7. Festival Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
Vince wasn't quite sure who had invited him to join the
Ikebe-cho Omikoshi Matsuri. Certainly, he was later to
realise that it was no coincidence that Osamu had taken him
to the Yokohama Budokan on the morning before he was to
joust with the portable shrine. The Budokan was on the very
edge of Kishine Park and was the local martial arts centre
and had sections for Kyudo (archery), Judo, Aikido, Karate
and Kendo (bamboo sword fencing).
It occurred to Vince only later that Osamu was actually
steeling him for things to come and, in comparison to the
real battle later in the day, the judo, kyudo and kendo were
decidedly lacklustre. He was fed three large bowls of oden,
one of Vince's favourite dishes, and then ordered to go to
the toilet, because there was no way to do it while wearing
his omikoshi costume.
The costume itself had already caused more than its share of
concerns. They had ordered the double large size and it
seemed as if it were still going to be too small for Vince
even then. As it was, it just fitted if Vince held his
breath. It had also been unfortunate that Osamu had asked
Vince if he would be involved in the festival over the phone
and in English. Osamu had been taking lessons.
Vince had told him, "I'd be delighted to, Osamu-san, but I
don't have a happi coat."
"I have no happi."
"You no happy?"
"No, I'm happy. I just have no happi."
"You don't want to festival?"
"No, I just have no happi. I don't have a happi. I am
"Happi ja nai!"
"Happi ga arimasen!"
Once, the problem had been sorted out, Osamu had gone out
and bought the full festival costume right down to the
undergarments. Vince stripped down to his underwear just in
time for the entire neighbourhood to arrive, so that they
could watch. What better entertainment than a strip show
followed by a torture scene?
First came the haramaki, it was five metres long and was
wrapped around Vince's abdominal region some six times from
bottom to top with both Osamu and Nozomi pulling at it at
times and imploring him to hold his breath. Nozomi informed
Vince that the haramaki was also traditionally tightly
wrapped around the stomachs of pregnant women. She had
evidently shocked her mother by refusing to wear one while
carrying her own two children on the grounds that it was
uncomfortable for the fotus and caused varicose veins. As
she explained this last part, she gave the haramaki one
almighty tug that made Vince gasp and he looked desperately
at his own still naked legs expecting to see varicose veins
pop to the surface.
The haramaki safely tucked in upon itself, Vince's stomach
bulged up in to his chest and down into his thighs, making
him look as if he had taken a Charles Atlas body building
course. Nozomi was already running the pants up his legs and
they were tight around his thighs. They were split both up
the back and the front - yet another example of Japanese
forethought, they had been pre-split so that he wouldn't
split them while he was carrying the omikoshi. Nozomi tied
them with draw strings along one hip and to Vince's infinite
surprise they looked quite respectable after all.
Next came the hadagi under coat, which was white with short
sleeves. It was tied with a yellow strip of folded cloth,
some two metres long, which Osamu insisted had to go around
Vince's body twice. He puffed and huffed and ordered Vince
to let out some more breath. He even threatened to unwrap
Vince, haramaki and all, and redo him up twice as tightly.
Vince only got his reprieve when Osamu tried to put on his
own yellow belt and discovered that he couldn't get it
around his own potless tummy twice either.
Nozomi, in the meantime, was attaching his tabi, stiff
cotton boots that seemed more like socks than shoes. They
had thin plastic soles with tread on the bottoms. They
connected at the back above the heel with spring steel clips
and were split between the big toe and the other toes. The
final touches were the happi coat with the kanji character
for matsuri (festival) on the back plus circles and twirls
and the pink sweat band for around the forehead. The coat
was tied with yet another sash with a chain pattern on it
and that was exactly how Vince felt, chained in.
Feeling dressed to kill, Vince was led to Osamu's waiting
van and taken to the Ikebe shrine which was buzzing with
local enterprise - choc bananas, okonomiyaki, grilled squid
on sticks, lemonade vendors and fairy floss machines. Little
kids were fishing for plastic balls and gold fish with
tissue paper nets, mothers were chatting gaily, shopkeepers
had moved their wares out onto the roadway, and the whole
street came to a standstill, gasping at the sight of Vince
in his full festival vestments
He was led, pushed, pulled, shoved, stampeded in the
direction of the omikoshi which was sitting on some trestles
at the foot of the shrine. Three old men, presumably elders
of the community, sat in an open fronted building off to one
side of the otorii gate, ink brushes poised as if they were
about to record the scores of the prospective omikoshi-san.
The omikoshi was dominated by red, gold and black. The roof
was a shiny black with a gold seal on each of the four
sides. Right at the top, there was a golden ho or Chinese
phoenix made from beaten brass. Underneath the roof the
interior was largely red and there was a little otorii gate
on each of its four sides. The portable shrine was supported
on two beams on either side, but to make it more manageable,
the men of Ikebe-cho had tied two other poles crosswise.
