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A very Japanese religious festival

During the spring and summer months my weekends are occupied with photographing festivals.  I live in Okinawa, Japan.  For an island only about 65 miles long, it must have more festivals per capita than anywhere else on earth.

A festival (matsuri in Japanese) here, is like any county fair; crowds by the thousands, popular music performed by live bands, vendors pushing their overpriced food and drinks, children’s rides and games of chance.  Then, there’s the crowded parking, far from the action and the traffic jams, just like anywhere USA, when it’s time to head home.

A Bit of Background
The Shinugu Matsuri in Ada Kunigami Okinawa takes place during the 7th month of the year. This year it was held August 22d.  Travel agencies advertise the event as taking place in July, however, they are using the Gregorian calendar; Okinawan traditional events take place according to the lunar or Chinese calendar. This may be a partial explanation for the lack of crowds, but there’s more, maybe the folks in this remote village just don’t want a carnival atmosphere disrupting their peaceful little village.

A friend had seen something about the event on Japanese TV and we decided to investigate it a few months in advance. A good hour’s drive from any city on the island, Ada is a small community along the northeast coast. If you’re not careful, driving the twisted mountain roads above this isolated village, you’ll pass the road leading down to the sea and never find the place.

By car, you can tour the entire town in 10 minutes. We found one store, a small fenced-in park, a fishing port and a thatched-roof hut. There are dozens of tiled-roof homes, some old fashioned wooden buildings, others concrete with small yards and fenced in with stones or cinder blocks. Near the hut was a village office and surprisingly, some people were working there on a Sunday!

Speaking in our limited Japanese, we introduced ourselves and explained we were photographers and writers and would like to attend the Shinugu Matsuri.  The man and woman at the office were friendly, explained that the festival would be the weekend of August 22d and even allowed us to take some photos of pictures decorating the walls, of previous Shinugus.

When we inquired about a place to stay for the weekend of the big event, the woman mentioned there was a Minshuku (bed and breakfast) near the town’s only store. Satisfied with the information we had obtained, we snapped a few photos of the straw hut, nearby beach and a sign with the telephone number for the Minshuku.  We had enough information to research and plan for the festival, months in advance, so we thought.

Mystery and secrecy
Researching the event online led me to a few conclusions. A translator would be required. There wasn’t enough information available in English language to answer all the questions I had.

Rachel Sensei, from the UK, educator, researcher, writer, translator and friend of the family; maybe she’d join us on the project.  And she did.

A few weeks in advance Rachel, her two boys and I drove back up to Ada.  This time someone fluent in the language could do the talking, get some answers and smooth over our plans for the big weekend.
In the bit of information I had compiled, so far, I determined that males only were allowed to participate in some rituals that take place during this festival.  I had seen photos of the men coming off the mountains, covered in vegetation, but none of what takes place while they’re on the mountain.  Besides women being forbidden to climb the mountain, maybe cameras were forbidden, too.

Though this festival is held every year, only every other year, men climb the mountains for a special ritual, this year being when it would take place (2009).

Flashback- to my college days when a professor told us about a cameraman caught filming an Okinawan ritual on a remote island, which he wasn’t supposed to see. He was killed!

Rachel would find out what we could photograph and what we couldn’t. She received a warm welcome from the woman at the village office, who remembered the cameraman with the beard (me) and they chatted for a good hour, while I kept the two boys occupied.

Our visit paid off; we learned a lot. All the bed and breakfast rooms were reserved months in advance.  We could pitch a tent. Men and boys could go up the mountain for whatever rituals they perform. No women and no cameras.

We would have to come early the 1st day of the festival and meet someone an hour before it started, explain what we were doing and get permission to do a story and publish any photos. We (men) would have to be interviewed afterwards and tell what we saw on the mountain.  We would be told what we could share with the rest of the world and what we couldn’t.  More mystery and more secrecy!

The morning of the festival
We live on the East Coast of the island, but driving up north, decided it would be best to cross over to the West Coast to avoid the rising sun, blinding us as we headed out on what would be an hour and a half drive.  The island is not round; sometimes you are heading South, West or East to get to the North.

As it turned out, it was cloudy and even rained a little while we were driving.  I don’t know how they do it, but somehow Okinawans make the rain stop for festivals.

Arriving before 9AM gave us plenty of time to decide where to park the car and find out where we could pitch a tent.  The village was absolutely quiet.  Something told me this wasn’t going to be the typical festival.  I’m used to seeing scaffolding and stages built on fairgrounds with humongous speakers and sound systems and towers with bright-colored floodlights hanging off them, bleachers and benches for spectators.

What did I see?  I saw the lone thatched-roof hut and the empty field beside it.  The village looked not one bit different than had on any previous visit.

