She stood with cell phone in hand, head down and hair over her face, in the shade of the concrete wall that lined the mouth of the river like braces meant to keep the shoreline straight. The shadows of Mr. Sasaki and Mr. Ohkawa stretched across the street, reaching over to the shrine from which the sacred water was to be borne forth and carried to the festival some several hundred metres away. They stood on the concrete wall busily recording the late afternoon sun as it dipped low over the sea. The heat from the direct light was still uncomfortably strong, though some clouds were beginning to fill the western sky. I tossed a glance at the young woman who stood transfixed to her phone. She seemed to completely ignore the camera and sound man who were filming scenery for possible fill in spots on the program. As for the lone foreigner, she looked my way once, and I turned toward the shrine, camera in hand, and went to seek some of those long evening shadows.
After some quiet time of waiting, a truck pulled up and the men in white from the mountains came out. Mr. Hatanaka spoke with his contact from the shrine. Soon the parade of Shinto robes emerged from the shrine, one person bearing the heavy wooden container filled with the sacred water from the mountain. There was some hasty direction given to me to follow the men. At one point, I had to ask someone about the festival, but this idea seemed hastily put together as it wasn’t clear at first when I should ask. The men paused by a grove of trees along the seashore and it seemed some rite was being performed. Nothing was explained to me. Only when the men continued on their way was I given the signal to follow and shoot pictures. Sometimes they stopped or paused and I was ahead. Other times I was following them like a stray dog hoping to catch a dropped morsel. What I had been told would happen and what ultimately happened didn’t quite match up. I just kept an eye on Mr. Hatanaka for direction.
At the festival site drums were already being beaten. People milled about a grassy field which appeared to be part of some seaside park. A tower was erected in the middle and adorned with red and white bands of cloth. Long flags on bamboo poles indicated that this was the Goshinzan festival, which is held here in Miyanoura Town every summer when typhoons and foul weather leave the town alone. Tables had been set up in a square shape with one end open so that the Shinto priest could stand in the middle. Fruit and other items – presumably there for the rites – were placed on the tables. The water was brought in and the young men lined up near the tables while the elder priest entered the open square. Many officials sat facing the tables, the priest with his back to them. It looked like it was meant to be formal but there was an air of festivity, people laughing and exchanging remarks with smiles on their faces.
I looked around and shot scenes that I thought might be of some importance. The young woman with the cell phone passed by with a tall boyfriend in tow. I guess she had been waiting for him to show up. Mr. Sasaki and Mr. Ohkawa were capturing scenes of the festival while Mr. Uzui stood by with Mr. Hatanaka. After some scrolls of paper had been read and some brief speeches made, it was time to get to the main phase of the festival. Once again it was show time.
The boys in white had ascended to the tower platform and the sacred water was brought up. Branches were dipped in the water and then waved over the expectant crowd. People gathered close to receive a few drops of precious cleansing mountain water. The water gives long life to the trees of Yakushima and so it is believed that if the townsfolk get a few drops they too will live and long and healthy life. I had to get sprayed a little too and then explain to the camera about it.
Next up was a giant fire starter. In the centre of the tower was a thick pole that stood vertically and was wrapped with a long rope. The ends of the rope were stretched out with one end to the sea and the other end to the mountains. Elementary school students and anyone else interested in participating lined up along the rope and picked it up. I came in on the mountain side between some younger students and older students. Someone on the tower called “Umi ike!” and all us mountain people let the rope go slack and walked toward the tower as the umi side pulled on the rope. “Yama ike!” was the cue for us yama side folks to grab the rope and haul as hard as we could toward the mountains. This pulling from side to side caused the centre pole to rotate this way and that, essentially working like a gigantic spinning stick for starting a fire. Whether or not this traditional activity was actually effective at starting a fire I do not know. But eventually the rope could be dropped and someone held up a torch and lit other torches held by the same young men in Shinto robes.
When our tug-of-war fire starter had ended, many students turned to say, “hello,” to me, some of them having already pointed out to their friends that an “Amerika-jin” was there. I haven’t been called an American by Japanese children for many years. It seems around Saitama most kids know that a white man does not necessarily equate an American citizen. In that way, Yakushima really was off the beaten track. I shook hands with the children and said, “Nice to meet you,” and “Good job.” This caused a small stampede as many of my rope-pulling yama team mates joined the crush for a handshake with the foreigner. It was fun and I was glad to be able to speak a few words of English to the kids who tried to repeat my two phrases.
The final stage of the event was the beach bonfire. Archers from the local archery circle took turns shooting flaming arrows at a large white sheet that had been doused with flammable liquid. The sheet was in the centre of a house-shaped pile of wood that was topped with pine boughs. The arrows were meant to ignite the sheet and start the wood pile burning. This was the traditional way to welcome the gods of the mountains to the seaside town in hopes that they would bestow good favour upon the townsfolk.
Each of the three archers shot four arrows and two arrows struck their targets. Unfortunately, the sheet did not ignite, and two robed men were sent over with torches to get the fire started. Drums beat in the background as the flames spread and grew, at last heating the wood to combustible temperature. The fire would burn until dawn I was told. We were not planning to stay that late, however. We’d been up since 3:30 and had been on the move most of the day. It was time to return to the hotel and get some much needed rest.