Two weeks ago I could participate to a traditional japanese festival. As I couldn't take pictures I will make an effort on text this time.
It was the first time for me to enter inside the world of Matsuri, and it's not been by the softest path ! I had to carry a Mikoshi, a big wooden structure used to transport a deity spirit out of a shrine. It's more than one ton and we carry it on our shoulders. It's really painful, but fun !
In the morning, children and girls have their own parade with very small and light replica of the Mikoshi. Men get ready by wearing a traditional vest, the happi, a scarf printed with rice wreath pattern, and traditional shoes, the jikatabi. Shirt and pants were also worn, cause it was still very cold. But some used only a loincloth. Choice in dressing looks quite free but everything must be completely white, as a sign of purity, and the scarf and happi are mandatory. Some uses also shoulder protection : a kind of coffin set up around the neck and the back.
Then, after drinking some sake, we head from the gathering ground to the shrine. On the way we sing and shake above our head one of the handles of the Mikoshi. The handle by itself is quite heavy, and it's only a very small part of the Mikoshi. It gives a strong impression of what will follow ! As we approach the shrine, other groups join us, singing and shaking their handle as well. There was four groups in total, each one from a different district in the surrounding of the shrine, each one having is own Mikoshi.
Once we all gathered in the shrine precinct, it becomes a big white crowd waiting in front of these majestic Mikoshi. A priest start a prayer in front of each one, and bless us. At the instant when he started to pray a violent storm occurred ! The coincidence was so strange. We were completely soaked and frozen and frightened to think about how slippery the road has become, or even by thunder falling on the Mikoshi ! But the festival can't be stopped and we started moving the Mikoshi outside the shrine. Fortunately the weather got progressively better.
For the painful part ... when the Mikoshi is not rolled, we have to carry it on our shoulders and back. There are space for only 20-30 persons at a time and as I said, the Mikoshi weights more than a ton. Moreover it must be shaken as much as we can, as a sign of power, health, vigour. The point is, first as I was taller than most of the other carriers I endure much more than them, secondly there is no real synchronization between carriers and if you have the bad idea to be on the top of the curve when most of the others are on the bottom you end up enduring most of the weight alone (actually you don't and simply get smashed down to the bottom of the curve where others are ! ;-) ) !! It's extremely painful for the shoulders and the back and the neck and the legs and ... Well everywhere indeed !
Of course it's kind of dangerous and everyone must take upon himself to do it seriously or everybody would get squashed. I could felt a strong cohesion between everyone. As a foreigner and a beginner I made a lot of mistakes but never got reprimand. More experienced ones explained a lot when to enter or leave the carrying, where to put my hands, where to be on the pole, how to move to push efficiently. It was very heart-full. The rotation between carriers occurs extremely fast because we cannot stand a long time under such a weight, it's better to switch between carry/rest very often. There is no really rules on when to switch and with who to switch. It's just as you feel and it was very pleasant to my messy french spirit ;-)
The rotation is done like this : the new carrier touch the previous one to signify he's going to enter, then he comes above the pole right in front of the previous one, the previous one embraces him strongly so they get together in rhythm and is sure the new one is ready to carry, then the previous one move out. In reality things don't go so smoothly of course but that's the idea ;-)
Another big moment is when we move the Mikoshi at top of our heads. In this case as many carriers as possible come under the Mikoshi. Those under push it at the top of their head as high as they can, but doing this they have no more balance and would fall. So all the others gather around and hold then strongly by the chest. It becomes a impressive human pyramidal structure. Then those under the Mikoshi don't worry anymore about balance and just jump on their legs as crazy people. Wow, that's something to be done once in the life for sure ! :-)
Finally we came back to the shrine, put back the Mikoshi inside, and the priest made another prayer for it and for us, and everything was done. I've used four layers of clothes plus one folded towel under it to protect my shoulder but it was completely blue because of bruises. It took two weeks for the flesh to regenerate but it wasn't so painful, I think I would do it again ! :-)