Monday, October 26, 2009

Running Naked Once More in Motomiya

First off, let me say that the Motomiya Naked Festival has little to do with anyone being totally naked. It does, however, have a lot to do with everyone being a little naked. Confused? Well so was I the first time, seven years ago, standing there in a strange woman’s house, stripped to my boxers, hands raised high above my head as she proceeded to wrap ten meters of white cloth around my mid-section. This is what an adventurous spirit in a foreign land will get you.
‘Ugokanaide ne, shibaraku.’
How could I say no?

A couple weeks before I’d found myself an active participant in a Japanese festival for the first time. The Fukushima Inari Jinja Matsuri too involved the carrying of a mikoshi, a miniature replica of a Shinto shrine that somehow weighs as much as the real thing. A hundred or so intrepid Japanese had gathered on a Monday morning, towels tucked under their festival jackets to pad their shoulders against the weight of God, to carry out the raucous yet subtly spiritual act of hauling around town this lead-heavy lego set with the trembling gold-plated rooster on top.
As my spine contracted under the sheer weight of the thing, the washcloth I’d brought doing nothing to keep my collarbone from being crushed, I thought this must be what it feels like to pledge a fraternity.
Little did I know Animal House was waiting further south.

To be honest, I can’t recall much of that first experience in Motomiya with any particular clarity – and not just because of all the sake. Japan was still a novelty for me, every day a potential typhoon of sensory input. A trip to the supermarket could still make me feel like I’d eaten some bad mushrooms. Letting myself be thrown into the fray of this small town’s annual plunge into cultural insanity would be like any given rugby match in college, though with the excessive drinking done before the game, not after.
So rather than try to piece together my fragmented memories of that fateful day in the Fall of 2002, allow me to relive, in much greater detail, the events of this past weekend.

I was still in the car when the vague feelings of dread began. This would be my seventh time joining the circus, and every time I’d felt the same (except for that first time when I had no idea what was coming and thus the dread was not at all vague). Today, though, I also had a sore ankle to ponder. Would it turn the coming melee into a pure nightmare? What if I turned it or got stepped on? Why the heck had it been bothering me for the past week anyway? As we pulled off Route 4 and dipped down into town I decided to stop thinking about it.
Every other year I’d gone to Numa-san’s home for the unceremonious ceremony of getting dressed for the party. Numa-san, however, had been promoted to Deputy Grand Poobah for the day and would be prancing around in a suit and tie, carrying only a small paper lantern, a bottomless cup of sake and envelopes of money the townsfolk would be tossing him for good luck. I felt a dull ache in my ankle as I walked toward Takeda-san’s home. I wanted to be a Deputy Grand Poobah too.
I pointed out the wooden name plate on the porch wall next to the door. ‘Is this it?’ No, wrong first name my wife said, continuing down the short, narrow, cement-lined street, our two-year-old son in tow. I shrugged and kept walking. The sound of a metal storm door opening spun us both around.
A slender woman in a white sweater and long brown hair stepped out and waved to us. ‘Konnichi-wa! Takeda desu! Do-o-mo! Haitte kudasai!’ How did she know it was us?

Takeda-san is a fireman for the Motomiya FD and hadn’t been able to participate in recent years due to his work schedule. (Somehow I got the feeling he was still way ahead of me in line for Deputy Grand Poobah.) This year, in Numa-san’s absence, he’d be leading the Date-machi neighborhood group. He’d asked me to be at his house at 3pm to get ready. It was now 3:05. Punctuality rates high on the Japanese scale of priorities.
Takeda-san was sitting in his kitchen wearing white boxer shorts and a white t-shirt.
On any other day this would have been weird.
An old man was sitting on the raised tatami floor of the living room, glancing back and forth between the TV and me. A woman who looked too young to be his wife but too old to be Takeda-san’s entered the room with big smiles and hands eager to do something. The woman in the white sweater was padding around in circles between the kitchen and the living room, straightening up the clutter that is so common in Japanese homes I’ve come to believe there’s a law of some sort. So the name on the plate next to the front door must be the father’s, I reasoned, with the four of them living together. Not at all unusual in Japan. And there were four chairs around the kitchen table. How quaint.
Then suddenly another old man appeared through the sliding glass doors leading in from the tiny backyard. I looked at the framed pictures of Takeda-san’s four children and got back to thinking about my ankle.
‘Please, change your clothes here,’ Mrs.Takeda said, motioning to the living room and reaching for the sliding partition doors. Then she paused. ‘No, please, this way.’ And she stepped toward a door leading, I think, to a hallway. ‘Or no...’
Mr.Takeda sat at the table bent over, clipping his fingernails. The old man kept looking at me. Mao Asada, Japan’s figure skating darling, was doing a short program on TV.
The old guy in the sliding glass doors had disappeared. The older woman was still smiling, ready to help – with what I had no idea.
I looked at Mr.Takeda. I thought about what we were going to be wearing while parading ourselves through the streets for the next six hours. And I proceeded to strip down to my boxers, right there in front of Mao.

