Recently on October 19th, I was able to attend and join in on a celebration here in Nara. Let me just say, Japan has a lot of interesting festivals (matsuri). They range from sake drinking festivals to festivals that set portions of a mountain on fire in an act of reverence and controlled burning (it’s a forest health thing).While serving in the Japanese Exchange & Teaching Program, many JETs are fortunate enough to participate in many of these events. My first experience just happened to involve helping carry a 2 tonne wooden shrine around a city and up to a temple for 8 straight hours. Yes….it was exhausting but totally worth it.Taking place in Hasedera, Nara, the Hasedera Matsuri is somewhat of a Nara JET tradition. Every year, the members of JET here in the prefecture volunteer their time to assist a neighborhood in Hasedera in carrying a large shrine around the city and up to the massive Buddhist Temple nearby.The Hasedera Temple is a massive temple that serves as the main site of the Buzan sect of Shingon Buddhism. Originally built in 686, the temple has grown throughout the centuries and its main hall is labeled as a Japanese National Treasure. Being able to see this building through the eyes of the matsuri and the local people was an honor. It was a very long day, though.
By the time a few of us arrived at the Hasedera Train Station at 8am (our meeting spot), we had to hurry down into the village to get dressed for the festival. Clothes were prepared for us, in advance, by measurements we provided a few weeks before. Before long, we were all draped in our own hoppi and bandanas. After gathering with the rest of the neighborhood we were assisting, we started the day with a sake filled kempai and wheeled our shrine through the streets of Hasedera. Eventually, we stopped in a dirt parking area to wait for the other neighborhoods. When one finally arrived, they did so in style! Clad in black hoppi and consisting of energetic, athletic men, our “rivals” did not disappoint. As they came into the parking lot, there were three people hanging off the sides of their shrine chanting encouragement as the people beneath thrust the wooden structure up into the air again and again.I’m not ashamed to admit that I quickly developed a competitive feeling towards them. They were the Sharks to our Jets! (West side Story reference…)Just kidding, they were fun rivals. With a few neighborhoods gathered, it was time to head to the temple. Originally, we wheeled the shrine to the parking a lot with the help of a large trailer. Now, however, that trailer was gone and it was time to put our shoulders to the test. For 4 hours we walked through the Hasederan streets with that 2 tonne wooden pavilion on our shoulders. Many of the girls were lucky because they were either too short to really feel the weight, or chosen as fan girls to escort us through the streets. I envied them a lot, they had plenty of substitutes. Many of us tall foreigners, however, were not so lucky. We were stuck in the very front or very back for the entire day! Once we got the temple, we had to carry the shrine all the way to the top up a few flights of stairs, then back down to wait for our “rivals” to do the same. Naturally we all had to do some showing off each time and spend 5 minutes or so throwing the shrine up into the air and back onto our shoulders…yeah…that hurt.Fortunately, we were rewarded with bentos and temple exploration!
The views were incredible!Later, it was time to take the shrine back to where we started. Unfortunately, there was a lot of traffic at that point and we couldn’t move around the city as we had before. As a result, we literally walked back and forth, on a main street, for about an hour, carrying and moving the shrine around to avoid cars and homes. It got pretty tiresome.
At the end, however, it was worth it. It was an incredible day and all of the Japanese people we had been with throughout the day were very grateful to us and that alone was worth all the bruising and stiffness I felt for the next week. This is a great Nara JET tradition and I think all of us felt the same.