About Day 5 (but written and posted much later)
I’m sitting on the Shinano 9 train from Kyoto to Matsumoto. It will be a four-hour journey. I could have chosen to take the Shinkansen to Nagoya and a local train to Matsumoto and shortened the journey by an hour, but that would have involved changing trains, which with my luggage is not an appealing option. Besides, four hours off my feet in the daylight hours seems somewhat luxurious.
Sometimes you take a trip, and sometimes a trip takes you. I always prefer the latter. But you can’t plan for it; you just have to cultivate opportunity and then follow it when it crops up.
There were three photos I saw in one of my guidebooks that piqued my curiosity. One was of Muro-ji, a small temple set back in the forest south of Nara (read about it here: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4187.html). I planned an extra day in Nara so I’d have a chance to visit it. Hase-dera was another nearby temple that Kato-san said was a ‘must-see’. So I woke up the morning of the 14th intending to catch a local train south to Sakurai and then change to Muroguchi-Ono and then take the bus to Muroji-mae. Carmen was leaving Nara that day for Kyoto and she was packing her bags as I was getting ready to leave. I invited her to join me and after establishing that she was fine reaching Kyoto late, we headed to the JR station.
After running through the grocery store in the bottom floor of the station to obtain breakfast we caught the first train to Sakurai. We changed to the train to Muroguchi-Ono and then had to wait for about twenty minutes for the bus. Carmen is from Spain, but working in Germany as an air traffic controller. I’ve been learning a bit more about Europe too on this trip from my new friends. No one seems very satisfied with their government at the moment. Of course the US is perceived to be on an insane path at the moment, but it’s interesting this trip to find so many other discontents. I’ve also decided that all profanity sounds better in a Spanish accent. Boool-sheet. Much better.
We finally made it to Muroji-mae and walked through town, picking up a local treat along the way. We found the entrance to the temple, paid our entrance fee and started up the numerous flights of stairs. Something both Carmen and I have realized is that we got our timing wrong for the changing leaves. November would have been the better month to see the red maples. They’re just now beginning to change in the Kansai area. Oh well.
The forest is still amazing with the scent of cedars wafting through the air.
The five-storied pagoda we came to see was badly damaged in a typhoon back in 1999. It’s been rebuilt, but everyone seems to prefer the earlier more rustic version. It’s flanked by rows of stone bodhisattvas with their red bibs. Kato-san told me that the bibs signify that these bodhisattvas are believed to look after the spirits of children who died too young.
Beyond the pagoda is a trail deeper into the magnificent forest with cedars towering what seems like hundreds of feet into the air. After crossing an arched red bridge there’s an endless set of stone stairs leading to another temple. I was still getting my traveling legs in shape and it was a slog, but well worth it. Carmen ran up the steps. Carmen has more energy than I do. And she always will. About this, I have no illusions. (have I said how good it feels to be sitting down today?)
After doing the tourist-with-a-camera thing we headed back down the flight of steps, past the pagoda and out of the temple area. We were walking back towards the station when a line of about 10 men passed us in a variety of traditional dress or black suits. They all greeted us, said hello, one wanted to shake our hands and then spoofed for the camera. We smiled and wished them well. We’d heard taiko drums in the distance and saw a film crew at the temple. Carmen asked where the drums were coming from (imagine Carmen miming taiko drumming, saying ‘boom boom boom!’) and the reporter gestured to another temple down the road.
Our plan was to head to Hase-dera and then back to Nara in time for sake tasting at the local sake brewery before Carmen had to catch her train to Kyoto. But as we continued on the road, a local gentleman stopped us and gestured back to the temple. “O-matsuri! O-matsuri!” and motioned for us to turn around. Carmen and I looked at each other, shrugged, and turned back around. How could we miss an o-matsuri?
Back at the bridge to the temple grounds the men we’d passed on the street were milling around with others, including the film crew from earlier. They recognized us (we were the only westerners around) and some tried talking to us. It was a mutual attempt with our limited Japanese and their limited English. But still their English prevailed.
“Where are you from?”
“United States.” And Carmen, “Spain.”
“You are friends?”