Vince looked at the 350 kilogram omikoshi portable shrine
and wondered if he would have to carry it all by himself. It
wasn't the first time that he had found himself the lone
foreigner in the group, hundreds of Japanese and here was
Vince, tubby and balding, representing the rest of the
world. He hadn't really considered that carrying an omikoshi
could be much more than mildly strenuous. He had seen them
in parades before, 80 odd people jogging along chanting,
falling in and out of the company, occasionally pitching the
portable shrine backwards and forwards.
Within 30 seconds of lifting up the omikoshi from the
trestles, he realised that what he had seen was classical
omikoshi-toting and that what he was experiencing now was
the art in its free form. The shrine swung around in great
arcs, pitched and yawed, rolling this way and that. Vince in
the middle of it all felt the shrine pound up and down on
his collar bone until he thought it was going to break. His
feet stumbled this way and that, trampled by other feet, his
toes cracking on old broken lines of concrete in the temple
grounds, the soft plastic soles of his tabi victim to any
stones that happened to find their way under them.
Shrine maidens, carrying staffs with bold iron rings at the
top, looked bored by the proceedings. They seemed to be
either 12 or 55 years old and nowhere in between and they
each had long hair tied right in the centre of the tops of
their heads by a cane coronet. Their job, Osamu assured
Vince, was to bring in the good spirits. On the other hand,
a man waved a leafy branch of bamboo over the omikoshi,
evidently to drive away the evil spirits. As if worried
about the apparent boredom level of the shrine maidens, he
would start to chant:
"Up, up, up. Higher, higher, higher."
The men would oblige by lifting the omikoshi high over their
heads and then would throw it into the air and catch it
several times Vince had never seen anything like this
before. He watched from below as the portable shrine soared
high above their heads and came hurtling down again.
Somehow, they always caught it. Vince had a pang of fear
that one time, they'd throw it into the air and when it came
down he would be the only one underneath it. He could
already hear the conversation as they carried him away in
"Wouldn't you know it, the stupid gaijin dropped the thing,
Through all the whirling of the crowd around him, the only
people who seemed to be in focus were the shrine maidens who
still looked bored. The other men must have noticed it too,
for they charged across the compound to storm the gate.
There were men blowing whistles on either side to tell them
when they were getting too close to the crowds around them.
Vince noticed fairly early on that Osamu spent more time
blowing a whistle than toting the omikoshi.
This time, the omikoshi-san were intent on storming the gate
and taking the portable shrine out of the shrine premises
and into the street. The entire local volunteer fire brigade
was out in force to ensure that this didn't happen, but the
stampede across the compound seemed unstoppable. Vince saw
the look of real fear on the faces of the mothers and
children alike standing under the otorii. Pushed forward by
the crowd, they could see no direction of escape.
Suddenly, Vince tripped. He groped in the air and caught one
of the supports which he gripped as if his life depended on
it as no doubt it did. At first, he swung freely from it and
then he was dragged along the ground. When he finally
regained his feet, the firemen were forcing the omikoshi
back into the centre of the grounds and they were all soon
throwing it in the air again. Vince had been out of breath a
number of times since they had started 25 minutes before,
but now he was exhausted.
"What was that all about?" he asked Nozomi between gulps of
"What was what all about?"
"All that business down by the otorii."
"Oh," Nozomi laughed, "nostalgia!"
"They once used to carry the omikoshi around all the streets
in the district."
"Why don't they do that, now?"
"The streets are too narrow and there's too much traffic.
And besides, these are country boys. I bet you've never seen
anyone throwing an omikoshi in the air before. When they
used to take it around the streets, it would end up just
about anywhere - in the rice paddies, in creeks, through the
fronts of houses or shop windows."
"They seemed pretty serious about getting it into the
Nozomi laughed again, "I think it's all bluff myself, but it
makes for a good show."
"Why don't you have a go, Nozomi?" Vince asked suddenly.
"No, this festival is only for men." ce
"But other omikoshi are carried by men or women. I've seen
them at Asakusa."
"Yes, that's true, but this is Ikebe-cho."
"It seems unfair."
Nozomi thought for a minute and then said, "Maybe, Ikebe
will buy an omikoshi for the women one day, too."
Between omikoshi totings, a group of four men showed off
their strength with 15 foot high hanakago - bamboo sticks
with red paper flowers attached to the poles and a basket
arrangement on top. Each twirled his hanakago in time with
the others, first in a clockwise direction and then in a
counterclockwise direction. Osamu came over to explain.
"We have this every five or six years."
"Because the festival only happens on a Sunday once every
five or six years."
