken in the middle of the night by an eery, low rumbling, loud and steady.
At first, I thought it might be the sound of a slow moving freight train passing, but laying there with my eyes open and senses keenly alert, I was astounded by the din and the duration and suddenly felt as if I’d been transported back in time, imagining myself in WWII England during The Blitz.
I shuddered beneath my covers and remained with my eyes wide open – almost expecting the next sound to be that of bombs dropping.
What I finally realized I was hearing were the legions of planes on their way to Nyuta Baru American Air Force Base for the annual air show that began the following day.
Why they chose the middle of the night to do this, I still wonder about.
Whatever the reason, Akiko and I went to the show the next day where we saw many of my students who were not only excited to see me, but even more fired up when I spoke to several of the airmen and arranged for photo ops they never – ever – would have asked for themselves.
Well my friends, that should do it for now.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to write next. I have a super busy month ahead and then – hopefully – am off to Bangkok for winter break. I have to say, making travel arrangements here is proving about as easy as removing a recently discovered, gargantuan bugger from your nose, while your dentist is in the middle of examining your teeth… Catherine… but I’ll try.
I plan to be gone from December 23rd until January 3rd – just in case any of you want to call me- ha, ha, ha, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-cough, gasp, wheeze-ha!
My love to all and if you don’t hear from me, my best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy and SAFE New Year. My thoughts and my heart will be with you, while the rest of me will hopefully be lying languidly on a beach somewhere in southeast Asia.