So I’m standing in my underwear in the Takedas’ living room. Mr.Takeda stands up and walks over. ‘Get down on your hands and knees.’
You don’t say no to a Japanese fireman. Especially one who may be your Grand Poobah someday.
The doorbell rings and two more guys about my age show up. They walk into the living room to see Mr.Takeda standing over me, my hips pinned between his thick calves as he grunts and yanks on the ten-meter swath of white cloth he’s wrapping around my body. They say their konnichi-was and proceed to strip down to their boxers.
The old man is torn between us and Mao.
It’s getting a little chilly standing in the kitchen watching Takeda-san wrestle with the other two guys. I can’t really help my wife dress our son up in the festival outfit she brought for him. I can’t really move, actually. Takeda-san wraps a tight cloth. The cold is making me have to pee.
I duck into the dark hallway. I feel like Indiana Jones, staring at a bunch of closed doors, having to choose the correct one. I go for the one tucked in under the staircase.
I crack the door open. There’s a toilet inside – and nobody on it, thank God. I throw the door open to duck in – and a whirring sound comes at me as the lid to the toilet seat rises like the door to a haunted tomb opening up. Then a green light appears, reflecting off the water. Straight out of a bad horror movie. Indiana Jones and the Secret of the Emerald Crapper.

Back out in the living room the older woman was preparing four cups of hot tea. The mysterious old man from the backyard was now in the kitchen. ‘Forget tea, here you go.’ And he cracked open a huge paper carton of sake. Four guys in boxers and white cloth squeezing our internal organs into a fine pate gathered in a circle, glasses out, ready to warm ourselves against the impending idiocy with an introductory layer of insobriety.
We tossed back two full glasses each and stepped out into the street.
My wife took a couple pictures of me and Yamato, also decked out in white boxers and white cloth around his protruding belly. Mayumi had been up until 2am the night before making the tiny shorts just for this occasion; to see him standing there was worth every ounce of effort.
The other guys chuckled and pointed and cheered in between long sucking drags on their cigarettes. From the end of the street Ishikawa-san came hobbling along, pack of smokes tucked into the cloth across his chest, ready, more or less, for the evening.

A group picture and we were off.

Around the corner was the neighborhood shrine, a temporary set-up just for the festival, with a plethora of bottles the neighbors had placed in front as a sort of offering – to God or each other or themselves I’m not sure. The elders had begun gathering, eager to give us a warm, sake-soaked send-off. How many years of festivals had they survived, I wondered as I accepted their gifts of rice wine and beer.
More rock heads in underwear appeared, shaking out their shoulders and rubbing their hands and commenting on the chill. Yamato was jumping around, half naked and oblivious. Talking and laughter. The glug-glug of alcohol.
Slowly the sound of drums floated up through the air.
Down the street the white pickup truck appeared, grumbling under the weight of a half dozen shrine priests and their collection of festival worship accoutrements: tree branches, wood carvings and a big huge drum. The truck stopped in front of Date-machi’s humble sake-laden shrine. One robed man stood facing the altar and waved a stick with white paper tied to it back and forth in deliberate rhythm. Other old men in different colored robes played an assortment of flutes, obscenely high-pitched and quite out of tune. One guy stayed on the truck to pound on the drum.
Then a quick word of encouragement from the guy with the stick and they were on their way to the next neighborhood.
We gathered in front of the shrine for our own quick prayer. The time was upon us, I knew. We bowed and clapped and bowed again, a guy with a suit and a ribbon pinned to his lapel that obviously signified his importance offered a short speech – something about gratitude and the weather and not dying today – and the elders and the women began clapping and shouting as we jogged off down the road, chanting the traditional words: ‘Washoi! Washoi! Washoi!’

