Welcome to Kosuge Village, Yamanashi Prefecture, my home for the past nine months. The nearest convenience store and train station are 35 minutes away by car via a winding mountain road. Its land area is about that of Manhattan Island. It borders the western tip of the largest metropolitan area in the world. On a normal day, the population is 720. Today, May 4th, it is estimated to be 10,000.
At the height of Golden Week, one of Japan’s biggest vacation periods, the crowds are here for Tama Genryu Matsuri (Tama River Headwaters Festival), the village’s biggest festival. It’s a celebration of this important watershed region that is a major source of Tokyo’s drinking water.
The figurehead: Japan’s largest o-matsuyaki (お松焼き), a 10 plus meter tall wood pyramid draped in pine leaves and topped with bamboo branches. There is a triad actually: two smaller pyramids flank each side of the larger pyramid. As the name omatsuyaki (literally ‘pine-burning’) suggests, these artificial pine trees were constructed for the purpose of burning. A month ago they were just wooden frames resembling something out of The Wicker Man or Silent Hill. A couple weeks ago, those frames were covered in pine leaves and bound by chain mesh, giving it more of a cone shape.
The temporary monuments stand on the bank of Kosuge River – a major tributary of the Tama River. Cars and fishers line the river during the day, and kids dip their toes in to cool off. Nothing blocks the structures, so festival goers are free to touch them and take pictures.
Meanwhile, across the road from the river a ballfield has been converted to a fairground. An outdoor stage has performances scheduled throughout the day. Picnic tarps and people canvas the area in front. Striped canopy stalls lining the perimeters sell the standard Japanese festival food: takoyaki (fried octopus), taiyaki (red-bean-filled fish-shaped waffle cake), and kakigōri (shaved ice). But Kosuge’s specialties and crafts are especially for sale: whole wasabi roots and derivative products, soba noodles made from locally grown buckwheat, grilled river trout on skewers, and nihon-shu (Japanese sake) served in a small wooden box. It’s 11am and some are already well on their way to inebriation.
It’s hot today. And clear. The weather forecast called for rain, leading to worries of a limited turnout and cancelled fireworks. I was assured, however, the omatsuyaki burning would go on regardless.
Omatsuyaki is a tradition of gathering New Year’s pine-bamboo decorations (matsukazari and kadomatsu) into a pile around the second week of January (the lunar new year), and retiring them in a bonfire. This would essentially be like ceremonially retiring your Christmas tree by burning it a week after Christmas, except the decorations are thought to temporarily house gods and ancestors during the Holidays. Burning the decorations releases them back to the spirit world. Elsewhere in Japan, omatsuyaki is better known as “dondoyaki” – an onomatopoeia for the crackling of the burning branches.
I missed my community’s New Year’s omatsuyaki back in January. No one told me about it, so I felt left out when I saw pictures of it on Facebook. A month ago at the prefecture’s capital I attended the Shingen-ko Festival, the world’s largest samurai parade. Most divisions of samurai reenactors were representatives of companies or municipalities. You could also participate individually if you paid ¥15,000 ($135USD). So I was surprised to see a division from Kosuge including some of my co-workers march by. At work a few days later I asked if I could participate next year. Apparently the village only participates once every 15 years! Bummer.
I was determined not to let another experience pass me by. As the festival approached, I asked several times whether there was anything I could do in preparation, or to help during the festival, of if I could maybe participate in the lighting ceremony? I didn’t know anything about the ceremony, except that there had to be some such ceremony, because it’s Japan, and I know how they feel about pomp and circumstance.
I heard back a short time later that I could participate, no problem. I was to be a yamabushi (mountain monk). Cool! I asked when we would practice. I was asked my shoe size. The date of the festival approached. I asked when we would practice. Then the Jr. High vice principal, who would also participate, received an information packet (in Japanese of course). He made a copy for me. Among some confusing diagrams and a script, I deciphered a timetable. (I also had a line of dialog in quasi-archaic Japanese.) We would meet for the first time at 4pm the day of, and practice just 2 hours before the ceremony. I felt apprehensive about this. I would be handling fire, and I worried about being able to understand all the instructions about where to go and what to do, last minute. Fortunately, the vice principal can speak English, but miscommunication can still happen.
I spent the day of Genryu Matsuri perusing the stalls and hanging out in the shade with my visiting friends. To experience my quiet village suddenly bustling like Tokyo/the rest of Japan, was jarring. It was strange to walk through the familiar streets of my village – the village that has become a home to me – and not recognize the majority of faces. It was like I was back in a foreign country again (a feeling I usually only get when I leave the village). But it was a pleasant atmosphere.
At Japanese festivals, there are typically small stalls with goldfish in buckets for young children to try to catch with a flimsy net before it breaks. If they can catch a fish, they get to take it home in a plastic baggy. But at Genryu Matsuri, next to the ballfield an outdoor swimming pool, which isn’t used the rest of the year, has been supplied with fresh shallow water and stocked with 400 river trout. If the kids can catch one with their bare hands, they can take it out of the pool and have it grilled fresh.
