A Tale of Two Festivals

Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages) is one of the most somber and joyless expressions of humanity I have ever witnessed. The parade, its members dressed in the most wondrous & magnificent costumes, walk slowly one after the other, divided by precisions of space, down the centre of the road, unsmiling, conducting themselves in solemn silence, not acknowledging the splattering of applause from the viewing public who themselves sit with stone-faced patience and observe the silence in silence. The occasional troupe have a lone marching drum or a couple of light tinkling bells that are swallowed up by the modern fabric of the city and as hundreds walk down the road and hundreds more line the streets to watch them pass, I am still able to clearly hear the shod hooves of a horse clipping the tarmac thirty metres down the road as it ponders its own mortality.
A profound sadness pervades the proceedings as if everybody including the crowds are reluctant participants in a ceremony everybody agrees simply must take place - can you imagine what would happen if we missed a year? - but the reason for its observance is long lost.
As Beth says, "It's not quite the St. Patrick's Day parade." and after two and a half hours of grim-faced procession we leave them to their ordeal.

That evening we attend the Kurama-no-hi Matsuri (the Kurama Festival of Fire) and our faith in humanity - and the sanity of the Japanese people - is restored.
At first things don't look promising. We are herded off the train and shepherded through the night by dozens of police into one long, utterly orderly queue which snakes itself down and then back up the main street of this beautiful little village. We joke about the Japanese ability to drain every ounce of fun out of any occasion but our criticism is short lived.
The festival begins and as we are herded forward, great torches - each requiring four to six naked men to carry - are paraded down the street beside us. Showers of burning red embers cascade down the bare backs of the bearers and lodge in their loin clothes whilst they are occasionally doused with cupfuls of cold water to prevent their burns becoming Grade I. The crowd cheer and cry, surge forward and jump back as a wayward, out of control torch veers towards them. The great torches - up to a dozen of them - are then hoisted vertical against bamboo scaffold; a procedure so extremely dangerous that a scarred laughter flurries through the crowd.
The naked villagers, their wet buttock glistening with the surrounding fires, begin a chant as they refortify themselves - inhaling the fragrant smoke of pine oils burning in the night - before hoisting the torches back onto their shoulders and leading the procession back up through the village, accompanied this time by the beat of massive drums that are struck by beautiful maidens. All is noise and fire and earth . All is animal and real. All is elemental. All is madness and chaos and danger and utterly out of rational control. All is human once more.
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