Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

The death of a Japanese countryside festival

by Amy Chavez

Pity the country house in Japan. Having stood proud for over 100 years — its wooden frame and beams made from tree trunks still sturdy, the roof outfitted with traditional ceramic tiles, the entire structure a relic of skillful craftsmanship — it now has little intrinsic value.

With land prices plummeting in the countryside and ongoing depopulation threatening to further depress the market, there’s no hope of selling these houses. Even if sold, there would be little financial gain, especially once the pittance has been divvied up among all the siblings who have, inevitably, inherited their parents’ or grandparents’ dwelling. And few buyers want to take on a domicile they’ll have to spend money fixing up or maintaining.

So instead of selling, children or grandchildren hang on to the heritage home filled with childhood memories. They’ll return once a year at o-Bon to visit the ancestors’ graves. Or not. Either way, year by year the neglected abode falls further into disrepair, until they’re plugging up cracks in the walls with wads of newspaper and placing buckets strategically around the house to catch rain dripping through leaking roofs.

The heirs, who live up in Tokyo or Osaka, will soon look down upon the pitiful relic as if it were at the bottom of a well: unreachable, unfeasible and easily forgettable. Meanwhile, these historic homes sit patiently, like a forgotten dog in a cage that waits every day for its master to return.

At this point, the edifice’s greatest chance of long-term survival is as the background in a landscape painting. But most won’t even attain that. Instead, they’ll be overtaken by vines, termites and time. They’ll eventually collapse, and the traditional wooden Japanese habitat will gradually be absorbed back into the earth. The less elegant new ones made of concrete will scar the landscape for centuries to come.

Upon this bleak background, superimpose the image of a small local Japanese festival.

The residents, 60 percent of them over 60 years old, are garbed in festival gear: strips of cotton hachimaki cloth tied around their heads, colorful happi coats belted around their waists and their black tabi shoes gripping the pavement. They’re pulling a large wooden mikoshi festival float down the narrow street past rows of houses, just as their ancestors did over 300 years ago.

This is my neighborhood, on an island of just under 500 people in the Seto Inland Sea. I’m pulling this mikoshi too. We’re celebrating the autumn festival, which used to ring in the seasonal harvest, but which now serves as the one day of the year when people let their guards down, let bygones be bygones and just have fun together. The sake is brought out and the locals dance in the street. Some have grown-up children who return with grandkids to take part in the annual festival. But most do not come.

We’re tugging the float, a wooden mikoshi on wheels, along the street to the main Shinto shrine. We pull it past houses, some of which are occupied, some not. Of those unoccupied, some are collapsing, some not.

Though the residences have changed in appearance, losing their luster over the years, the mikoshi still retains its dignity, albeit with a few adjustments. The heavy structure of Japanese cedar used to be carried on mens’ shoulders, but years ago it was given wheels to make up for the declining pool of strong young people who had moved to the cities to take office jobs.

Each neighborhood (previously eight but now reduced to five) pulls its own mikoshi through the streets and up to the main Shinto shrine, where the island’s guardian deities reside. There, more sake drinking and dancing takes place. Then, finally, we treat the gods to a symbolic tour of sacred spots around the island.

The junior high school students have their own dedicated mikoshi that they still carry on their shoulders. Although it used to be only the boys who shouldered it, now all the students do: five boys and three girls.

The lion and maiden dances performed in honor of the gods at the main shrine by appropriately costumed elementary school children were discontinued three years ago. Next year, the elementary school will close due to a complete absence of students.

As the years draw on, the residents do too, and the neighborhoods shrink further, so they must find more ways to compensate for the diminishing manpower. One has scaled down its mikoshi to the size of a baby buggy, while another sits the structure on the back of a pick-up truck, leaving the residents to saunter along behind it.

As for my neighborhood, this year we abandoned our mikoshi halfway through the day. After the visit to the main shrine, we dropped it off at its home parking spot, then piled into the back of a pick-up truck to finish the route. It wasn’t the pulling of the wheeled shrine that was proving difficult, it was the kilometers of walking required to accompany it to the different sacred sites scattered around the island. The younger individuals had no problem, but no one wanted to leave the elderly behind, so the ad hoc decision was made to park the mikoshi.

This, however, did not go down well with the local policeman, who, after the festival, reprimanded us for violating traffic regulations — namely, riding in the back of a pick-up truck and drinking and driving. On this festival day, most policemen would have looked the other way, but this guy was new. And the law, after all, is the law. People began to feel ashamed of our infraction, even though they thought the policeman silly.

When 300-year-old traditions clash with modern governance, traditions become even more of a challenge to maintain. And the policeman’s admonition only reinforced that times aren’t as good as they used to be.

People are starting to wonder why we’re trying to continue these traditions. It used to be done for posterity, back when posterity was taken for granted. And how would we pull the mikoshi next year?

Back when houses stood pristine, well-maintained and proud, those who couldn’t participate would stand outside their homes along the road leaning on their canes, or waving from their wheelchairs as each precinct paraded past with their festival float. But they no longer do this. Perhaps it’s because there’s no one to stand alongside.

Or maybe it’s because if they did wave, they know they’d be waving farewell to a 300-year-old festival.

Amy Chavez is author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press). Japan Lite usually appears in print on the last Monday Community page of the month.