Vince was soon to discover that one of the hazards of being
the only person representing the rest of the world in an
omikoshi festival was that you had to be involved all the
time. The next time the omikoshi was hoisted, he noticed
that a lot of the men with whom he'd jostled before, went to
sit down and others replaced them. Osamu picked up his
whistle again and Vince found himself once more in the
middle of the throng.
He had learned some lessons from his first experience and
determined not to get too close to the omikoshi. This really
didn't work either as the taller men were on the outside
while the shorter men were on the inside, some even right
under the omikoshi itself. By the time he was carrying the
portable shrine for the third time, he began to recognise
familiar faces, men who like himself had been there for the
last three performances and a certain camaraderie began to
If Vince was in a daze after his third stint with the shiny
black omikoshi, Connie had decided that he'd definitely had
quite enough. She steered him through the stalls and back to
the van. Once, they arrived back at the Atsukawa's, he went
for a shower, surveyed the bruises on his shoulders and feet
and anticipated the aches and pains his long neglected
muscles would give him over the following week. He frowned
at himself in the mirror and suddenly saw that Connie was
watching him from behind.
"Are you okay?" she whispered.
"Of course," he replied with some last vain attempt at
bravado. "Just fine."
"Was it alright?"
"Yeah, it was great."
"Great?" Connie laughed. "Vince, you look almost dead."
"Yeah, great," he thought. "Great footy practice." ad.
Vince hadn't toted the Ikebe-cho omikoshi for an hour plus
without wanting to see how they were made. He visited
Yokohama's only remaining omikoshiya, Mikoshi Dashi
Giyomatsuri, headed by its own elder craftsman, Kenji
Ishibashi. He had a single apprentice, who had been working
on portable shrines for only five years and was therefore
only a quarter of the way through his apprenticeship.
Unfortunately, Vince and Connie visited the omikoshiya in
September, which, just after the summer festival season, was
the slow time for a portable shrine maker. Indeed, they were
just about to start for the next season, almost a year away.
Mr. Ishibashi proudly displayed one of the beaten brass
phoenices that would eventually stand at the very top of a
"We usually make eight omikoshi in a year," he explained,
running his fingers up and down the wings of the phoenix.
"And that includes repair jobs."
"Eight in a year," Connie hissed in Vince's ear, "This
surely can't be the only omikoshiya in town."
"We make omikoshi," Mr. Ishibashi continued, "for shrines
all over the country. Aomori down to Okinawa."
"Come on," Connie persisted, "there are thousands of these
around the country. How come there are so few people who
"The biggest one we've made," Mr. Ishibashi explained, "was
in Showa 9 (1934). My father made that one and the ho alone
weighed 80 kilograms. It's so heavy that it has to be
carried on a truck. They brought it in for repairs seven
years ago. It was such a big job that it took the entire
"See what I mean?" Connie whispered.
"Of course, omikoshi are expensive," the old man elaborated.
"Even a relatively small one, say 25 inches high, costs 150
"That's about $170,000 Australian," Vince informed Connie.
Mr. Ishibashi was busy by this stage beating out some pieces
of brass for the corners of the portable shrine. He sat with
his buttocks on his heels amid grinding machines and
odd-shaped anvils working the metals with a hammer and a
punch, stopping at intervals to illustrate how the metal was
marked and bent. Vince looked around the walls which had
dozens of certificates from satisfied customers.
Once, Mr. Ishibashi had finished his panel beating, he
crudely assembled a portable shrine, the wood unpainted, to
show how the whole business went together. Mrs. Ishibashi
brought out some cans, soft drinks or cold oolon cha. And
Vince supped quietly while Connie besieged the artisan with
"How did he make the wood fittings?"
"They are made at a local carpenter's shop nearby. They are
made from zelkova, the same wood that is used to make the
kine hammer and usu bowl for omochi rice pounding."
Connie shot Vince a triumphant glance, "And what about the
metal attachments that aren't made from brass?"
"They are cast metal from a factory in Tokyo," Mr. Ishibashi
Connie could hardly restrain herself, "Only omikoshiya in
Yokohama. All he makes is the little brass pieces on the
sides and the phoenix on the top."
"He also assembles it, paints it and puts on the finishing
"But most of it is made by some carpenter down the road who
doesn't get any certificates of gratification from satisfied
"For goodness sake," Vince snapped, as only one who has
carried an omikoshi can to one who has no intention of ever
carrying one. "What sort of car did we drive in Australia?"
"And Toyota doesn't commission contractors to supply
different parts of their cars. They don't send them over in
bits, so that they can be assembled in Australia."
"I suppose they do."
"Is that so different from what Mr. Ishibashi does?"
Connie could suddenly see herself getting embroiled in
another debate about namebrands and relented, "I suppose