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Festivals: mikoshi, sake and Go! Hey!

by Amy Chavez

It’s autumn in Japan, and many cities and towns are holding fall festivals. The Shiraishi Island Fall Festival is a two-day event where we welcome the Shinto gods as if they were the Emperor and Empress.

The week before the festival we clean up the island, especially the roads that lead up to Shisha Shrine, the main shrine situated in the foothills of the mountain. These roads are lined with bamboo stalks, between which is hung a rope, upon which is attached red-and-white lanterns, between which are hung white purification papers called “gohei” (appropriately pronounced Go! Hey!). The roads that lead to the shrine are the roads the Shinto gods will pass over, so they are appropriately decorated to impress the gods.

Each neighborhood decorates their own area and prepares their “mikoshi” (portable shrine), in which the gods will be transported. Each neighborhood’s mikoshi is different, ranging from the basic wheeled wagon cart with a roof and taiko drum inside to the more elaborate cart with a mechanical mannequin standing on top turning his head back and forth. One mikoshi is even in the shape of a boat. Some feature a part of the male anatomy. All have speakers that blare out a different screechy Japanese festival tune.

We drag this mikoshi around the island with the gods inside it and get drunk on sake with them. I somehow doubt the Emperor and Empress would be this much fun.

While the mikoshi used to be carried on the shoulders of men, these days almost all are on wheels, making them look more like Western-style parade floats. Each year as the island population decreases, it gets harder to carry the mikoshi with fewer people. At least this is the excuse for having put the mikoshi on wheels to make them easier to move.

Our neighborhood’s population is decreasing so rapidly that we even discuss whether we have enough people to pull it every year. I suspect the real reason the mikoshi is getting harder and harder to pull is that the gods are overweight. And each year, as they get heavier and heavier, the cart gets more difficult to pull. The mikoshi have become giant wheelchairs. So it’s probably best that we can’t see the gods anyway and instead have blind faith in them.

After some ceremonial toasts of sake to the gods at 8:30 a.m., we turn on the speakers, blast out festival music and start pulling the mikoshi from our neighborhood up to Shisha Shrine. When there’s a hill and the pulling gets tough, we yell, “Washoi! Washoi!” which is a type of festival grunting, shouted together when under festival stress. It’s like saying, “Heave ho!” and keeps everyone in sync. We pull the mikoshi like this through the decorated streets of bamboo, red-and-white lanterns and gohei. Go! Hey!

While many fall festivals are to celebrate the harvest, ours seems to be rather a day of the gods. The elementary school children spend weeks preparing a dance for them that takes place at Shisha Shrine. The boys do a sword dance to the beat of a drum in front of two Shinto priests and elders in black suits. The girls do the same but dressed in Shinto gowns and waving wands of gohei. Go Hey!

After this performance we take the gods on a tour of the island to visit their friends, gods who occupy other shrines. We take them to Kompira-san, the shrine where the god of the sea lives, and we take them to the Fishing Shrine on the beach where more gods live. This is their only chance to get together every year, so we just aim to please them. We ply them with sake. Go! Hey!

And even after the Autumn Festival is over, we take the leftover rice offerings from Shisha Shrine and mix them in with our own rice for dinner. This is called “o-sagari.” After all, if we left all the offerings there for the gods, we might not be able to carry the mikoshi next year. Go! Hey!