Then Ishikawa-san’s lighter fell out and everyone stopped to make sure someone picked it up.

Today, in Motomiya, Japan, the sight of ten men dressed as we were jogging up the street yelling washoi washoi would not turn any surprised heads. People notice and watch, for sure, but the sight is not an odd one. For this is the order of the day. Seeing the same group of men walking quietly along the sidewalk, though, is cause for concern.
That was how it felt to this gaijin anyway.
It was only a few hundred meters up the road and around the corner to the next meeting point. And everyone was already walking. Where had the spirit of things gone?
Before turning the corner and coming into view of the folks waiting for us we resumed the jogging and chanting. They received us with cheers and clapping and more food and drink. What a crock, I thought to myself as I reached for a cup of sake and threw a handful of dried, salted fish – heads included – into my mouth.
Another couple of neighborhood groups came tumbling around the corner, and suddenly we were fifty or sixty strong. The collective energy was building. The air was cool but stable. Closer to the center of town, the milling crowds of onlookers had increased. We had a bit more sake in our blood. Voices and laughter rose up, ever louder. Perhaps the spirit was just taking its time getting started today.
Then on some unintelligible signal the guys carrying the lanterns on long bamboo poles lined up in front of the crowd and headed off up the street. ‘Washoi!” Washoi!’ I jumped in with the few following close behind. ‘Washoi! Washoi!’ The drone of voices dissipated behind me. I looked back. Forty guys were still back there, standing around and talking and finishing their sake and cigarettes. A few had begun walking.
What the evening would eventually bring I couldn’t even guess.

As the gray afternoon gave way to the dark of the early October night I did feel the soul of previous festivals return. The group got into a rhythm, working our way through the streets and the crowds. Every time we started throwing the mikoshi up and down, a spirited display if not completely rock-headed, I felt the adrenalin that can come only from extreme experience. At each successive resting point, once we got the mikoshi settled back down on those life-saving wooden horses, kind Japanese would approach me in the crowd and offer me more sake and rice cakes and beer. My ankle was all right. My shoulders were killing me. Nothing in the world, I believed in that moment, could ever compare to this.
A few less palatable aspects of previous festivals were similarly prevalent. The same guys who were overly drunk and stupid two and three years ago were drunk and stupid again tonight. The same scrawny guy whose job was to act like he had any control over a hundred guys shouting and stumbling around with a Volkswagen on their backs was at it once again, all five-foot-nothing of him scampering around like a monkey with a lantern and a Napoleonic attitude. No one can help being short, but the guys who were in there with nothing but a relaxed hand dangling from the wood high above their shoulders were making it tough for those of us actually supporting the thing to walk without tripping over their useless little feet.
But these things are part of the deal. And the wonder and magic of being a part of such tremendous pleasure and pain will always outweigh the niggling annoyances.

Yet this year something was indeed different. The faces I remembered from past years looked older. The newer faces bore the odd excitement of inexperience. The final push to carry the mikoshi through the gate at the base of the stone steps leading up to the Adatara Shrine was a struggle as dire as any I remember, thanks to the guys pushing us backward, back out into the street and into the crowds of onlookers, time and time again. They could have kept us out there all night if they wanted to. Or until we all collapsed in an exhausted heap, crushed to death at last under two thousand pounds of Shinto deity.
But they gave in finally, and with twenty-five meters of rope added to help pull the mikoshi up the long crooked staircase we hauled ourselves up to the shrine. And there, with more prayers and shouting and a few spirited ‘Banzai!’ the evening ended.

Our Date-machi gang regrouped for the run home. Or it used to be a run anyway. This time, after making our gingerly way back down the stone steps to the street, everyone began simply walking. No final bursts of energy. No more ‘Washoi! Washoi!’ Until right before turning the final corner back up our street where all the old folk were waiting to congratulate us on a job well done. At least the guys had it in them to put on one last show for them.

And as they did I met up with Mayumi and Yamato, warm-up jacket over his skimpy festival garb. I peeled it off him and held him in my arms as we bounced up the road toward the Date-machi shrine, chanting ‘Washoi! Washoi!’ far behind the other guys running the last few meters.

This, I would soon come to realize, would be the most memorable moment in a hectic evening of memories.