Chichibu Night Festival on 2-3 December is also known as Yomatsuri, a name given to the culminating festivity of the six-day annual celebration of Chichibu-jinja (Chichibu Shrine), whose deity is wedded to Mt. Buko. In past times, the festival was an occasion of thanksgiving for farmers and was held in November, as were most Japanese Thanksgiving Festivals until the Meiji Era, when the calendar was Romanised and some holiday and festival dates were changed. A trace of the original significance of the festival (according to Enbutsu's Chichibu: Japan's hidden Treasure), is to be found in the ritual conducted at the shrine on 2 December, in which the priests and representatives of the citizens celebrate the year's harvest of rice. (This year has been especially good for rice and persimmons). During the Edo period, when silk was the most important crop of Chichibu, divine protection was solicited for success farming silk. Large bags full of cocoons offered at the shrine are reminders of this celebration. It was the profits from silk farming and trading that enabled the townspeople to build the six magnificent festival floats, annually constructed from their many parts, polished, lovingly restored and cared for by the men of the community. Today these floats, the oldest of which dates back to 1662, are important cultural assets of Japan, and the Chichibu Festival is considered one of the most important in all Japan, visited by many tourists from other cities.
My local float is kami-machi, just across the main road next to kaiten sushi. Although my address is Hinoda-machi, not all of the localities has its own float, only the main six. Kami-machi is the locality of Kakizakai's home and his eldest son, Haruka, is playing taiko in the float during the festival (for many hours!). Last Monday also saw the passing of Kakizakai's father, a highly-regarded poet in the traditional style of tanka. Traditionally a family mourns for a year and does not engage in partying and celebrations during this period. For this reason, Haruka had to seek special dispensation from the shrine in order to participate in the taiko ensemble in the festival. In the end, this permission was reneged and he did not play inside the float. Japanese culture seems to have much more respect and formality regarding the correct etiquette in this situation. All week, in the evenings, we have been hearing the thunderous sound of the different taiko groups practising around town to build skill, stamina and cohesion: they are sounding magnificent. The visceral power of the instruments resonates through your whole body as you watch, listen, feel, resounding raw energy and masculinity. Naturally float-building and taiko playing, indeed any element of the parade, seems to be singularly a male domain. The camaraderie and kinship is running thick with a strong sense of community enthusiasm. Even young children are introduced to playing, while the more experienced players clearly show unfettered concentration. Meanwhile, the listeners are huddled around a kerosine outdoor stove to keep from freezing in the jolting night air. Not everyone can drag the float, but people assist in different ways: building the float, polishing, plying rope, preparing lanterns, fireworks, playing music, etc.
Each float is made of keyaki, (i.e. zelkova) wood and is lavishly decorated with colourful wood-carved designs and ornate fittings set into black lacquered panels. The pieces lying on the ground awaiting assembly reminded me of a dismembered grand piano. They carry lanterns and branches of paper flowers on the roof. Some floats will be used for stages on which Kabuki or dances will be performed. The taiko music, Chichibu yatai-bayashi is said to resemble waves of the ocean bearing divine spirits who gather for the festival.
So last Sunday (one week before the festival opening), saw the 2-storey doors of the float-house (yes, it has its own special garage that is extremely tall!), open at 8am, a truck deliver the cart wheels from somewhere else (explanation unknown) and lowered by crane, and the men of the town start to assemble scaffolds first and then the float itself, precisely and respectfully piecing the lacquered decorative panels after lunch onto the sturdy wooden framework, lowerable 'feet' used in turning manoeuvres, giant wooden wheels, and the 'stage' inside that will house the portable shrine and taiko players. The cart will be dragged by hundreds of men using thick ropes. It must weigh several tonnes. Cranes also erected very tall poles of cypress adorned on top with Shinto folded paper, tree-branches and unfurling the vertical banners welcoming visitors to the Chichibu Festival, one on each side of the street running into town.