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Nanae’s Summer Festival: Carrying the O-Mikoshi

Photo by Emi Kimura

By Ben Mirin, CIR

August 8th, 2011

Nanae’s new Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and Concord native Ben Haydock arrived sweaty and exhausted at Hakodate airport on July 28th.  He had a full week of festivities for the Hakodate Port Festival to look forward to, but his true initiation as a member of the Nanae community would not come until the following week.

Five hundred pounds, dripping with golden chains and clamoring bells, Nanae’s O-Mikoshi (mobile shrine) emerges from the stores of Nanae’s Mishima Shrine only once a year, on the shoulders of two-dozen men.   At 7:30am on August 8th, Ben and I suited up in traditional happi robes and joined twenty other local volunteers to carry this cherished relic up and down the streets of Nanae for the town’s annual Summer Festival.

“After dancing the Ika Odori (squid dance) in the Hakodate Port Festival, I didn’t entirely know what to expect from Nanae the following week “ Ben said.

“I knew we would be carrying something heavy, but it wasn’t until we started down the street, with the O-Mikoshi in tow, that I realized my role in this festival was more as a laborer than as a carefree festival goer.”

O-Mikoshi all over Japan travel annually among the neighborhoods that worship at the Shinto shrines where they are kept year round. They serve as vehicles for particular Japanese Shinto deities, traditionally believed to reside in the principle shrines themselves.  As they are bourn along the avenues of their respective districts, the O-Mikoshi spread good fortune to deferential residents who emerge from their homes and shops to pray and offer donations that support the festival for the following year.

Photo by Emi Kimura

That day our task was to cover all of Honcho, a district in Nanae that proved far larger than either Ben or I had imagined.  At eight o’clock sharp, we shuffled into place around the O-Mikoshi’s wooden supports and prepared to march as five pairs of Yakko, or fan-bearers, took their places at the front of the procession.  They carried long staves capped with masses of decorative feathers.  Two by two they stepped forward and, swooping down to a crouch, swung these ornaments low over the ground with choreographed precision.   They were clearing a path for our shrine to travel.

Photo by Yuki Tanaka

The last of the Yakko moved off, repeating their ritual every few meters.  The veteran marchers began shaking the O-Mikoshi enthusiastically to set the mood for the festive procession.  This continued for several minutes until a shout came from the front of the group.  As one we hoisted the O-Mikoshi over our heads and marched forward from beneath the shade of Mishima’s iconic curving rooftop. Read more

Marching in the Meiji Restoration Parade

By Ben Mirin, CIR

As seen in the Concord Journal bi-monthly column, “The Japan Connection.”

May 22nd, 2011

Ben Mirin (CIR) in full costume for the Meiji Restoration Parade. Photo by Hisao Higuchi

Any crowd of foreigners in Hakodate is usually very conspicuous, but in my search for the starting point of this year’s Goryokaku Festival, I knew I had no way of asking for directions. Asking passersby downtown where I could find a crowd of foreigners in 19th century military garb surely would have drawn blank stares.

Now in its 42nd year, the Goryokaku Festival is never complete without foreign volunteers. Festival organizers use word of mouth to recruit them to march as soldiers and flag bearers in the Meiji Restoration Parade. Every year on the Sunday after the third Saturday in May, this huge event commemorates the end of Japan’s Boshin War period with reenactments of the Battle of Hakodate in Goryokaku Square.

“Ben!”

Hearing my name with perfect American pronunciation catches me off guard nowadays. My friend Bill Bowman, a 10-year veteran flag-bearer for the Parade, was waving to me from across the street.

“Let’s go get you into costume,” he said. For the first time, I noticed his mid-western accent, or what was left of it after 16 years of living in Hakodate.

We walked together for a mere five minutes before the clang of Japanese katana and synchronized shouts from reenactment volunteers were clearly audible in the Sunday morning stillness. I passed through crowds of Japanese high school students dressed in the colors of the Meiji and the Tokugawa shogunate armies and ascended the stairs to the costume room.

Upstairs, a man in a shogunate uniform greeted me and gestured to a group of boldly dressed men at the far end of a large tatami room.
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