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Kawagoe Matsuri

Posted by Shaun


Saturday October 15, 10:01 PM

Before we left for study abroad, Knox gave us a pre-departure manual to read. Towards the back, there was a chart depicting the peaks and valleys of cultural adjustment.  There’s the period of confusion right after arrival, then the happy honeymoon stage, then frustration and culture shock, and then the line of the chart climbs upwards as adjustment begins. As the abroad experience continues, the charts usually show another valley where one begins to have to deal with deeper cultural issues, and the line climbs upward again as the student gradually becomes more and more culturally competent. The highest peak on the chart is right before the student returns home, and the whole thing repeats again for re-entry.

Well, my adaptation process has been more like Dazai Osamu’s short story, The Sound of Hammering (in Japanese, トカトントン tokatonton). I’m not usually the sort of person to employ literary allusions, especially when my audience probably hasn’t read the work I’m referencing, but we read this story in my Japanese Literature After 1945 class, and I thought the comparison was too apt to ignore. Dazai’s story deals with the immediate post-WWII period, and I'm in no way trying to compare the minor troubles of a study abroad student to the existential crises facing the Japanese people immediately after losing a war and finding themselves under American occupation. But to a certain extent, I keep finding myself relating to the emotions of Dazai’s narrator in The Sound of Hammering. The story begins when the narrator hears the emperor’s radio announcement of Japan’s surrender. As his commanding officer is talking about suicide rather than dishonor, the narrator hears a sound, the toka-ton-ton sound of hammering in the distance, and that snaps him out of the militaristic trance he had been in during the war years. As the narrator struggles to put his life back together in occupied Japan, he experiences moments of intense optimism and productivity, only to hear the hammering sound again, in his head this time:

“…I narrowed my sleepy eyes in a mood of utter contentment and recalled the dictum about work being sacred. Then, just as I breathed a sigh of relief, I seemed to hear in the distance the faint sound of hammering. That did it. In an instant, everything appeared absurd.”
 (Dazai Osamu, The Sound of Hammering, page 187 in the packet I have for my class, I’m not sure of the original book it came from or the translator).

Time and again, whenever the narrator is on the verge of making a new life for himself, the toka-ton-ton sound stops him in his tracks, and everything “appears absurd.”

Boy oh boy, can I relate to that feeling. No, I’m not hearing phantom toka-ton-ton’s around Waseda campus, but I do have those moments, where everything is going fine, where I’ve joined a club and made new friends, and I'm enjoying spending time with Missus, I’ve stopped letting my host siblings’ silence bother me, I’ve come up with a host of new activities to try, and sleeping on a futon is even starting to be comfortable. Then the dog barks and howls in my face or I see my host sister is somehow wearing my socks and also not responding to my attempts to converse with her, or my host brother decides he wants to talk to me and maybe hang out with me, only to creep me out by insistently asking why I don’t shave my arms, or I realize that my language exchange partner is probably not going to become my closest friend, and suddenly everything appears absurd. Like Dazai’s narrator when he hears the sound of hammering, my attitude changes completely on the spot, and I start to wonder why I’m here. Why Tokyo? Why didn’t I listen to that Japanese professor who not only told me that I need to learn how to read, but also that everyone in Tokyo wants to speak English? Why am I here at all? Will I come back to Japan graduation? What’s the point? Where’s the honeymoon period? Wasn’t I supposed to get one of those?

Those sorts of thoughts and questions and doubts are a real part of the study abroad experience. Or at least, of my study abroad experience. I’m writing them down so that hopefully I can look back later and realize that my frustrations could be overcome. And also because I’ve heard too many picture-perfect study abroad stories lately. It sometimes makes me feel like if I’m not happy all the time, I’m not doing this right and my study abroad experiences aren’t valuable. So here it is, the nitty-gritty of study abroad, uncensored and uncut.

That being said, this blog has been a little bit too unhappy lately. There are definitely good things going on in my life. I have plans to hang out with several different friends in the next couple weeks. I’m going to attempt to hike across Tokyo next Sunday, and next Friday I’m going to learn to make a lunch shaped like Pikachu. I’m leading a group of Japan Study students to the Pokemon Center tomorrow for shopping and photos with Pikachu, and I’m having fun learning Bollywood dance at my club, even though I’m still working up to attempting Japanese with the members. Maybe Monday. Monday I’ll try to speak Japanese. I’m not sure how we’ll be ready to perform at the Waseda Festival by the beginning of November, but I have faith in our ability to pull ourselves together… 

Today in particular was a lot of fun. I have to remind myself that even if it doesn’t seem like it at times, Missus is always on my side. Mister too, probably, when he’s home.  Today, Missus and I went to a festival in nearby Kawagoe city. I took pictures, and I can describe them in detail in a future post. I was grouchy all morning because I thought we’d be rained out, but luckily the rain stopped and we were able to go. I also found out that my friend wanted to go, but her host mom couldn’t take her because she was concerned that her son wouldn’t study enough if left to his own devices at home. Luckily she was able to come with Missus and me, and it turned out to be a great time. I think Missus was really happy to meet one of my friends. She told her to come back and hang out again soon. Plus, it was a good choice strategically, because I was having one of my toka-ton-ton moments about my Japanese ability, and having Laura there meant I couldn’t take the easy way out and just not say much. Hopefully I’ll just get better and better at talking about random stuff in Japanese.

