There is one event that overshadows all others in the city of Hamamatsu, and that is Hamamatsu Matsuri. Preparation for the event, which is in May, begins in February,
The festival honors the birth of newly born babies. Enormous kites, some bigger than the average Japanese living room, are raised up high into the air. The kites bear the names of the new babies of the area and are flown by the entire town. Most spectacular is when the mom, dad, and baby are all hoisted up onto the shoulders of the town and fly the kite themselves. The whole town cheers them on and wishes them good luck and strength in their new life. It really is incredible to see the face of a smiling baby raised up in the air holding the rope to its own gigantic kite.
The city is divided into small blocks, which each have their own unique kite design. There is a very strong sense of solidarity within each block. Pictured above is 山手（yamaté), the block of the friends I was visiting.
The festivities go on for three days. Like all matsuri in Japan, what one participates in is an experience that transcends logic and reason. Some matsuri are more dangerous than others (see previous posts of Hase Matsuri and Naked Man Festival….), and one would think that a festival where one flies kites in the air would be pretty safe, but even here there was chaos at times. The kites are enourmous and can really slam down onto the earth at high speeds when descending. One woman told me causally that a man’s skull was impaled by the sharp bamboo spine of one of the kites a few years back.
The kites are flown all day during the hours of sunlight, and when the sun sets everyone goes back to their own neighborhoods and parades around the streets for hours with bugles and candlelit paper lanterns. The town makes its way around the entire neighborhood to the house of each newborn baby. The families greet the group from their doorstep, and everyone cheers, wishing them good luck and prosperity in life. Snacks like sushi and chicken skewers are brought out on huge platters, and entire barrels of saké are cracked open and drunk from huge salad-bowl-sized dishes.
The togetherness of society here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the west. I really think that matsuri (festivals) are what oxygenates the lifeblood of the Japanese spirit. Younger generations may feel otherwise, and indeed many city children have no interest in taking part in such local events. What these festivals do though is create situations of togetherness that aren’t experienced anymore in any other way with our new domesticated lifestyles behind clean clothes and computer screens. There is no need for a reason why, the healthy smiles of the people living in these towns speak for themselves.
There exists a world outside of the world that we humans inhabit. This is one way of seeing it. Joseph Conrad writes of it in Heart of Darkness. It is the jungle. The uncivilized. The wild. It is the truth that we attempt to build layers and layers upon and bury down with concrete, screens, jobs, and electric wires. A constant humming that grows louder and louder as we silence ourselves from our distractions. A deep and immense chanting like the repetitions of thousdands of monks that seems to come from the heart of the planet. Our hearts resonate as we draw near to it, but we shut it out. The terror. A connection that we are ashamed of, that we hide behind our styled haircuts and our clothes. What is it? That we are a part of this infinite turning of the wheel of life and death, that we ourselves are beasts on this floating rock? That our individual lives are like the raindrops falling from the sky of the forest during the monsoon: completely and totally indistinguishable from all of the other drops around us, and very, very, very brief?
You can visit this place anywhere in the world. It is the land where civilization cannot be found. Where the plants, insects, mammals, and reptiles crawling in the hills reign. Drive far enough away from the cities, hike deep enough into the woods, and you will feel it. Society becomes remote. You have no cell phone signal or internet. You couldn’t connect communicate with the new world if you wanted to.
You are overcome by a feeling of being swallowed by something much much larger than yourself, but that you have somehow managed to survive and experience the beast from within.
High in the mountains, the beginning of a river. Perfect purity. The colours of this photo were not altered in any way. Are we too a part of this?
Bamboo groves of Arashiyama, Kyoto.
A metaphor for the vast sea of neurons that facilitate your creation of reality. Soft voiceless poets blowing gently in the wind. A metaphor for the balancing of the incessant desire to differentiate the beauties between boundaries,particulars, and individual beauties, and the inevitable (and therefore comforting?) drive towards melting into oneness. Warm spring breeze. Green.
Hanamizu-ki, the American Dogwood. In 2012, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of over 3,000 sakura to Washington DC, the US shipped +3,000 dogwood trees to Japan. They’re quite popular here and many streets are lined with them. Like all of the seasonal flowers though, for most of the year they’re just lying in wait.
The hills are alive again. Throughout the year in the countryside, if you hear a rustling of leaves up in the hills, usually you will look up to find a few deer staring back at you. In April though, just as often these sounds can be attributed to the footsteps of Japanese grandmas. Yes, you read that correctly.
There are scores of them out there right now as I type, 4-5′ tall ewoks, crawling around and peeking their heads in the shrubs with little wooden walking sticks. They’re out on their own sort of easter egg hunt, foraging for mountain vegetables that spring has brought to the forests. Fern sprouts, mountain mushrooms, sanzai; all sorts of things that pop up only once a year and that you can’t find in the grocery store. I imagine they get quite competitive.
Of everything on their foraging list, I think the most prized is takénokō: baby bamboo. They cut off the roots and dig it up with shovels. It’s quite delicious and very healthy. You can put it in all sorts of dishes–salads, soups, and stews being most common. My favorite is yaké, just skewered and grilled over coals as-is.
Above: raw takénokō