It started as an innocuous Facebook invite from Ken Takeda, a Japanese American friend who is very involved with the Japanese American community in SF. The vividly pictured post with half-naked, laboring masses seemed to say, “Come help us carry the mikoshi shrine at the Cherry Blossom Parade in Japantown!” I felt a twinge of gratitude swell within, as I always feel when I am invited to something. Then, with a smile like I had finished a relaxing cigar (I don’t smoke), I closed my laptop to go to sleep. Yeah, that would seem fun, but I was in a basketball league that Sunday. AND WE WERE GOING TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP.
It’s been how many years since I’ve lived in my dear city of Nichinan? Almost six years! The memory of it has faded to the point where I cannot recall it at will. All I can recall are vague tidbits of the streets and riding my scooter by myself along the countryside. Very occasionally, a student or teacher’s face pops up in my head only to get washed away. It makes me wonder whether there’s something wrong.
It was in the interest of reviving these old memories that I was drawn to the mikoshi. When I attended a tsunami relief function and saw Roji Oyama, who was one of the organizers of the taru mikoshi carrying group, he somewhat convinced me how fun it would be to carry the 1000 pound shrine through Japantown. I still had that that minor basketball conflict, but fortunately, it all worked out after being blown out by the eventual true champions the previous week. It was set!
So the next Sunday, I arrived early because I knew what was up. I had done this a few years before. Yeah the parking would be an issue, but it was more than that. THE CLOTHES WERE GOING TO RUN OUT! You didn’t want all the shorts to be gone by the time you arrived, leaving you with nothing but the fundoshi. Yes, it was what the hardcore people did, but I’m not hardcore that way. There’s plenty of ways to prove myself here.
As I entered the dressing hall, I saw a long line of men choosing outfits, receiving their clothes from ladies, and dressing up. They were all flamboyant in their own way, choosing this flashy color or wearing this nicely-patterned headband. It was exhilarating to see people humble themselves when talking and showing how different they were from each other. I myself chose a blue jacket with a gold circle of “Sho Chiku Bai” in the back, a tan belt, and a headband. Others chose to forgo jackets, or shorts for that matter.
Now there was plenty of time to walk around Japantown before the call time of late afternoon! My friends and I, old and newly met, went around in our tabis, sometimes being confused with the other anime cosplayers who were out and about. The scene was so different from the festivals in Nichinan that I could not awake many of those old memories. These were different friends in a different city of San Francisco. However, there was one thing that was familiar: how easy it was to make new friends here, just like in the old days! I sat with them, eating food that I’ve never eaten before either here or in Nichinan. The Japanese people around spoke differently as well, and I didn’t hear anyone sound like he or she was from Miyazaki.
When it finally came time to carry the shrine, EVERYONE was ready. The shrine was a massive collection of black wooden platforms, sake barrels, and sacred-looking ropes attaching them together, topped with a golden Japanese phoenix. A slender man, the aged master who commanded us all, swayed on it, directing us with a whistle. We did a few practice lifts and stretches before it came time to almost go into the streets. AND IT WAS ELECTRIFYING TO SEE EVERYONE GET READY–almost like right before a basketball game tip-off with many people watching. Some people shouted at the top of their lungs randomly or jumped up and down like they were ready to fight. I myself stretched to the hizzy. I was as limber as I ever was, to the point where I felt I could sidestep and dance around any angry dog. I knew that this was about your legs, not your shoulders.
When we finally lifted the shrine for real and marched out into the street, I was on the right side, right underneath the platform under which the sake barrels and our swinging master stood. It was heavy on my right shoulder, yet not heavy at all. Everyone lifted together, all shouting “Seiya!” in unison. There were the Polynesian dancers, Caucasians, African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Chinese Americans all strong, tall, and full of heart, lifting it high on their shoulders, which were above my shoulders. I placed it on my hands above my own shoulders, and with every step of gait, the pillar smashed down on those shoulders, only to be lifted up and be smashed down again! They were too tall! I yelled, “Seiya!” That’s fine. I’ll put it on my hands. “Seiya!” Lift the shrine all the way up on your hands, as the commanders signaled. We yelled, “Seiya!” Stop and put it down for now. We yelled again, “Seiya!” Now put it up again. “SEIYA!” I growled instead. Bring it on, I smiled. This is not the hardest thing I have done.
The crowd gazed at us at all sides. It was like an undulating sea of people, cheering us on. Shouting, “Seiya,” all the way, I lifted my gaze to the windows. There were people standing, cheering from the balcony. I met eyes with a young woman there, looking directly at me. She pounded her cheering fist at me, and I turned away, for my gaze was enough acknowledgment. I had turned beast-like from the challenge of this weight. I AM NOT GOING TO LOSE TO THIS WEIGHT. I WILL YELL, “SEIYA,” TO THE SKY WITH EVERY STEP UNTIL WE ARE DONE!
We passed the Queen’s Court. “SEIYA!” Extra loud! It was not my legs that were giving way; it was my voice! I had lost it for a few moments. No matter, I’ll just mutter, “seiya…,” for now. ”STOP,” the masters commanded, and the runners deftly slid under the platform to place the braces.
NOW THREE CLAPS AND ROAR! I clenched my fists and roared to the sky. LIFT ALL THE WAY TO TOP! Arm’s a bit shaky now. By now, the pillars rested safely on my shoulders. I guess all the tall people are tired now. Now it gets heavier on my legs. I feel like I’m carrying much more weight than before. Now we’re approaching a bit of how I trained for basketball…then all of the sudden…
We stop. I look around, and the crowd is sparse and scattered. The streets look like regular San Francisco buildings; it could be any regular street in San Francisco. We are ordered to put the pillars down one final time as the bracers are placed. I was shocked. It was finished as quickly as it started.
I looked to my friends behind me, smiled, and gave high fives. THAT WAS SO EXCITING! WE DID IT! I stepped out from underneath the pillars to feel the power in my legs returning. I danced in joy, and my steps were light and quick, enough to avoid any angry dog. This was not like Nichinan; this was an experience all in itself.
(Then we would help carry the mikoshi parts back).
Patrick Allan Co, Miyazaki, 2006-08
Photos from Patrick Allan Co, Jason Nou, and David Toshiyuki