Last year the mums of Waterbeach Community Primary School in Cambridge held a karaoke event for Japan and raised about ¥50,000. Having met some of these mums and getting to know how much they love to have fun, I found a way to put their money to good use, which I suspect will meet with great approval. It contributed toward something that played a big part in the Ohara festival this weekend. But allow me first to backtrack a little and explain how important this festival has been to everyone in the Ohara community.
From the moment I got here, exactly a week before the festival, it is all everyone has been talking about. This festival is an annual event, drawing people from other parts of Tohoku, and even people from Tokyo. The shrine connected with this festival is on high ground and was safe from the tsunami, although very badly damaged during the earthquake itself. However, all the items that are an essential part of the festival, were kept in the community centre (where I sleep), which was almost entirely submerged in the tsunami. Most things that were inside the community centre were so badly damaged that they were unable to be used again.
Damaged items also included the mikoshi itself — an elaborate “portable shrine” which is a big part of each town’s sense of pride, identity, and community. After the tsunami, a lot of the people on Oshika went to what used to be their community centres or shrines to try to salvage items such as their mikoshi. Towns such as Ohara and Koamikura, who lost most of these items (and in Koamikura’s case, lost all of them) suffered further blows by losing things that were so important to their history, culture, and sense of community. Being able to hold these festivals, to which the portable shrines, the outfits worn by the young townspeople who carry the shrines, musical instruments, and “shi shi” (kind of a Japanese lion dance) are really important — without these items the festival cannot be held. Ohara’s shi shi was rescued from the debris, and only suffered a scratch on its nose, which everybody seems quite proud of.
Last year’s festival didn’t go ahead and there was a lot of anticipation surrounding this festival, the first after the tsunami. The town leaders spent much of last week on their mobile phones, calling people from throughout the region and asking them to come along. I think there was a certain amount of pressure too, as a mikoshi had very generously been donated by Koyo Grand Hotel to replace the damaged one, and this was such big news that everyone on the peninsula was talking about it. The people here tend not even to interact too much with the people from the next town, whereas I flit about everywhere. Everyone knows that I am “from Ohara” so after there was a story in the local paper about the new mikoshi, everybody asked me about it and how the festival plans were going. I started to get quite caught up in it all myself, even though I had no idea what this festival would involve. I managed to work out that everyone was worried about whether there would be enough young people to carry the mikoshi around the town, now that the town was less than half the size that it used to be and most of the people left were elderly.
If the daytimes of last week were busy with everybody worrying about who would carry the mikoshi, the evenings were quite different. Each evening from 7pm the shrine’s bell would ring over the town and a handful of us would head up the steep steps to practise a performance ready for the Saturday night. I watched the older men teach the younger men how to get the rhythm of the taiko just right and how to move the shi shi’s head and snap the jaws in just the right way. Saito-san got up to demonstrate the shi shi’s head to the younger Onodera-san, and everybody cheered in admiration, commenting on how the shi shi’s eyes came alive with Saito-san’s expertise. The perfecting of these tiny movements over and over again went on for three nights. Sitting at twilight on the floor of a broken shrine that is slowly being put back together, listening to the drumming, and drinking beer with these fishermen that have welcomed me with open arms, is something I will never forget.
And to me, this preparation was a big part of what the festival was all about. Instead of sitting in their temporary housing shelters watching pointless television night after night, the town was preparing for a huge celebration — sitting out in the open air, playing music together, dancing around, and entertaining each other. Creating something that would bring even more of their community together and bring new memories of laughter and fun.
When Saturday evening arrived, the festival began with a small ceremony at the shrine followed by the performance, which went brilliantly. Onodera-san later told me how he was so nervous he was shaking all over and I told him he did a fantastic job. He and his sister are the only young people in the town, and there is a lot of responsibility on them to be the town’s future. A few of the old ladies wore yukata — they had made them themselves which I think is the done thing around here, and this made me think about all those beautiful kimonos and yukatas that had been lovingly created and lost in the tsunami. This was the first opportunity for the women to dress up quite like this. I had brought my yukata but not the instructions for how to put it on, so rushed to Kucho-san’s house just before the festival to ask his wife to help me. A call was made to the lady of the town who knows everything about kimono, and she arrived to dress me properly. I was told to try to behave like a lady for the evening and not to throw my arms and legs about, which had me cracking up with laughter — they know me so well here!
The celebrations went on into the early hours of the morning, with a couple of the guys actually spending the night sleeping at the shrine, which really made me giggle. They are made of strong stuff here however, as there was no mooching about with a hangover the next day — it was all hands on deck first thing in the morning for the all-day celebration including the much anticipated carrying of the mikoshi around Ohara. Ohara has had a lot of volunteers supporting it during the 16 months since the earthquake, and the volunteers had been roped in to make up the numbers so there were enough people to carry the mikoshi, and that included me! I had never seen this done before, and was told that the Ohara matsuri is unlike any matsuri I would see in Tokyo anyway, so wasn’t sure what to expect. But you Waterbeach mums would have loved it!
About 30 of us carried the mikoshi from the shrine to the little beach area in Ohara, chanting to wish everyone good luck. After a little break we carried it to Ohara port, and I must admit to feeling an odd mix of emotions when standing at the water’s edge and watching the priest pray to the shrine, to us, and to the sea. I was later told that usually they take the mikoshi into the sea at the port, but this gift from Koyo Grand Hotel was considered too expensive and elaborate to take into the sea. Then it was off to the temporary housing community, where the old people came out to cheer.
There are only two “businesses” left in Ohara — Yachin-san’s fish-processing factory which he rebuilt, and the temporary ramen restaurant, both of which we paused outside of and shouted as we lifted the mikoshi up and down as high as we could I think to make the mikoshi bells chime. It is honestly a wonder nobody got injured.
Even though there isn’t very much left of Ohara at all, we paraded the mikoshi around the town for about three hours. I think there must be an element of enjoying the opportunity to show off, and generally be really rowdy, because the local guys were boisterous in a way I had never seen before. When we returned the mikoshi to the community centre, people from out of town were lined up on top of the walls to take photos, and there was a sudden surge of energy as we raced the mikoshi up the hill, then turned it around and around, shouting and shouting, as the older ladies looked on worried that someone would get hurt. I have never been part of something like this before and quite enjoyed the look of surprise on the old ladies’ faces when they saw me in the middle of all this madness as well.
It was an incredible experience, and one that I think you Waterbeach ladies would have loved watching, but even more so, actually doing! Everybody that carried the mikoshi had to wear special outfits, and this is where you Waterbeach ladies came in — your fundraising meant that the town could replace the special outfits that had been lost in the tsunami, and these outfits will be used every single year. Not only are you a part of bringing this community together in the passing on of cultural traditions as they rebuild their lives, but you’re helping to give them a LOT of fun and laughter! Thank you!