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4 May 2018. Seven hundred thousand! That’s how many people descend on the Tokyo neighbourhood of Fuchu City and the Okunitama Shrine for the weeklong Kurayami Festival. I’m expecting masses of people; despite having been in Harajuku on a holiday Sunday, and downtown Shinjuku at night, not to mention the Delhi subway at the time of a political rally, I discover I really have no clue what a crowd is.

But first the children. From the subway station I walk along the tree-lined boulevard, one of the main streets of Fuchu, towards the shrine. Unexpectedly there they are: a troupe of six girls and four boys, dressed in exquisite traditional costumes, preparing for a show. They are just kids playing

with parents fussing around them helping them get ready for their big performance. I sit myself down on the broad sidewalk to watch.

The traditional music begins – drums, flute, bell and clappers – played by a children’s Hayashi group.

Two of the boys are ferocious characters, a kitsune fox and a shishimai lion. They prance and flaunt themselves, moving back and forth in front of the audience with fierce and savage gestures. We are quaking in our boots.

Two of the boys are clowns and their masks alone are enough to make me smile.

Donning their masks the girls begin a slow stately ritualistic dance to the music that is a background to it all.

I am captivated by the transformation of playful children into serious ceremonial dancers, by the bright colours of their costumes, by their enthusiasm and dedication, by the exquisite kaleidoscopic kimonos, and by the haunting music. The children bring innocent life to the old traditions.

Eventually I walk on to the shrine under the shade of the elm trees, past enormous floral structures that resemble parasols, past decorative coaches that resemble gypsy wagons, past groups of boys dressed in matching happi jackets, and past groups of people of all ages dressed in traditional attire for the festival. I don’t know it at the time, but this wide leafy boulevard is a kind of backstage area.

I enter the long walkway that is the entrance to the shrine.

I have a date with some swanky parasols. They are called manto taikai, or manto lanterns, though they are neither lanterns nor parasols.

I arrive to a large circle of people seated around a white circle painted on the ground. I find myself a seat on the ground in amongst the crowd fairly close to the front. I try to make myself as small as possible. I’m not even sure if I’ve inveigled my way into someone else’s spot. The Japanese are so polite you could be sure no one would say anything if I had.

The competition begins.

There are perhaps fifteen teams and the first group moves into the circle with their lantern. They gather around it, and possibly there is a prayer,

then all but the one left holding the lantern move to the side.

Simultaneously the man holding the lantern lifts it and begins to spin while his team off to the side begins chanting and clapping. They seem to be saying aSA aSA aSA aSA (or is it eeZAA eeZAA eeZAA?) over and over as they clap. The man goes faster and faster spinning in circles with the 50 kg lantern.

The team chants louder and claps harder, urging him on. As he spins the arms of the lantern fly out higher and higher like a fairground ride.

After a couple of minutes, without losing momentum another man runs into the circle, takes the weight of the lantern, the first man leaves, and the spinning continues.

Soon it is over. The team reassembles in the centre and then makes way for the next team. The teams, from the different neighbourhoods of Fuchu, are all crowded off to one side waiting their turn. Each lantern is unique, each team has matching happi coats, and the women wear cloth coronets like this:

One by one they enter the circle and the spinning begins. It is at once a performance and a competition. I thought the competition was to see how long they could keep the lantern spinning, but I read it is also about grace. Of course. It’s Japan. You get points for doing it gracefully.

I don’t stay for all the teams, but I do catch them after the competition has ended as they begin their parade through the streets of Fuchu.

On either side of the long walkway that leads to the grand wooden doors to the inner courtyard there are makeshift food stalls and restaurants filling the considerable grounds of the shrine.

I’m hungry and go exploring. I choose too quickly. It’s a grilled meat skewer. The meat is interlaced with leek. It’s delicious but the meat is really tough. After working my jaws to a dull ache I give up about half way through, finish the leek and go looking for something else.

There’s a lady selling sticks of fresh pineapple. I just about start drooling. I buy one and the lady then tries to tell me something. I haven’t a clue what she’s saying of course, but by chance there is a young woman next to me who can translate. She tells me that if I beat the lady at rock paper scissors she’ll give me another stick of pineapple for free. I win! We all laugh. I get more pineapple. I bow and say thank you – domo arigato. I’m so craving fruit and vegetables that I just about inhale it.

