Sunday, 2 December 2007

Part 1: Chichibu Yomatsuri (Sunday morning)

The main nocturnal part of the festival is Monday but Sunday during the day the floats move from their garages to the main Shrine for a ceremony, blessing and celebration of the harvest/thanksgiving. By daylight is a good opportunity to see the beautiful detail of the floats and hear the music before the crowds descend on Chichibu too much. Once again, I set out from Kami-machi, the neighbourhood to which I belong. Lurching out of the float-house at 9am in kami-machi, first stop was at the taiko rehearsal venue further down the main street towards the centre, then into the Chichibu-Jinja (Shrine) where all 6 floats participate in a ceremony of thanksgiving, blessed by the priests. By afternoon when the float reached the shrine, a throng had gathered, children were performing, there was kabuki on one of the floats, the silk worm cocoons were offered at the shrine and sellers with stalls of food and souvenirs were out. Many cacophonies of taiko, dancing, kabuki music with shamisen, priests dancing and playing in an ensemble of fue/flute (nokan?) and drums coincided with the shouts of the float-pullers, woodblocks signalling navigation and cues for starting/stopping and the lively crowd.

The miniature fire engine was on the ready for I-don't-know-what. Police stopped traffic and the traffic lights were put out by a man hanging off the power pole who rotated the arm holding the lights so that it did not obstruct the passage of the tall yatai (float). The four positions on the front of the float are considered highly honourable. Each year different men are selected for this privilege. In kami-machi, the 'elders' wear yellow coats and each role - rope pullers, float people, taiko players and so forth - have different outfits. Each locality has its own costumes. For the heavy floats with ornate roofs, such as kami-machi's, turning around is a significant event. A large central 'foot' descends out the base on which the entire cart is rotated. The four fan-bearers make waving gestures, ushering in the sea-borne spirits and call out 'heave-ho' equivalent along the way. According to Megumi, many of the men atop the float are carpenters by trade. They are comfortable climbing around at heights! Most floats have sea-related themes. Everybody, young and old, is out to watch. My favourite technology: the wooden wheels have no bearings so a combination of oil and shallots(!) are used to lubricate them, squashed shallots keep the wooden wheels turning and not creaking too much to interfere with the taiko. The guy in the maroon jacket has the job of feeding the shallots into the wheel. Kundan and I were wondering if the guys on the roof served any useful purpose other than having a great time up there frolicking on the rafters and drinking whisky but their essential purpose indeed became evident as the float barely fitted under power-lines and they suddenly leapt up and lifted the (insulated) wires over the parapets of the roof as the float perilously passed beneath.