On January 15th, Tomoe and I set out before sunrise, fighting biting winds, blinding snow, and the little sprinklers that line the street to keep the snow from accumulating. After a long and arduous walk to the nearby hamlet, we finally saw a warm, inviting light in the window of a farm house. With any luck, this would be the family that invited us.
Scrambling down a steep incline in thigh-deep snow, fearful of avalanches and hidden crevasses (drainage ditches), we arrived and with baited breath slid the front door open, desperately calling into the warmth, "Good morning!" Or hosts appeared with puzzled looks on their faces, wondering why we had bothered to come.
The event we had been invited to, designated by the Japanese government as "an intangible cultural treasure", had ended ten minutes earlier - just about the time we were battling the fierce single digit temperatures as we tried, with slightly numb fingers, to put on our boots before leaving our own house.
We were supposed to see a parade of children walking through the streets stopping at select homes to beat the bad luck out of people with big sticks, ending at the house we were visiting. Due to a small number of children remaining in the hamlet, the event took much less time than it would have five, twenty, or hundreds of years ago.
Seeing the dejected look on our faces, the wife of the house disappeared into the back room, only to emerge within twenty-three seconds, with a consolation gift of grey potato jelly (konnyaku).
The return trip was not so traumatic. In the meantime, the plows had been through to clear away the above-ankle drifts in the road and, although the sun was not yet up, the morning had begun to brighten.
I went back to sleep, worn out from the night before when, due to a sudden onset of a cold, I went to bed around 11:00. Still, I had gotten little sleep as I worried about Tomoe, who would be catching a 7:30am train the next morning to Otari. As I lay there in my cozy futon, she was slaving in the kitchen to make enough soup to last me until she would return, a week later.
Somehow I managed to drift asleep for just a moment, awaking at 7:00, in time to prop myself onto one elbow and mumble something about "don't get in an avalanche" before hearing the sliding door close - the signal that it was OK to go back to sleep.
My alarm rang two hours later, reminding me that I was expected at the local koshogatsu (little new year) festival at the local shrine. I threw on my boots, a jacket, and some gloves, grabbed a camera, and made the trek through snow that was now wonderfully, considerably deeper than just a few hours earlier.
The koshogatsu festival is celebrated across Japan with various traditions, usually including the burning of a dondo yaki - a tepee like structure made of wara (rice straw), kaya (susuki, or some other thatching material) and, in our area, sugi (Japanese cedar) boughs. In some regions, they actually make room insidefor their small children. Here, though, the dondo was full of kaya.
The wara on the outside is traditionally gathered by the children of the hamlet, who go door to door that morning to collect the three bales that every household is to leave on the doorstep. We only have enough wara to make our own natto (fermented soy beans made from a type of bacteria found in the rice straw), and most of our wara is from an organic farm, so there was no way we were going to give it up just to be burned, when the chances of finding chemical free rice-straw in this area are VERY slim.
I suppose that in the past, children used a sled to transport the wara. Now, dad drives them through the streets in his pickup truck. The photo above shows the unloading process.
In our area, the dondo is made by the men of the hamlet the morning of the festival, however, some hamlets* build theirs a month or more ahead of time. It is built with three big wood poles tied together at the top. The kaya was placed in the middle, with bales of wara surrounding it, held together by a lot of straw rope. According to my neighbors, this year's dondo was bigger than they are used to - maybe 4-5 meters?
During the building, only one old man fell from the ladder. Luckily, old men here are surprisingly agile, and he looked like an 80 year-old spiderman, springing back up the ladder before I even had a chance to say "uh-oh."
Once the dondo is built, we are allowed to go home and go back to sleep until 1pm. I was awakened by the sound of a conch shell being blown, and the smell of smoke drifting through my drafty house. The smoke was from the gomakashi, a miniature version of the dondo that is burned first to make people think "Oh crap! I am missing it!" the people then rush to the shrine just in time to see the *real* dondo start to burn.
Also included in the dondo are lots of daruma. Big red weeble-wobble heads that traditionally bring good luck. The concept behind the daruma is that you make a wish, or intention, such as "get good grades in school" for the new year, then color in one of the daruma's spooky blank eyes. When the new-year intention is realized, you reward the poor daruma by coloring in the other eye and, at the beginning of the next new year, burning him with the dondo.
