Torigoe Matsuri: The Real Mikoshi

Torigoe Matsuri: The Real Mikoshi

As I type this, I can barely lift my right arm.  My shoulder is a hot, puffy mass of bruises and broken blood vessels.  Why?  Because I participated in the Torigoe Matsuri and carried two Mikoshi (the palanquins that hold the neighborhood shrines) on my shoulders in one of the most chaotic, frequently frightening and altogether immensely fun festivals I have ever participated in.

I have written about carrying Mikoshi before — for the past two Septembers, I have been included in our neighborhood’s festival and I enjoyed it very much.  The difference between the Torigoe Matsuri and our Heiwadai Matsuri is that of a wild lion to a domestic Tabby cat.  It is serious.

The Torigoe Matsuri is perhaps the second or third biggest festival in Tokyo.  The neighborhood is right in the heart of Tokyo’s old downtown, the vast temples of Asakusa nearby, and the giant, roof-top sculpture of a cook’s head that adorns Kappadashi-dori (the famous cookware street) looms over the low-level buildings. It is an old neighborhood, packed with shrines, narrow streets and a very tight-knit community.  Our HQ was the covered loading dock of a paper-recycling factory.  I was the guest of the Udagawa family whose family home was right across the street.   I was seated and offered alcohol from at least 6 different people.  (I accepted!) An aunt of the Udagawa’s brought out corn, pickles and a platter of traditional cold foods – Tofu, slices of pork loin fragrant with curry powder, stewed daikon, kombu, oseki han — rice balls with red beans.  The neighborhood began to gather — elders in wheelchairs, kids, a group of tattooed young men.  I was inappropriately dressed — for the Hewaidai Matsuri, I was given a special shirt to wear over my everyday dress.  Not so for the Torigoe Matsuri.  After a brief moment of discussion, various people headed out to remedy the situation.  Looking around I realized half of the people were dressed in traditional clothing that included white cotton pants; the other half were wearing no pants, just the tush-exposing loincloth known as fundoshi.  I whispered a small prayer that I would be in the pants crew.

The gods listened and I was soon dressed in Jika-Tabi (the toe-separating cloth shoes), white pants (!!) and shirt, a green and white yukata (unique to the carriers of the Udagawa’s neighborhood shrine) and a rough silk obi (belt).  More beers were pressed on me.  An older woman checked me out from head to toe and shook her head.  She then rearranged my entire outfit, retying my obi and managed to give my butt a firm squeeze.  An older guy, grey hair wild,  tied in the back by a rubber band, broke down the game plan.  First, we would carry the local shrine for about an hour, then an hour break, and then onto the main Mikoshi.  He warned us to tuck the cloth bags that held our phones and wallets under our arms to protect from thieves.  He then went on to advise us to stay in the back of the Mikoshi as things tended to get rowdy in front.  Rowdy?  Yes, he told me, a lot of fights happen with people desperate to claim a hero’s spot in the front.  Those young, tattooed guys in the fundoshi?  They were professionals, there to make sure the Mikoshi got to where it needed to be regardless of amateurs like me.  Soon, we were in the midst of the action, and in some ways back to the tenth century.  This was no longer modern Japan.  The Torigoe Mikoshi is near twice the size of the one I carried in Heiwadai and I felt every bit of its weight crushing my shoulder cartilage as we hoisted it off the ground.  Crowds swirled around us, traditional instruments paced the march and the pain seared into my skull.  It was rhythmic and hypnotic and soon more people joined, pressed up against my back.  Both women and men hauled the timbers — shorter folks almost hanging off.  The pros up front hopped from one foot to the next in an awesome show of strength, timing and high pain tolerance (aided by the numerous beers they were downing).  We stopped and rested, started again, stopped again and finally after an hour returned to the mouth of the shrine.  By this point, it was seriously crowded, our bodies crushed together bouncing the multi-ton shrine on our blistered, bruised shoulder meat.  All of a sudden the crowd surged backward, shifting the whole mikoshi to the left.  I struggled to keep my footing, finding myself pressed into the curb. A wave of fear ran through the entire crowd — a strange place for a NY Jew to die, crushed to death in a Mikoshi accident.  And then we surged forward…and backward again….and forwards…and back again until rank fear turned into exhilaration and laughter.  The leader of the Mikoshi was a conductor, and perhaps a bit of a sadist, carefully orchestrating a crescendo of emotions. Uncrushed, still breathing,  we lowered the Shrine onto sawhorses and retreated for more drinking and eating.

In the lead-up to the main event, the streets in front of the HQ began to fill.  Actors in devilish masks paraded in 3-foot high platform shoes.  The head monk of the main shrine, an imperious guy, triple-chinned and haughty, dressed in magnificent crimson robes and carrying a giant, red parasol, came clomping by on a heavily muscled Clydesdale horse, surrounded by attendants.   As if floodgates had broken, a roiling, churning mass of people came pouring down the lane, the main shrine rhythmically bouncing like a boat in the waves.  Bodies bounced off each other, pushed and shoved to and from the Mikoshi as chants and claps and shouts and drums echoed off the buildings.  A green ribbon was tied around my head allowing me access to enter this madness.   Soon, I was mashed into a line of men and women, hands on each other’s shoulders, bodies close, as a handler directed us into place, shoving us forward and shouting at us to MOVE when a space opened up to carry the mikoshi.  If anything, this main shrine was heavier, the carrying posts being massive squared off timbers whose sharp edges dug deeper into my already mangled shoulder.  Twenty or thirty seconds later, a different handler pulled me out, shoving me back into the line as another accolade took my place.  The line revolved like this, making sure everyone was involved and I got to carry another 4 or 5 times — switching shoulders and fending off blows as I got pushed to the front (where the rough stuff happens!).  And then we were done.  Reeling with sweat, with adrenaline, with numerous beers, we made our way back to HQ and were greeted with paper cups of soba noodles, sake and more beer.  We exchanged war stories, showed off our bruises, made jokes, made friends — the camaraderie had become as thick as cigarette smoke. True, in one way this is the point of the Torigue Matsuri — an excuse for a party, a time to see neighbors, catch up with old friends and see family.  But, in another way, in a deeper and very ancient way, the Matsuri seems to me to be a cathartic ritual — a stage-managed,  highly charged environment of chaos, thrills, semi-controlled violence, and enormous fun. It acts as an exorcism of all those petty jealousies, bad thoughts, bad energy, feuds and tensions that arise in crowded neighborhoods.  It is a yearly purge and I was lucky to be a part. I was welcomed back for next year.

I am so lucky as a person.  I have never really felt part of the real world somehow, never quite found my footing amongst my peers.  While I have great, wonderful friends in America of whom I feel as close as family, I just never bonded with the majority culture — I always felt somehow outside (whether at school or at jobs), a greasy window in which I could only squint through.  Perhaps that is why I have spent so much of my adult life in cultures that are not my own; cultures where my outsider status is stamped upon me rather than a dark stain which was always in danger of being discovered.  The luck I have is that whether in Jamaica or in Japan, people have welcomed me in — brought me into their lives, their families, their friends, into the deep and dutty realms of their community regardless of what a bumbling outlier I am.  The Udagawa family is no different — they welcomed me into their neighborhood, dressed me, fed me (with pants!), got me drunk and included me in a wonderful event and actually invited me back no matter how many faux pas I must have committed.  Thank You.

 

 

 

 

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