By Justin Woodard
I was not really sure what to expect from the three-day Hojo festival. Leading up to the event I was told there would be fights, broken mikoshi, and a parade. Naturally, I was having a hard time imagining how all of this would fit together into one festival, especially one in Hojo. After all, when I arrived in Hojo for the first time, it gave me the impression of being a quiet, small town, similar to the one in the United States I grew up in. The only way to find out for sure how everything would come together was to go to the festival and witness everything for myself.
The festival began one fall Saturday morning and took place at the Bunka no Mori, a normally peaceful and large park between Matsuyama and Hojo where I regularly play tennis with my students. I arrived near the end of lion dancing taking place in the street. However, the main event of the morning was the parading of danjiri up and down the street in front of the Bunka no Mori. But before that could begin, I watched a short but powerful taiko drum performance in front of the main building in the Bunka no Mori. Unfortunately for one of the performers, he seemed to continuously lose his clothes as he performed. I’m still not sure how he managed to do that. After the taiko drum performance an even more powerful drum sounded in the distance and the main event began.
The danjiri were being moved by men and women wearing traditional Japanese clothing, while people stood on top blowing whistles to direct traffic and children rang the bell inside the danjiri. Perhaps the best part of the parade was the end with where chidren were pushing little danjiri up and down the street as their parents directed them. There was even a minion themed one, minions are an important part of traditional Japanese culture right? Because if they are not, I definitely think a case could be made for why they should be. After the parade ended most of the commotion at the Bunka no Mori died down, but this was not the end of the festival for the day. They continued to parade the various danjiri around Hojo until late at night.
The second day of the festival began with more parading of the danjiri through the streets in Hojo while they slowly made their way towards the large shrine just outside the town. The loud ringing of the bell and the many people shouting foreshadowed the controlled chaos that was about to come. The shrine had an open area at the bottom with stone steps that led up to the main area of the shrine. At the top of the stairs there was another open field with paths leading to various buildings in the shrine. When I arrived at the shrine, people were already forming a circle around the base of stairs. However, the best view was reserved for the truly brave who were standing on the stairs along the mikoshi’s downward path. I could tell standing on the stairs would be dangerous, and when the mikoshi came within inches of hitting the people standing on the stairs I was happy I was not standing there.
A group of adult men carried the first mikoshi through the entrance of the shrine and managed to get it up the many steps, all for the purpose of throwing it back down. When they arrived at the top, mikoshi still on their shoulders, they began to prepare to throw it down the stone stairs. I was extremely excited to see what would come next. Would it instantly break into pieces like I was hoping, or somehow still remain intact? I was partly surprised at how quiet the crowd was as they prepared to throw the mikoshi. The crowd was not dead silent, but to say they were cheering would also be incorrect. I was expecting more excitement and anticipation to be shown by the crowd, but it was more like excited murmuring as people looked on at what was coming. If this had been an event in America, the crowd would have been going crazy as they moved up the steps, but in this case it was the people carrying the mikoshi who were the main source of the excitement.
The moment finally came when they were going to throw the mikoshi from their shoulders, and as it rolled down I finally got the excitement from the crowd I was expecting. For a brief moment everyone cheered. However, it remained mostly intact as it tumbled to the bottom inside the circle of people. Then, the moment I had been waiting for finally arrived. About fifteen people all jumped toward the mikoshi and began shoving and throwing punches at each other as they all attempted to climb on top of the mikoshi in what can only be described as a modern day gladiator brawl. The ring of people literally became the coliseum walls, preventing the mayhem from spilling out unchecked. Whenever someone reached the top the others would pull on his clothes and try to push him from the top, which is what usually happened. I think the best strategy was to wait until the end to the climb to the top and then assert your dominance so you were the last one being dominant. In the first round, there were about four people shoved off, and each time someone new immediately rose up to take his place. Eventually, the winner was determined and the victor was then given the all-important whistle, a symbol of their victory. I am still not exactly sure how the winner was decided but it was at least entertaining to watch. The person who received the whistle was allowed to ride the mikoshi back, and everyone else who lost had to carry the mikoshi with the person on top back up the stairs.
After arriving back at the top of the stairs bruised and battered they prepared to throw it down the stairs for a second time. This time as the mikoshi tumbled down the stairs it broke apart and everything inside flew out for the participants to grab. This time it wasn’t a contest for dominance, it was a test of who could grab the sacred object inside that was inside the mikoshi and make it back to the top of the stairs holding the object. And it was the goal of everyone who did not have the object to take it from the man who did. They tried everything including throwing pieces of the mikoshi at the man holding the object as he reached to top in a last ditch effort to prolong the contest. The man who made it to the top would be blessed with good fortune until the festival next year. They went through this pattern with four different mikoshi and a different set of participants joined each time. After the last sacred object was retrieved and everything settled down, people began leaving the shrine to watch the various danjiri parade up and down the street.
On the final day the festival took place by the sea in Hojo with Kashima Island in the background. Along the port there were various food stalls with all the classic Japanese festival foods such as takoyaki and karaage. However, the majority of people were gathered along the river running through Hojo in order to get a glimpse of more mikoshi shenanigans. However, this time the mikoshi were getting thrown into the river and then fished back out, with this pattern repeating until the mikoshi reached the sea. As the people throwing the mikoshi slowly made their way towards the sea, people lined up in a ‘splash zone’ on the opposite side of the river hoping to get a good picture of the mikoshi as it soared through the air and fell into the river. I am not ashamed to say I was one of those people looking to take an amazing picture. In the harbor, there was a boat going in circles around in the water and performing blessings in what is likely one of the most important parts of the festival. From what I was able to gather, it seems like they used to swim the mikoshi out to Kashima Island, but over the years this became impossible. As a result, they now throw the mikoshi into the river and fish it out as an alternative to swimming with it.
After the festival ended, Hojo returned to being the quiet small town I found when I first arrived in Japan. Everything is back to normal in Hojo, retired couples are going for walks and I can hear elementary school students playing baseball in the field near my apartment. All this kind of makes me question at times whether all the craziness and excitement of the festival really happened. Guess I’ll have to wait until next year to find out for sure.
Justin Woodard is a first year JET living in Hojo. In his free time he enjoys playing tennis and video games. He is from Indiana in the US.