"Music battle" between two dashi
When it comes to what actually goes on at a festival like Kawagoe Matsuri, I’m not actually sure what anything means. I asked Missus what kami the festival was for, and she told me that since she wasn’t from Kawagoe, she wasn’t sure, but he got me information about the festival, which was all in Japanese, and told me, laughing, that it was time to study. The main features of the festival were these huge, ornate carts called dashi that had musicians riding them. The dashi were all from different cities, and each had slightly different instruments. They would stop and face each other to have a “musical battle,” so to speak.

Long line of cars waiting for the dashi to pass
The thing that stands out to me every time I go to a matsuri is the weird space in time it occupies, between traditional and modern. At Fukuro Matsuri, the mikoshi portable shrine was paraded past McDonald’s. And at Kawagoe, the dashi had their music battle in the middle of a street, while cars waited in a long line to be allowed to pass. As the dashi-riding musicians performed, you could hear in the background the bin-bon, bin-bon sound that Japanese traffic lights make while they’re green, so that visually impaired people know it’s safe to cross the street. Kids could buy masks shaped like the faces of various Pokemon, Anpanman, Ultraman, and Doraemon or eat a bag of cotton candy advertising the disgustingly popular all-female idol band AKB48. The food vendors freely borrowed Disney characters to advertise their stalls, along with Hello Kitty, Pikachu, and Doraemon. You could even buy kasutera cakes shaped like Pikachu or Doraemon (Pikachu kasutera is actually my breakfast tomorrow, so I’ll let you know what kasutera is after that). At every festival, there are the enthusiastic participants that carry the mikoshi, wear the festival clothing, act in the performances, or play music on the dashi. And then there are the people who don’t understand the rituals, who come to watch something big and cool and pretty happen and to take pictures of it. And most of those people are Japanese. The same is true at the most famous Buddhist temples. They’re full of schoolchildren on field trips, who probably still know the legends of the place better than I do, but who aren’t necessarily approaching it with a sense of reverence. Then right next to them are the people who are sincerely praying and making offerings to the Buddha. It’s truly an interesting contrast.

Another interesting thing about festivals is of, course, the food. I ate so much today. At the festival alone, I had a chocolate covered banana, a churro (Mexican food at a Japanese festival, yes indeed), a McDonald’s chicken thing (Missus had coupons), and tama-konyaku (round pieces of a chewy, rubbery, surprisingly delicious Japanese root vegetable product, served on a skewer with horseradish mustard), and then after we left, Missus treated me to a dinner of Korean food because there was a new restaurant she wanted to try. Yummmm. Then I came home and naturally wanted to eat candy while doing my homework, so I broke out my current addiction, Kinoko-no-yama, which is a Japanese chocolate shaped like a mushroom. I keep finding it in all different flavors lately (orange chocolate, murasaki imo…) so naturally I have to try all of them. I miss the Japan Term meal stipend, and my dining hall meal plan so much in Japan…

2 Responses so far.

  1. Laurie says:

    Glad you are making the most of all of your experiences. Sounds like quite a few food adventures...which isn't surprising considering your family heritage! Did you read Shannon's blogs about the festivals she has been to? Have you read the material missus gave you about the festival you attended? Ha, Ha. I'm sure that will require some persistence.

    Your pictures from the pokemon center are so cute! We love you!

  2. I definitely relate to the process you're describing. I'm in one of the valleys myself at the moment. Getting violently shoved (more like slapped in the ass!) by an old lady on the subway just for accidentally landing on her foot, and then proceeding to receive the dirtiest looks ever from her for the rest of the subway ride sort-of brought home how many people hate the fact that I'm in this country. I'm realizing more and more that there's no way I'll ever fit in here, or want to live here. I guess I might as well enjoy the food and the touristy stuff while I'm here then.

    Regarding Holman, just remember that man is an idiot and you'll feel better. The more I hear about him and his teaching "methods" the more I hate him.

    The matsuri sounds fun!
    It's always comforting to me when I'm being a tourist if there are Japanese people who are also being tourists.

    Apparently one year at the Asuke festival my professor was approached by a kannushi (priest) who immediately started telling him how disappointed he was that young people didn't understand the festival any more and didn't care.

    It's an interesting contrast.
    It was also interesting when we went to the Tarui festival and we were trying to figure out the purpose of the festival how many people said "Eh, we don't really know!"

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