Somewhat unrelated, are two streamers of 100 giant koi flags strung from two mountains across the valley in celebration of Children’s Day tomorrow (May 5th). You can see these windsock-like flags flying all over Japan this time of year, but to see them swimming in the sky between the mountains – as if the mountains were the banks, and the sky, the river – is a sight.
4pm rolled around, I said bye to my friends, and went to the designated meeting place in a building across the river. I was ushered into a seminar room and found a seat with my name. On the table stacked and folded was my costume, an onsen towel bag, and a bottle of tea.
We sat quietly for a couple minutes as the rest of the to-be yamabushi entered. We were divided into an ‘A’ team and a ‘B’ team. The ‘A’ team were five representatives from Kosuge. The ‘B’ team were five representatives from municipalities or organizations downstream the Tama River with some special connection to Kosuge.
We went back to the river and the unfiltered late afternoon sun where the director led us in a rough walk-through, and I did my best to keep track of mental notes and the positions and order I was supposed to do everything. I was to be in second position behind the commanding officer, the elementary school principal. That didn’t give me a lot of room to watch what the people in front of me would be doing.
We went back to the meeting room, ate a bento box dinner, then changed into our costumes. The yamabushi outfits were intricate: 13 pieces in total: under-robes, over-robes, under sash, over sash (obi), baggy trousers tightened off under the knee, toe-split water boots with back fasteners (jika-tabi), forearm sleeves secured by a ring around the middle finger, prayer beads, a beautiful red silk necklace imprinted with gold designs and four attached pom-poms, a tiny tie-on hat (tokin) resembling a Jewish tefillin (but instead of scripture storage, doubles as a drinking cup), and a boxy backpack (resembling a TARDIS) with tatami siding. As one friend said, wielding a torch in conjunction with said backpack, I looked like a ghostbuster. “If you need to go to the toilet, you should go now, because it’s difficult to take off once you have it on,” warned the vice principal. But I got it on without too much trouble, just some minor fumbling and assistance around the obi sashes. It felt comfortable. And like any good costume, I felt the part.
When we returned outside, the sun had already dipped behind the mountains, so it felt much cooler. We walked up the street single file, passing food stalls, cosplayers, and divisions of volunteer firefighters. We cut down to the river where we waited on the north side under a bridge with the ‘A’ team. The crowds were buzzing with anticipation on either side. People passed back and forth on the bridge above, some waving to us. It got darker.
The principal lit his torch, and the rest of us lit ours from his. The lights went out. The crowd hushed. An announcer delivered the opening narration, “Humankind has from ancient times lived with Water, sought Food, and used Fire. In this way, we created and developed today’s culture. The civilization of Fire has transformed the hearts and minds of the people to flourishing. We would be pleased if everyone in attendance today feels a sense of harmony around the fire…”
Taiko drumming commenced. The principal lead out, and I followed a few paces behind. The principal went directly to his position, as he was not to light any of the lanterns.
I was pretty sure I was supposed to go to the very end and light the last three. But a doubt lingered whether I understood correctly. With the principal in position, I continued ahead in front. Then I heard voices from the crowd. “Jaymuz! Jaymzu, where are you going?” called a giggling voice that sounded like the mayor. Shoot. I really must have misunderstood. Surely, he would know if I was doing the wrong thing? I must have gone too far. I glanced over my shoulder. The other three were well behind me and already seemed to be lighting their lanterns. So I bailed. I turned in early and started lighting the lanterns in the middle. Mistake. I should have gone down to the end. I stole the lanterns of the yamabushi behind me. The instructor from earlier came and directed me down to the end. Now I looked stupid. The other side of the river already had their lanterns lit, and I was the last to return to the formation. But I got back with all the lanterns lit, and the ceremony went on.
The taiko drums stopped. The principal stepped forward and bellowed his introduction into the microphone. Then it was my turn again. I stepped forward to say my line. I was nervous because I hadn’t practiced shouting it yet. And the residual trauma of messing up the lanterns still echoed in my psyche. The line started out well. I was loud and firm, with no voice cracking, well-paced, and well pronounced. But then I got toward the end. But what I should have done was given my full name in last, first, middle order and ended with the more humble “to-mo—————–su!” (I am called).
Ah well. I stepped back in line. Everyone else gave their similarly structured introductions. Our torches burned on.
Then came time to light the big one. The ‘B’ team crossed the river to our side and both teams circled around the main omatsuyaki, then we dipped our torches under the chain mesh to light the branches. The director walked around with an oil canteen pouring gas over our torches and branches to help them catch.
Then the teams split up: the ‘A’ team circled around the smaller omatsuyaki on the north side, while the ‘B’ team covered the one on the south. This time we just left the torches on the ground supplying the fire, then scuttled away from the growing flames.
Because I was focused on the task at hand, and getting away from the flame, I’m afraid I missed those first moments of the flames enveloping the omatsuyaki. By the time I returned to the safe zone, the fire storms were well under way. The crackling pine leaves were aglow, and the skeletal frame of the pyramids were visible again. The flames plumed up and released great clouds of smoke and sparks. The fire department sprayed a hose constantly back and forth over the sparks in the sky to create a vapor shield for the nearby trees. The flames stretched high, well above the bamboo shoots. The heat was already palpable, even from 40 or 50 meters away. We had to keep backing up.
