Bearing the Heavy Gods At Kichijōji’s Autumn Festival

By A. D. McCormick

In the lingering heat of September, teams of locals buzzed on sake take their deities on rides through the neighborhood. Welcome to Kichijōji, the hippest spot in Musashino, just west of Tokyo proper.

At Kichijōji’s Autumn Festival, or aki matsuri, spectators pray at the Musashino Hachimangu, the shrine at the center of all the activity, then stroll through the grounds loading up on yakitori and fried sweet potatoes.

The kids catch goldfish and buy trinkets, while adults browse little charms and amulets. This setup is the delightful standard of matsuri all over Japan.

But at Kichijōji’s Autumn Festival, the real excitement is outside the shrine’s stone gate.

The focus of the festival, at least for the last 45 years, has been the mikoshi, or divine palanquins, essentially ornate little taxis for the gods (kami) that are visually similar to shrine buildings, with poles jutting out in front and behind so that teams of uniformed volunteers can hoist them onto their shoulders and carry them through the local shopping arcade and surrounding streets.

This is no small feat. Like many other religious festivals the world over, the central event doesn’t feel right without a certain level of participant suffering. The mikoshi are made of wood and laden with decorations, lanterns, and other gilded fixtures. But it seems like the poles used to carry the mikoshi might be the heaviest part — thick, square or rounded timbers lashed together with rope. I’ve heard that the closer you are to the center, the heavier it gets.

In some less populated parts of Japan, the mikoshi have one or two poles, but here in the dense Tokyo metropolis, there are plenty of laborers to recruit, so each mikoshi sports four poles. It’s not a gentle stroll: Japan’s gods are notorious party animals, and the mikoshi bearers oblige them by frequently tossing their loads around as they march, chanting, down the streets. Generous pours of sake throughout the day keep spirits — and pain thresholds — high.

There are so many participants that they often greatly outnumber the spectators. Those not carrying the mikoshi lead the procession or trail behind, waiting to relieve their exhausted teammates. Much of the route weaves through side streets, but at times the procession hits a major thoroughfare and a measure of traffic safety is required. In the image below, the procession was separated by a thin rope from the whizzing buses and cars in the other lane. A single police officer, out of the frame, helped out.

As night descends, the party continues. Last year, this crew, sporting “Kichijōji” on their hanten robes, was the most boisterous and exuberant of all.

Their mikoshi was garishly magnificent, and they naturally brought their own lighting to show it off.

They would march and chant, throwing the mikoshi around wildly. Periodically, they would stop, and a leader in the front would call out a bit of song, to which the bearers would respond. This went back and forth for a few lines before the final response led joyously back into the chant, shouted with renewed vigor, and the little carriage would jerk around violently, the god inside no doubt laughing his head off.

Seven months later, he must still be laughing.

A. D. McCormick is the director of the Art Island Center on Naoshima.

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