Concerned about where we could park, we asked and were told the car was fine right where it was, next to the village office.  We could pitch our tent in the grass beside the office, as well. Wow!  Maybe we were being given the royal treatment because someone thought we were visiting dignitaries.

While the festival was scheduled to begin at noon, and we had been told to arrive at 11AM to meet someone, I’m glad we showed plenty early.

Before 10AM people started making the headwear men crown themselves with before heading up the mountain and a fellow named Daisuke Miwa taught us how the straw and red-flowered gadgets are made.  I wound-up wearing one the rest of the day. I thought the flowers smelled like berries, Rachel said the scent reminded her of something from a cat.

Between ten and eleven o’clock a woman 94 years of age conducted ritual prayers and made offerings, first inside the straw-roofed hut, then at several shrines in the surrounding area. Her exact status whether priestess or the village elder will remain a mystery until I return to the village again.

At 11AM, under the shade of a tree, I was introduced to some people sitting at a folding table, presented them my business card, spoke a bit of the local language got them smiling, even laughing and was told I could take my camera up the mountain and photograph anything I wanted!

The rituals on the mountain
Around noon groups of two or three men and boys of all ages start hiking. There are three separate trails going up the mountain and they all end at different locations.

It takes around an hour for each of the sites to have everyone assembled. They cover their bodies with shrubs, leaves, vines and plants from the forest. An elder carrying a large red drum directs the ceremonies. When everyone is properly attired, he has them kneel facing the mountain and say a quick prayer.  Then turn and face the sea for another short prayer. Next, everyone selects a branch from a pre-staged pile and form a circle around the clearing where they have assembled.

To the beat of the drum, they march around in a circle, following the lead of the elder and chanting “Eh, Hey, Hoy”. Every so often, they stop on a cue, shaking their branches towards the ground in the center of the circle. This is to ward-off evil spirits.

They descend along the same trail used to go up the mountain, stopping at a point halfway down, in another clearing and repeat the circular rituals.

Back in the village
In a field leading back into town, all the women present are surrounded by the men coming back from the three mountain trails. The men chant and march to the beat of drums. Only, this time, on a cue from their leaders they swat the women with the branches to keep evil away from them!  It is very gentle swat, not something from the Stone Age.

To the sea

The groups of men, head to the beach, chanting along the way. They line the shore and kneel for a prayer facing the mountain and repeat the ritual facing the sea. That being done, everyone tosses the vegetation in a pile and takes a quick dip in the ocean.

From there, following the drum beating elders, they go back into town and take a bath in the river to rinse the salt water off their bodies.
A few dances with men and women participating are held in the square by the hut. Men hoist a large bamboo pole with a banner asking for a year of plenty and a carp streamer fluttering in the breeze.

Between 3 and 6PM the village becomes silent.  Everyone goes home and naps or sips sake.  The activities in the town square will liven up in the evening.

As the sun sets

Shortly after 6PM the sun is fading behind the tall mountains to the West and the shade cools off the area near the thatched-roof hut. Before the light fades some ritual dances simulating the planting of rice and rowing of boats are conducted. The participants are all dressed in traditional banana-fiber woven clothing. Some of the members dance while beating small hand-held drums, others play 3 stringed instruments called sanshin. Traditional local music is piped through a speaker system and spectators line the outsides of the field sitting on mats, sipping sake.

As the sun fades to darkness, lights come on in the refreshment tent alongside the field and two small fires are lit on the ends of bundled bamboo poles. Women dressed in dark-colored summer kimonos and younger girls in white kimonos dance slowly around the edges of the field, circling between the sake drinkers and the fires.

Music plays over the speaker system and some of the dancers play the small drums. Larger drums and sanshin are heard in the background. The music is initially slow and the dances appear to be a solemn ritual.
As the evening goes on, the dances become more light-hearted, a few inebriated men join in and some even pick up the burning bundles of wood and dance with them.

Around 8PM the last few dances are held and they are accompanied by festive, fast-paced music.  Everyone is expected to join in, and they do.

By 9PM the music has stopped and most women and children have gone home. Just the serious sake drinkers remain, sitting on straw mats, drinking, discussing business or settling old family feuds
Well before midnight, the last few people had gone home.  Then next day there would be sumo wrestling and more dances by the hut.  All that remained were a few sake bottles and the drums I placed in front of the hut for a parting shot. It is where the festival started and where it would end; the center of the Shinugu Matsuri.

Links:  The Japan Update an English weekly newspaper. Under heading; The Main Island of Okinawa, explains Shinugu. A Prefectural Government Website, Department of Education.  Okinawa Prefectural Government Website.

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