I’d properly memorized about four of our dozen taiko numbers by the time the festival came around on November 2nd. The night before, everyone involved in my region’s events got together to prepare what was effectively a giant hand-drawn parade float with a hand brake stuck to the back to control its speed on inclines. It was topped with a traditional-looking black-tiled Japanese roof with gold and red adornments, below which hung a ring of paper lanterns. These surrounded a platform where we placed two big taiko drums and two little ones, with one more little one mounted on the back. The thing had a generator built into the base to run all the lights, and two ropes out front for people to tug on by the dozen.
I got to our “home base” at 7:30 on Saturday morning so we could push and pull the thing to our local shrine, which was apparently on top of a hill.
Heaving and grunting with my shoulder against the half-ton mini-pagoda as it slowly ascended a little road at a 40-degree angle, I huffed at the guy next to me, “Maybe next year… we could find a shrine… at the bottom of the hill.”
“Couldn’t do that,” the guy puffed. “Different god.”
They started the day with a dragon-dance at the shrine, the solemnity of which was somewhat reduced by everyone’s amusement at the visibility of the performers’ long johns under the dragon costume. It was getting quite cold in the mornings.
Then off we went, guiding the float along little winding roads, taiko drums thooming and flute players walking behind, everyone chanting “So-reh!” and something that I pronounced as “Rok-koi!” at appropriate points in the songs. Everyone wore a traditional starched overshirt, maroon for the adults and light blue for the kids, and some of the younger people would eventually paint their hair. I ended up with nearly every available colour on my head by the time my kids were through with me.
The fall festival is apparently done in thanks for a good rice crop.
“What if it’s a bad crop?” I asked.
Simple answer: “Then we ask for a better crop next year.”
People would sometimes come out of their houses to greet us, usually holding an envelope that was received by one of the organizers. I would later learn that these envelopes contained money to support the festival, and I wondered if the donors knew they were sponsoring the beer and food provided after taiko practice every night. In exchange for their money, donors would receive a bag of rice husks and a brief semi-private performance as the float stopped in front of their house for about thirty seconds.
A lot of my elementary school kids were playing the little drums and pulling the float, while a pair of first-year junior high kids were the workhorses of the ōdaiko. Apparently, high school students and third-year junior high kids weren’t allowed to participate since they were supposed to be concentrating on their studies.
I didn’t get to play very much in the end. It turned out that I was only really solid on two numbers, and I needed to mimic the moves of the guy beside me for the other songs. This went poorly at one point when a particularly drunken, overly-enthusiastic guy who made a point of trying to smash the paper lanterns on his backswing once pulled back so energetically that his drumstick flew out of his hand and landed in a culvert somewhere off by the side of the road. We had to stop the song.
Two support vehicles followed the float all day: a van fitted with external speakers to announce thanks to our financial supporters, and a pickup truck filled with booze. It’s legal to drink pretty much anywhere you want in Japan, and it was the main activity for most of the adults.
When we met up with two other groups from other parts of town, I found the level of young adult aggression a little disturbing given the number of kids around. It felt a bit like a university frosh week event.
We stopped on two occasions to throw bags of mochi (palm-sized rice cakes) to people gathered in front of the float. I’d seen this activity before at New Year’s in Shizuoka, and just as in Shizuoka, the grandmothers in the crowd were to be feared. They pounced on those little things like octogenarian panthers, and I was very scared to get in their way.
We returned to our “home base” at 8:30 that night. It had been a long day for me, and I slipped out at 10:00 while the other people were still partying. I’d also decided that I’d forego starting right at 7:30 again on Sunday in favour of a more relaxed day.
When the troop came by my area at 11:00 on Sunday morning, all the kids called out my name and drunken drumstick man knocked on my windows until I was obliged to come forth in my pyjamas and assure them that I’d be out at noon. They said okay, and went on their way.
All in all, it was good fun, but I was rather festivalled-out by Sunday night. When it was over, everyone was revelling like they’d just made it over a great annual hurdle, but as an outside observer doing this for the first time, I couldn’t quite join in the sentiment. I’d only pulled a float and played the drum. It wasn’t quite the same.
That night they held a raffle where the top prize was a big Styrofoam box full of live lobsters. I was glad I didn’t win.
After six months, I’ve finally made a point of trying to memorize my kids’ names. I’d hoped they would start to seep in through osmosis, but no such luck. I've only got five schools. Shouldn't take long...
I finally figured out an appropriate counter to little kids who like to poke me in the privates: this grade one kid was poking my bum while I was talking in the teachers’ room at Thursday Elementary. After few shots to the rectum I decided that I’d had it, turned around, picked him up by the legs, and carried him out of the room upside-down to find a garbage can or something I could threaten to insert him into.
I couldn’t have planned the outcome better: two other grade ones spotted him and immediately ran up to poke the little sucker in his totally defenceless vitals. I laid him gently on the ground and left him there to be dealt sweet retribution at the grubby hands of his own kind.
…that one’s probably never going to find its way into any of the official company training manuals…
The kids at Friday Elementary have now created “Maximum Power Dragon,” in which form I chase after them crouching and clawed as per the usual “Dragon,” but in this incarnation I actually put on speed and catch them. When I picked up a particularly energetic and abusive fifth-grader named Rambina, she started laughing and thwapping me as she called out “Bakayarō! Bakayarō!” That’s the equivalent of repeatedly yelling “Fucking moron!” at your teacher. But then, as in English, it’s all good if done in fun, and the Japanese language doesn’t really have any bad words that kids aren’t supposed to say. Rambina then invented “Kobuta Zombie” (“Zombie Piglet”), in which form I basically chase her in a crouching position making grunting sounds. It amuses her to no end.
The grade 6 boys, on the other hand, prefer endless lightsaber duels.
As of right now, I’m just trying to readjust to life and lessons without Halloween, and studying for the big Japanese test I’m taking on December 1st. Yes, it’s a test on my birthday, but I think it’s better than the thesis presentation I had to do two years ago.
Oh, and I’ve made the unfortunate realization that I think I have to make another picture book for Christmas. You can guess how much I’m looking forward to it.