Pop Quiz: Which of these things is not like the others? Christmas, your birthday, Happy Hour, Income Tax Day. Think hard before you decide, because your first guess will be wrong.
I can already hear the smartypants answers.
'I got it! It's your birthday because it's the only one not capitalized!' Wrong, grammar police, everyone's birthday is capitalized. 'Okay wise guy, then it's Christmas because it's the only one that's religious!' Great, here comes the ACLU. 'Tax Day, of course,' the level-headed majority will confidently assert. 'Because it's not fun.' All right, sure, the lead-up isn't a party but come on, who doesn't get a kick out of sticking it to the IRS once a year? Come on Uncle Sam, fork it over. It's even better when a guy like Dubya starts tossing everyone an extra $300 to offset the ugly budget surplus he inherits.
'Then the answer must be Happy Hour, because, well...it's the only alliterative event, ha ha!' Not for Joe Blow born on February 4th or Sue Blew born on November 9th.
The answer is in fact Happy Hour. Because it is the only one that happens more than once a year. Until you have kids that is. And then it becomes a once-a-year occasion, and like all the others a very special event indeed.
IRS audits notwithstanding.
As birthdays and Christmas and Happy Hours are celebrated with as much fervor here in Japan as Labor Day is in the States, and I honestly have no idea when Japan's Tax Day is, I have been forced to find other yearly occasions to look forward to. My favorites are springtime cherry blossom parties, sumo tournaments and October. Why do I like October? Used to be because of my birthday, until I turned 40. Now it is because October is when Fukushima holds its annual Aki Matsuri, their Fall Festival.
I had only been in Japan six weeks the first time I witnessed the barrage of drums, flutes and people in split-toed booties shouting and pulling huge wooden carts draped with red lanterns through the streets. At this point even a trip to the 7-11 was still a relative voyage into the unknown, if only for those unidentifiable chunks of food floating in square metal tubs filled with murky brown liquid next to the register. At my first festival, standing in the middle of a swarm of people shouting words found in no existing Japanese dictionary and taking pictures of the backs of each others' heads with their cell phones, I felt I was in another world. And indeed I was. This, I thought, was why I had come to Japan.
Fast forward to the following Spring. A student of mine asks me if I want to go out for yakitori after class. 'Have you ever been to a yakitori bar?' she says in the exact same tone people use when they ask me, nine years after moving here, if I am able to use chopsticks. 'No, I haven't,' I answer truthfully and thus without a hint of sarcasm. An hour later we were walking into Hanawa-san's yakitori joint.
I mainly listened and filled my face as my friend (she was very nice but this was not a date as far as I was concerned) and Hanawa-san spoke in a language I still struggle with to this day. What did they talk about? To this day I don't have a clue. It was only once we'd left that my friend explained that Hanawa-san wanted me to join their neighborhood group for the festival that Fall. I stormed back inside to tell him 'Hell yeah.' Then I had to wait for my friend to come in and translate.
That Fall I walked into what was to that point the greatest day of my life in Japan. Everyone swarmed around me, smiling and shaking hands (it's funny, I could just tell they weren't used to shaking hands, with anyone). They asked me my name and my age and my blood type. Someone handed me a beer. Someone else slipped a happi (festival jacket) over my arms and onto my shoulders. The older women hid their huge smiles with their hands; the younger girls giggled and snapped pictures with their cell phones. Little kids plucked at my arm hair. And all I had done was show up, with a bag of fruit from the supermarket and a bottle of mid-range sake which Hanawa-san hurriedly placed next to the mountain of food and the forest of sake bottles already on the table.
Before we set out for the streets I was ushered up the ladder to the top of the dashi (the wooden wagon with the red lanterns all over) so Watanabe-san could take a few souvenir photos for me. Later on I was told to climb aboard again, this time to sit at the O-daiko, the huge drum, and pose for a couple more memory shots, this time with Hanawa-san. Aside from this – and the ambitious flow of beer and sake still being poured my way – I was left to mix in as just another member of the Ban-se-cho crowd.
Kind of prophetic.
This past weekend I participated in the Fall Festival once again, the seventh time I would don the dark blue Ban-se-cho happi – though I'd have to pull it on myself. Everyone still knows my name, except for the young kids who weren't even born the first time I joined the party. Sadly, there are still some people whose names I don't know, which is a bit inconvenient not to mention potentially embarrassing when I have to ask one of them from the back of the dashi for another beer. Yeah, this is my seventh year...yeah, nice to see you again...Um, what's your name again? That's right, of course, hey anymore asahi in that box?... Most everyone says hi to me when I show up now, but they no longer swarm. The girls can't be bothered taking my picture, they've all got text messages to send. I even have to get my own sake half the time. No one offers anymore to take a picture of me on the dashi, or even just let me pound on the taiko a little. 'Just get back there and start pushing,' they say. The only time I go up on top now is to help clean up after the girls have had all the fun riding around town singing and laughing and eating and drinking and not having to push. I am invited to climb the ladder at the end of the last night of the festival every year though only to help haul down the impossibly heavy generator that has been powering all the light bulbs in all those red lanterns.
With two sons now I've become even more invisible.
But I think I rather like it this way. The rock star treatment was fun the first time around – and as I continue traveling Japan it still happens occasionally. After seven festivals, though, it would be pretty odd to be regarded as anyone special. And in Japan, where the common lament among foreigners is that making them feel like foreigners is what the Japanese do best, I feel pretty good about being regarded as just one of the Ban-se-cho crowd.
Though I'd still like another crack at that taiko.
Odds and ends:
That first year I decided not to spring for the $100 for my own Ban-se-cho happi, thinking I might not be around the next year. For seven festivals I've asked to borrow someone's extra happi, giving the same excuse every time. Meanwhile my mom has one in a closet in New Jersey, an impromptu gift from a tipsy Hanawa-san at a party after my wedding. I could steal it next time I'm home, but then I think nah, I probably won't be in Japan much longer...
On the third and final day of the festival everyone gathers in the morning to carry the Mikoshi, the miniature shrine, around town on their shoulders. This mikoshi is wrapped in white and purple cloth, has a tinny, rattly rooster frozen in a permanent squawk on top, and weighs about the same as a Volkswagen. This shrine is mounted on four long 6x6 pieces of black-painted wood, which rest (bounce, really, or slam down) on the shoulders of as many people as can squeeze under it. As I am taller than most Japanese people, mine is the first shoulder the Volkswagen slams down onto with each collective step we take, and by the end of the day my spine resembles a piece of macaroni. I also have a permanent scar on one shoulder. (This year I passed on the mikoshi.)
When a family member passes away, it is customary in Japan to refrain from taking part in any sort of festival for the year. Sadly, Hanawa-san was conspicuously absent this past weekend.
The day after my first Aki Matsuri I spotted myself in the feature picture on the front page of the Minpo, Fukushima's newspaper; I was talking to my then-girlfriend Mayumi. This past Monday a very small me was in the front page picture again, along with the rest of Ban-se-cho and a few thousand other people. This time I was carrying my son.
As with every other year, I'm now sitting at home, wondering if I've joined my friends for the last time.