At first glance, COVID-19 hasn’t changed life on the island where I live. Our population of 436 mostly robust senior citizens continues offline as usual. Many trudge well into their golden years despite the absence of a doctor, clinic or hospital nearby.
After the recently declared nationwide state of emergency, the only visible change is that more islanders wear masks to the grocery store or when boarding the ferry to the mainland. Islander-to-islander communication remains largely maskless. While the possibility of an outsider bringing the pandemic from the mainland remains a hot topic, most residents haven’t altered the pulse of their regular routine.
Just the other morning while on an afternoon walk, I stopped to admire Mrs. Harada’s vegetable garden. The 94-year-old woman decked out in a dirty pink smock, denim-colored baggy pants and white sneakers with velcro closures, nimbly walks up the steps from her garden to the road while carrying an empty tray in both hands. As she gets closer, I notice she has used a white sashiko stitch to attach sleeve guards to her thin padded jacket. She says she has just released 10 watermelon plants into the soil, and promises me one of the giant fruits when they’re ripe.
“I wake up at 8 in the morning, have a leisurely breakfast and come out to the garden for an hour or two every day,” the woman informs me. Harada lives by herself, and cooks breakfast and lunch on her own. For dinner, her 64-year-old daughter comes over to cook and they eat together every evening. This is typical of island life.
What isn’t as obvious, however, is that coronavirus measures are seeping into our lives in plaintive and concomitant ways that are likely to have a lasting effect on the population.
I first noticed something awry at the annual spring Kobo Daishi Festival. Due to heavy rain, the entire ceremony took place inside the Buddhist temple. Associated outdoor events, such as the large goma fire purification ceremony, were canceled.
Despite the abbreviated events of the day, I was able to reconnect with islanders I hadn’t seen all winter. I was particularly dazzled to watch old Mr. Nakatsuka, leaning heavily on the handrail and using his umbrella as a cane, schlepp his 92-year-old-body all the way up the stairs to the temple. Once at the top, he expelled the air from his lungs, smiled widely with satisfaction and hobbled over to the temple entrance. He rang the bell, tossed some coins into the offertory and pressed his hands together in prayer.
Of course, not all elderly people on the island are as vigorous. The festival that used to take place at Myoken Shrine at the top of hill behind my house has been adjusted over the years to accommodate the 12 remaining elderly men dedicated to this Shinto ritual. To overcome the now insuperable 85 stone steps up to the shrine (with no handrail), the hoary dozen now stand at the bottom of the staircase to carry out their rituals.
Usually around this time, an 80-year-old barber would be flitting around my backyard threading bamboo poles through banners and weaving a rush mat to set the offerings on. The other harbinger of spring, the mountain god ceremony, hadn’t materialized either.
That’s when it hit me that the Kobo Daishi Festival had been curtailed not because of rain, but because of the coronavirus. While I had expected large events to be canceled, I hadn’t considered that small local ujigami ceremonies, many barely surviving as it is, would be curtailed or completely axed. One year skipped could hasten the demise of hundreds of years of tradition.
Japan’s festivals have been one of the greatest cultural casualties of the modern era. Their role in this country’s culture is often passed over by contemporary society who consider folk traditions irrelevant. For others, certain rituals may stir regrettable feelings of the state Shintoism of bygone days.
Local festivals serve a much deeper purpose, however, by providing residents an impetus to gather, socialize and stay physically healthy. Researchers even link higher survival rates in natural disasters to those living in communities that hold local festivals. Because inhabitants share close ties, they have a vested interest in helping each other. Since they visit each other’s homes, they are familiar with the layout of their houses and are better able to come to the aid of their neighbors.
In this time of COVID-19 and states of emergency, it’s relatively easy for young people to just stay home. However, there is a risk of physical, mental and social decline when the elderly isolate themselves. No wonder they remain attached to regular routines and local festivals. Since such festivals are a way to maintain connections with other people, if you know someone who is missing out on a festival this year, take a moment to write them a letter or get the kids to draw a picture of their favorite festival moment and send it to them. With any luck, we’ll be back at our shrines next year.