“Yes. Since yesterday”
One of the gentlemen, dressed in a dark suit and looking somehow less Japanese than the others (Carmen noted that his eyes were blue) was very intent on trying to convey something to us. He wrote down something in kanji and handed it to Carmen. Part of it was a phone number. One of the other men joined us and seemed very keen that we understood what was happening. Then the man with light eyes pulled out a brochure and handed it to us. It was for an art museum just up the road. We established that in Japanese. We tried to indicate that we would make every effort to visit it. (We’re currently in Nagoya).
Just then we were directed to get off the bridge. It was getting too close to the start of the event (which would begin precisely at 1pm and last until 3pm).
Carmen planted herself just behind the video camera at the entrance to one of the temples. I opted to stake out a corner where I would be out of the way and, I hoped, the least conspicuous. There was an opening into a courtyard on my left where a large group of children had been gathered. They all had blue coats on with some kanji on the back. Several adults with the same coats joined them and the kids began pouring out of the inner courtyard. There was a gold shrine type thing on poles sitting on the ground. It was a source of much interest. Eventually a woman came out of the courtyard with several jackets and headbands and distributed them to several of the other adults. There was a group of older men standing near me. They had glanced at me and then basically ignored me, which was fine by me. So long as I wasn’t in the way. One of the guys had his rain coat tied around his waist and he put the blue coat on and left it hanging open, it looked a little silly. He had a sun hat on and when he tied the headband on on top of the hat, I realized he didn’t give a rat’s ass about looking silly.
My presence began to generate a little bit of interest and one of the men, more slightly built than the rest, walked over to chat. He was full of information, I just had no idea what he was saying. The fact that neither Carmen nor I could speak much Japanese had no impact on the amount that these folks wanted to talk to us. My new friend’s name was “Higash”. He told me his last name but I forgot. I wanted to ask about the meaning of the o-matsuri, but his explanation was beyond me. I got that there was going to be a parade. I thought they were going to cross the bridge and head all the way up to the top of the temple where Carmen and I had just been. He seemed to want us to come along. I said I’d already climbed those stairs. I had no intention of repeating that feat in one day.
Then the procession started and I began taking photos. I was standing to the left of the bridge and the processed went to the right. Once they passed Higash gestured for me to follow to catch up to take photos. Both Carmen and I went a little down the path, but stopped short of the temple main entrance, as did the rest of the onlookers.
We figured the show was over and headed back over the bridge. I checked my phone for the time; it was still early enough to make it to Hase-dera. We lingered on the town side of the bridge. The children had crossed over and were milling around with the golden (whatever it was). There was a small truck with a big box in back red and white stripes that looked comical. We started back down the road towards the station, satisfied to have seen something different when Higash appeared again. ‘Come here!’ he gestured. He wanted us to walk with them. We contemplated the 2km and weren’t terribly excited, but it seemed rude to leave at that point, and besides, when would we have an opportunity to join in a parade again? So we watched as the kids passed pulling the gold thingy, and then the truck joined in with a flute player and a a big drum and two drummers in the back. Then the rest of us fell into line. There was a chant with the drum and the flute. I can’t remember what they were singing, but it sounded something like “Wa-sshoi!”
Initially Carmen and I were near the back, but Higash came trotting back and made us move to the front of the ‘normal’ crowd, just behind the truck. To get better pictures. We were progressing at a steady amble, and I turned to Carmen and asked how long she thought 2km would take at this pace. 1.5 hours. But soon it became apparent that they wouldn’t ask the flute player, drums and townspeople to keep this up for 2km. After about 1/ 4 mile we reached our destination. (we’re going through a mountain now)
We reached Muro Ryuketsu Jinjya (Muro Shrine) and gathered in an open space before some steps. Higash made sure we were in the right spot. There was a formal ceremony involving some blessings, and then the serious folk took the ceremony deeper into the temple. We spectators stayed where we were and Higash delivered a bottle of Japanese green tea to us to share. Soon the taiko drummer started arranging their drums and taking their place. One photographer asked if he could take our photo. Higash also arrived with his cell phone and took a pictures of us. We were part of the uniqueness of the day.