The Kurayami Festival is held at Okunitama Shrine April 30 to May 6 every year. Its roots date back hundreds of years, as far back as the 2nd century CE when Emperor Keiko established Okunitama. Kurayami means darkness. The core of the festival is calling down the shrine’s deities, or kami, and parading them through the neighborhood to bring good fortune for the year. Most of the events of the festival are held after dark, as it is believed that one should not look directly at the faces of the gods. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The main parade of the kami in their giant portable shrines, or mikoshi, does not happen until the next day.

After eating my double dose of pineapple I go back towards the doors to the inner courtyard. There is activity everywhere. The groups with the manto lanterns are beginning their parade, and men with long paper lanterns walk through in formation.

Behind them are children carrying small portable shrines. As they walk they too chant aSA aSA aSA aSA.

I go into the inner courtyard and see there are many more small mikoshi,

and many children waiting to take their turn.

I watch as group after group marches forward chanting while carrying the portable shrines. Each shrine is believed to house a deity.

The path from the shrine doors out to the street is humming. On the walkway alone there are hundreds of people from all over Tokyo who have come to watch the festival. The energy is electric. Walking purposefully by are many groups of participants of all ages wearing matching happi coats. There are the manto lantern groups making their way to the street. There are the children and supervising adults chanting as they parade by with the mikoshi. There are men pushing small taiko drums on wheeled carts. And on either side are the food stalls and restaurants. There is so much going on I hardly know where to look.

I make my way to the street. I want to find a good place to see the drums. On one side of the entrance to the walkway, at the intersection of the walkway and the street, I see a concrete-block wall. It’s about four or five feet (1.4m) high and the top of it is about 12 inches (30cm) wide. Perfect! It is the wall that surrounds the entire shrine complex. Behind it I see two things – one is a sea of scaffolding and bright yellow tarps that are the makeshift restaurants. The other is a platform high up in a scaffolding tower. Later I find out what it is for.

I easily climb to the top of the wall, get extra support by leaning against the scaffolding, and wait. Below me is an ocean of people coming and going.

Some are dressed as participants in the festival, most are observers like myself. I see the children with their mikoshi finally entering the street and heading off around the neighbourhood. I see groups of men with matching orange hats whose job it is to keep the street clear for the drums.

I watch the traffic lights changing from green to red and back again and hundreds of people swarming across each time the lights change in their favour. The longer I wait the more people arrive. I’m so glad I have my perch on the wall above it all.

Suddenly a man sticks his head out from behind the tarp at my back and tells me to get down. I obey then climb right back up as soon as he’s gone. He doesn’t bother me again. He’s probably too busy cooking or serving people.

And then it begins. In amongst the crowd, barely above the heads of those in front of me, I see a long line of people in mustard-coloured happi coats slowly moving through the crowd from the shrine to the street. They are bent over pulling on the ropes of the first of six taiko drums mounted on wheels. Finally the first drum emerges.

The biggest drum is among the biggest in Japan. It is about seven feet (2m) across. The purpose of the pounding of the drums is to purify the neighbourhood for the coming parade of the deities in their mikoshi the next day.

Gradually more and more drums make their way down the walkway and into the street.

Each drum has two or three or four dignitaries of the shrine or neighbourhood standing in front of the drum on the wheeled platform.

A man on either side of each drum is pounding on it, throwing his full weight into the task. The sound reverberates throughout the area. A man on either side of the top of each drum lowers a lantern from time to time momentarily halting the drumming. There are four or five or six men on top of each drum, but one of them has about eight men on top.

I see one of the men start to fall and another right behind him. Somehow both manage to grab ropes and pull themselves up as those below help by pushing them.

As the drums move inexorably forward there is chanting, the now familiar aSA aSA. Frequently, and randomly, various words are roared out as long deep calls. The drums come through like the parting of the seas, six huge behemoths filling the space both physically and spiritually, the pounding sound reverberates, and I am so excited by the sight and by the energy of it all I am literally shaking.

Eventually the drums move off down the street making way for the parade of the dashi. There are twenty-two dashi, or wheeled festival floats, beautifully decorated and hung with a multitude of lanterns, and hauled by ropes. Inside each a Hayashi band is playing music that is native to Fuchu, while children, dressed as comical characters, dance. The dashi parade up and down the street for hours, the haunting music filling the air.

It is around now that I find out about the great high scaffolding tower behind me. It is a police lookout tower, and suddenly the police have decided to use it. I am summarily told to get off the wall. This time I know there’s no getting back up there.

I go out into the street for one final look at the dashi.

Then finally exhausted I wend my way through the crowds back to the train station, buy myself a take-out meal of chicken-with-noodles-and-salad at Starbucks and go home. It’s been a long intense extraordinary day.

Next post: Kurayami part two. Yes, there is more to this remarkable festival.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.