I much prefer the daruma to the rabbit foot because with the former, you are making a conscious decision of what you want to have "good luck" for, and there is a constant reminder sitting there on your shelf, staring at you pathetically with one eye for an entire year. The simple role it plays in keeping one focused on the goal seems to me to be much more beneficial than just carrying around a lucky charm with no specific purpose.
I just wish they wouldn't burn them in the dondo, as most of them are now made of plastic and toxins - not something we really want to be breathing as we pray for good health in the new year.
The dondo burns and people try to protect themselves from the smoke with umbrellas.
Once the fire's good and hot, people send their new year hopes to heaven by writing them, in their first calligraphy of the year, on big sheets of plastic. The plastic sheets are attached to the end of a long pole and held near the top of the really frickin' hot dondo. If the plastic with your first-calligraphy-of-the-year is lifted straight up by the heat, your hopes and dreams will be realized. If you are deterred by the heat and hesitate when you smell of your own burning eyebrows, your hopes and dreams will only fly sideways, pathetically drifting to the ground where they are destined to be trampled.
Unfortunately, its not enough for some people getting the bad-luck beat out of them in the middle of the night by children with big sticks, burning the daruma than helped them have good luck in the previous year, or melting their new gore-tex rain-gear as they send your prayers to heaven. Some people need more help - namely, those for whom 2008 is a yakudoshi (a bad year), or those who have had something new happen to them, such as getting married in the past year, or starting grade school, or being born.
If you happen to be one of these people, you will need to have some of the ashes from the dondo mixed with snow until it is nice and pasty and can be used to paint your face. Once again, in a very Steven Kingly twist, it is the children that must stalk all the village members who are in need of this extra protection. Once they anoint one another, they begin chasing the adults around.
In my neighbor's case, his newborn daughter could not be at the festival because tradition dictates that the child spends the first month of life at the mother's family home (my neighbors are the father's family). In place of smearing ash on Miyu's (the daughter) face, the father brought along a photo to serve as a proxy. The Children painted that instead.
Finally, those who had their face painted, also gave a gift of mikan oranges to the gods of the shrine. Unfortunately, the gods don't have mouths, so they can't eat the mikan themselves, and while it is acceptable that someone else eat the mikan, it is not acceptable that someone else might use the box they were brought in for every-day purposes and, since it is a very sturdy and tempting box, it must be burned to prevent any temptation.
The only way to get rid of the mikan so that the box can be burned in the dondo is to have a mikan maki party! The givers of these gifts line up on the shrine steps, and begin throwing the oranges out into the crowd, causing mayhem and madness. Luckily, no old ladies were injured in everyone's mad scramble to get as many oranges as possible.
Partly because I was taking pictures, but mostly because it was my first time, my mikan catch was pathetic. I wrote a haiku about it for the haiku club meeting yesterday.
kotsu asaku goko mo horoenu mikan maki
With unrefined skills, I could not even pick up five oranges at the orange throw.
I gave the oranges that I did end up collecting to our neighbors who, according to custom, are not to visit any celebratory events this year. The husband's mother died in 2007, and as such, they are in a state of mourning. One would think that it would not be such a stress to skip the festival one year, but it felt so sad to hear his wife recount everything that happened at the dondo yaki, right down to how bad I was at picking up mikan. Apparently, she had been watching from the window. (our houses are right across the river from the shrine).
Although, maybe she was not watching out of longing to be there, but just because she was worried... The day before she had given us some mochi (sticky rice) for us to cook in her stead in the ashes of the dondo, as is a tradition at the festival. When she asked us, she did not know that Tomoe would not be attending. When she found out that I would be in charge, I saw her split-second of horror. I half-suspect that the reason she paid so much attention to the happenings is that she wanted to make sure I didn't just pop the mochi in the kitchen toaster before bringing them over.
The photo above depicts one of the methods that people use to keep from burning their eyebrows as they try to retrieve their mochi from the hot ashes. This woman has them attached to a long wire so she can just toss them into the ashes, and then pull them out when they are done. I, on the other hand, just brought the mochi in a plastic bag, so I just threw them in randomly, making the harvest quite difficult. I wrote a haiku about it if you would like to hear it...
dondoyaki hai ni mamirete mochi nakushi
I lost my sticky rice, engolphed in the ashes of the burning dondo