We waited. The drummers waited (hunched back on their heels). Eventually the formal ceremony ended and the drumming began. We were in a clearing of towering cedar trees under a blue sky. It was a magnificent day and the drummers were wholly dedicated to their performance. The adults and teenagers were having a fantastic time and two younger drummers struggled to remember the song and keep up. I haven’t seen a performance like that, where the performers were so completely engaged and un-self-conscious in a long time. Maybe ever. The leader was a woman in perhaps her forties. She loved what she was doing and I was imagining the weekly practice and the community that supported this tradition.
After the taiko performance was over Higash appeared to shuttle us over to the side so we could watch the lion dancers. This was slightly different than Chinese dragon dancing. To be fair I haven’t seen a real Chinese dragon dance performance so don’t have a fair basis for comparison, but for this only two people made up each dragon. There was a pair of lions for each dance. First the teenagers went, and then the adults. Each dance last about five minutes as was extremely athletic which much crouching down and jumping up, high strides and twist and turns. I couldn’t quite follow the story being told, but it was moving nonetheless. Again there was such heart in the performance. This wasn’t just people going through the motions to keep a tradition alive; this was a living art that was being fully embraced by this community. Maybe this is common in Japan, but it was special treat to see. (we’re in a mountain valley now, following a clear river strewn with huge, white boulders. Wow.)
Higash showed up at my side and said that next there would be o-mochi. But that he was going home. Good-bye. And he was gone.
Carmen re-joined me and I told her that Higash had made his departure. People started gathering in the open space again facing the steps where the taiko performance had taken place. Everyone was pulling out plastic bags. Carmen had a bag but I couldn’t find anything other than my back-pack. We weren’t quite sure what was happening but folks had brought out large boxes and were pulling out ‘raw’ mochi (not all mocha is sweet, you can also get plain mochi that you heat on a grill or frying pan and then serve with a savory/sweet sauce. In it’s pre-cooked form it’s a little disk of dense mocha with a dusting of flour).
All of a sudden Higash turned up again, clearly not convinced we could make it through this last episode un-escorted. He motioned urgently for me to open up my backpack, which I did. All of sudden the men on the platform began hurling the mocha into the crowd and the previously reserved and well-behaved crown began diving and scrambling for every mochi. I would have one within reach and someone would snatch it away. Shocking! But Higash was at my side and dumping handfuls of mochi into my pack, hither-dither in between my camera case and maps. Carmen beside me was doing a fair job at gathering her own stash. Finally, the mochi ran out and Higash seemed satisfied with our take. He said his goodbyes again, and disappeared.
People began to dissipate, and the sun was beginning to sink in the sky. Carmen and I started to walk back down the road towards Muro-ji and this time no one stopped us. We made it into town at 4:00 and saw that the next bus was at 4:30. Hase-dera closed at 4:30, so it would have to wait for another trip.
While we sat at the bus stop a woman passed by to join her husband. She asked us where we were from and how long we were staying in Japan. She had a single green blob in a box. We asked what it was and it was a green-tea mochi that was special to the area. Carmen and I had seen them making them earlier, but thought you had to buy them by the box. I ventured back to purchase one for each of us while we waited for the bus. We’d already bought two cans of Asahi so were ready for a picnic. We’d skipped lunch.
Carmen gave the majority of her temple-mochi to the woman who we’d just chatted to. She expressed great thanks. I asked my hosts at the guesthouse in Nara what the mochi signified and she thought that people believed that if they ate mochi blessed at a temple that they would have a long life. I ended up giving a majority of my mochi to these hosts. They also expressed great thanks, but I can never tell if they are truly grateful, or just very polite. Regardless, I couldn’t carry them and it seemed wrong to throw them away.
We made it back to Nara around 6pm. Carmen retrieved her bag from the guesthouse and then we stopped for dinner to cap off a special day. We splurged at a nicer restaurant and tried a variety of fish and vegetables. Then Carmen went off to Kyoto and I went back to the guesthouse to sleep.
[after writing this I discovered this website with the history of the festival: http://nippon-kichi.jp/article_list.do?kwd=2356&ml_lang=en; seems even more meaningful now that both Carmen and I were born in the year of the Dragon]