The crowd sat packed on the stone steps on either side of the river bank in the roped off area. Those closest to the fire must have been uncomfortable, because I had to keep backing up past them. But remarkably, one little girl on the beach a few meters in front of us, supervised by her mother, danced about, patting her face, feeling the heat. I took another step back, relaxed, and relished the blaze. Peaceful flute music played through the speakers.
Embers falling from the steel basket lanterns appeared to strike dangerously close to the crowds sitting under them, but no one seemed too bothered. One of the firefighters walked by every so often, dousing the sparks on the ground with a watering pot.
We hung around for half an hour, taking pictures and watching the beacon burn its course. I paid special attention to the pyramid frames, expecting them to collapse. (One of the smaller pyramids did eventually partially collapse. Immediately after the festival, the fire department bulldozed the bits still standing.)
The taiko drummers resumed their performance. The flames faded to coals. I was handed another torch. We got back into our formation. Our job wasn’t finished yet. The elementary principal, the commanding officer, screamed even louder than he had before, and led the single file charge across the river. I followed close behind. I don’t know if it was due to the proximity of the lingering heat, adrenaline kicking in, or my intense concentration, but I had a distinct lack of feeling (or remembering) any coldness of the river. I was about half way across when it occurred to me that I was carrying fire over water. This was not just a symbolic convergence of the two elements. I could quite literally drop the torch or lose my footing, and quite literally extinguish the flame. But at the deepest point the water was only a little above my knees. I was told to expect it above my waist. So I carefully waded the rest of the way across, holding the torch high and proud. I almost stumbled stepping up the bank on the other side, but all was fine. Then I heard a splash. The yamabushi directly behind me fell in! There wasn’t much I could do since I was still carrying a torch, so I kept following the commander. Glancing behind me, I noticed the fallen comrade recovered okay and managed to save his torch. I was consoled that at least it wasn’t the clumsy foreigner.
We marched down the river past the last of the lanterns where we united our torches together under a fuse. Sparks chased the fuse 100 meters farther down the river where it triggered a loaded arsenal of fireworks straight up into the sky. The fire from our torches flowered and wilted directly above us. We dipped our torches in the river, then enjoyed the view, while I tried not to let any ashes in my eyes. I couldn’t really hear, but apparently back by the stage the fireworks were well synced to music and made for a great show.
We all wished each other otsukaresama (‘good work!’) and went back to the meeting place where we changed out of the yamabushi clothes. The director thanked us and copiously handed out beers from a box, which I was happy to take after a long hot day. Finally, some of the yamabushi went to a ryokan to take a bath, but I reluctantly skipped that bit to rejoin my friends.
This was the second time I directly participated in one of my village’s festivals. The first time was back in August, three days after moving in. It was a much smaller shrine festival that involved parading around various locations in the village and performing dances in masked costumes in the summer humidity. I didn’t dance, since the dancers had been preparing for several weeks already. But I carried a large paper-flower standard in front as a sort of grand marshal. This was an awesome way to get involved with the village and meet people right away. I felt welcomed and honored that they would entrust to me such a prominent position. But it didn’t turn out well. I was culture shocked, heat exhausted, dehydrated, then sick, and just generally overwhelmed. I went home early and passed out.
But this experience turned out a lot better, fortunately.
By the looks of it, Genryu Matsuri is as ancient as any other local festival in Japan – a tradition carried on for who knows how many generations back. Yet it was devised a mere 29 years ago as a convenient set date for the extended families of the village, and those who grew up here, to come home for a visit. So it is not an explicitly religious festival. It’s not connected to any shrine or temple. But you can’t help but notice the religious elements.
For instance, the Yamabushi are mountain monks of Shugendou, an ascetic blend of Buddhism and Shinto.
And there is something very religious and Japanese about the way the Japanese do festivals. Festivals are serious fun. Even sacred fun. Even when they are secular, or devised to stimulate local economies. How did older festivals get started if not for these reasons, to (re)vitalize local areas? This is how traditions get started. The only difference may be recent history.
Coupled with the idea that Japanese religion does not so sharply distinguish between the sacred and the secular, the result is a kind of renewed pop-religious event. In writing this article, I kept asking about the symbolic significance of this or that element of the festival. Although there was some explicit symbolism, mostly the answers I got were just for aesthetic reasons, e.g., because it looks cool or it seemed like it would be exciting. So the connection with the New Year’s tradition may just be a trivial one. Just an excuse to have a big bonfire. But just as burning the New Year’s omatsuyaki returns the gods to their home, after using the fire the yamabushi cross the river and light the fireworks, thereby returning the fire to its home with the gods.
This story ends much better than Prometheus.
[Genryu Matsuri occurs annually in Kosuge Village during the first week of May]
James likes adventure, obscure films, and craft beer. He lives deep in the mountains of Yamanashi.