“My mother is asking if you want to sign up to be a bearer in the Autumn festival, the Aki Matsuri”. “Aki…What?”, I asked to my wife. She gave a simple explanation which appeared all right for me at that moment. We were preparing to move to Japan and I wanted to fit in, so joining this local festivity seemed like a good idea. Little I knew then that this decision would make my shoulders sore for months and that it would turn out to be a wonderful experience.
This is the Himeji version of the Aki Matsuri from my perspective as a bearer.
A Matsuri is a Shinto festival, an invocation of the gods. Matsuris come in very different forms and occur throughout the year all over Japan. Aki Matsuri (AM) is an Autumn festival, it takes place in October, near rice harvest. It follows the original rituals seeking to assure the productivity of the crop. For many, it is rather a cultural activity or a tradition to follow.
The preparations for the AM start months earlier and end up in two days of congregation at the local shrine. The community is organized by neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a Mikoshi (a portable shrine) and recruits bearers and drummers.
The preparations include teaching to the young the rhythms of the drums, the chants and the movements to perform in top of the Mikoshi. The bearers must learn to coordinately follow the rhythm. Many other members of the community also take part in the logistics of the activities. A Shinto priest calls a divine spirit to visit the Miskoshi for the celebrations.
The central part of the Mikoshi is the shrine itself. There is space to sit 4 people around a drum. This main section has a roof and it is nicely decorated. Two long poles sustain the shrine and allow the men to carry it.
The day of the festival
For the festival, neighbors begin the day in the communal house. Then they take the Mikoshi around the neighborhood. The destination is the local shrine. At arriving, the Mikoshis wait their turn to make a ritualistic entry. The drummers intone the chants and the bearers shake the Mikoshi and elevate it over their heads. According to the tradition, these movements energize the divine spirit.
After a few times, the drummers and bearers enter the inner chamber of the shrine to be purified by the priest. After this, the group chant to celebrate the occasion.
The clash of Mikoshis
This is one of the highlights of the day. The Mikoshis are placed next to each other for a controlled struggle. One group pushes the other Mikoshi and then the other charges back. A Mikoshi weights more than a ton and 20 men carry it. All happens for some minutes in a small space surrounded by people. The clash of the Mikoshis is a bit dangerous and exciting.
During the day there are other cultural performances in front of the Shrine. Some people play some tunes while others present traditional dramas. Many people come to see these activities. Around the Shrine there are food vendors and typical stands.
When the day is over the Mikoshis go back to the communal house, where they are kept until the next year.
Functions of the Aki Matsuri
There are many aspects to this festival. The AM has a cohesive function for the community. Donations of the community finance the festival. Many people get involved and collaborate in different ways. It is also an activity where cultural values are reinforced. Girls and boys are protagonist in the festivities. Most women take a traditional gender role but are essential for the celebration. Psychologically, this kind of rite provides some relief from the uncertainties of life. For some people it is a prayer, for others a penance or a ritual, they are different ways of asking help from the gods. Through these actions we take out our anxieties and give them to a power greater that ourselves.
Find a Matsuri
So, if you are in Hyogo in October and want to spend some good time, search for a Matsuri near you. Taking a train, you can probably join a celebration within an hour from where you are staying. If you are in other region or come in a different date, pay attention to other seasonal festivities near you. The language barrier and the atmosphere of a Matsuri might be a little intimidating. Do not worry, show genuine interest and respect and you will be welcomed. Be adventurous and enjoy the Aki Matsuri.
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