Patchwork Yokohama
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."

          "Nani?"

          "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-less."

          "Happiness? Nani?"

          "Happi ja nai!"

          "Nani?"

          "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

          "Suteki ne!"

          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
          the ambulance.

          "What happened?"

          "Wouldn't you know  it, the stupid gaijin dropped the thing,
          didn't he?"

          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
          air.

          "What was what all about?"

          "All that business down by the otorii."

          "Oh," Nozomi laughed, "nostalgia!"

          "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
          streets before."

          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."

          "Why?"

          "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
          develop.

          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
          portable shrine.

          "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
          make them?"

          "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
          year."

          "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
          man-en."

          "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
          questions.

          "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
          admitted.

          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
          touches."

          "But most of  it is made by some carpenter down the road who
          doesn't get any certificates of gratification from satisfied
          Shinto priests."

          "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?"

          "A Toyota!"

          "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
          not."