Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (117): Bigfootin’

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 5, 2011

EVEN the people of Fukushima Prefecture who don’t live near the power plant and were unaffected by the accident must realize that the name of their home will forever be abused as a code word by the opponents of nuclear energy. Yet, despite the dark cloud that’s been painted as a permanent feature onto the skies of their lives, the Fukushimanians continue to go about those lives as they always have — and that means having a good time when the opportunity presents itself.

Early last month, the residents of Fukushima City held Phase Two of the Fukushima Waraji Matsuri, or the Straw Sandal Festival. Since this is a Japanese festival, you’ve probably already guessed that it has nothing to do with normal straw sandals used in the normal way. You guessed right. This event involves only one sandal — which weighs close to two tons, is longer than 12 meters, and is paraded around town by groups of 40 people.

Parades aren’t all they do with Bigfoot, either. They also have three sandal race events, featuring teams of primary school students, women, and adult men.

Phase One of the festival got off on the good foot in early February when they made the other half of the giant sandal pair and offered it to the Haguro Shinto shrine. It’s like stepping into trousers — one foot at a time. The shrine is located on one of the three peaks of Fukushima City’s 275-meter-high Mt. Shinobu, which is often used as subject matter for waka poetry. The second was offered at the Ashio shrine after a day at the races and before being hung vertically from a steel pole with its mate. (The first character in the ashi of Ashio means foot, which may or may not be related.)

The festival took its current form in 1970 when the city government and the Chamber of Commerce decided to update a local custom at least 300 years old known as the Shinobu Sanzan Akatsukimairi, or the Dawn Pilgrimage to the Three Peaks of Mt. Shinobu. In the modern version, the sandals are offered as supplication for “healthy walking”. It’s held over two days, and in addition to the races and the parades, it includes both modern and traditional dancing.

Not only does it take the usual commitment to organize an event of that sort, it also takes about 2,000 bundles of straw, 10 rolls of bleached cotton, several green bamboo poles, and about 70 people working for roughly ten days to make one of the sandals. It also takes money, but that wasn’t a problem this year. Said one of the members of festival’s executive committee:

We thought we’d have a lot less money to work with (considering conditions in the prefecture), but local companies gave us a lot more help than we expected, and we also got contributions. Some companies even gave us more than they usually do.

There was one change in the procedures this year, however. More for the participants’ peace of mind than anything else, the executive committee measured the radiation levels at six points in three locations, as well as that of the straw, and publicly announced them. The straw was clean!

Here’s a short video showing some guys in traditional duds parading with the sandal in a downtown area, a few Shinto priests, and some sparkly young women doing a modern song and dance routine. It’s as good a visual metaphor for contemporary Japan as you’ll find anywhere.

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