Hauling Renyu on a mikoshi through Kamiyubetsu.
I’m not sure how it was that Nicole and I found ourselves, Saturday last, sandwiched altogether too intimately in the middle of a congo team of drunken Japanese people, wielding a broomstick above our heads, shouting ‘seiya-sa!’ into the low ceiling of a Japanese salon called ‘Cut In-Bless.’ And, re-reading the sentence I just wrote, only now do I think I can fully interface with the (dare I say) ludicrosity of it, from the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest-esque tilt to the sentence as a whole, to the dubiousness of the hyphenation of the salon’s name, the reasoning behind which is only known, they say, to Mrs. Suzuki, the original cut in-blesser. Cut in-blessed?
If you were to look in the windows of the Cut In-Bless salon that night, you would have found yourself confronted with what I think (but am not entirely sure) was the last formal rehearsal for the Kamiyubetsu Matsuri (Festival) carrying of the mikoshi, which is translated often as ‘portable shrine;’ though those in the know call it, rather loftily, a divine palanquin. The idea behind this is that a Shinto god, in our case, Renyu, descends from the main shrine of the town and climbs into this divine palanquin, and we, as palanquin-bearers, hoist him up onto our shoulders and parade him around the town, bouncing him up and down for his pleasure and sitting him down upon sawhorses at various points in the town that the townspeople might pray to him.
All of this was unknown to us on Saturday morning, standing before Renyu with our cameras and our awe. The palanquin itself resembled a small building, little stairs leading up to a Japan lacquer veranda, ornate golden doors firmly closed, the eaves decorated with gold leaf and tassles. All of this was set upon a lattice of long wooden beams — the burden our unlucky shoulders were to bear, on and off, for the ensuing three hours. The whole contraption weighed around 400 kilos, or about 900 pounds, which means that, between the twenty of us that would soon hoist the thing up onto our shoulders, each would bear the burden of about 23 kilos, or about 50 pounds, on one shoulder. Saturday morning, I was not in the right mind to do this math, and I am glad that this was so.
After a brief ceremony, we got into position, clapped (I’m assuming as a way of saying, “Hey Renyu, we’re gonna pick you up now but like five of these guys have never done it before so hold on,”) and lifted the palanquin into the air. I didn’t expect 900 pounds to come up as fast as it did, but when you’re standing in the midst of what is for all intents and purposes nineteen power cleans, I guess there’s not much that can be expected.The problem here, however, is that, as I mentioned before, I am seven inches taller than the national average. That means that the palanquin itself rode about seven inches below my shoulder. Picture if you will, Charles standing there, clapping his hands, eyes glazed, mind furiously attempting to catch up with the ritual and ceremony and meaning of the spectacle occurring all around him, and within the span of maybe a second and a half, nineteen other men power clean 900 pounds to about seven inches directly below his shoulder.
The punchline here is pain.
The studio audience is going wild. Tom Bergeron is smiling, half laughing, looking into the camera, offering witty commentary as they play it again in slow motion, the framerate skewed, color blurry. He freezes on the moment of impact, drawing a football-replay-style circle around my shoulder and says, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” The studio audience loves it. My life is America’s Funniest Home Video. Only now do I realize what a terrible (and terribly brilliant) premise for a television program this is.
But the palanquin moves on. Renyu has disciples to whom he must present himself: places to go, people to see. We stopped first at a general goods store, where the staff had assembled outside to pay respects to the priest (the monk?) who read a short prayer and performed a short ritual. Next we walked Renyu to an old-folks home, the eyes of octa- and no doubt nonagenarians glinting up from their wheelchairs and walkers, then turning down, their bodies bending and bowing to the deity. I was quietly stricken, standing some fifty feet away, leaning on the back of a pickup truck, drinking my bottled green tea and talking to Nicole in my young-person’s English, by the sight of these elderly looking up to Renyu. They were born in the 1920s and 1930s; they had seen World War II come and go; they watched as Americans came into their country and dismantled the power of the emperor; they watched the political and cultural metamorphoses of the 1960s and 1970s as their children grew up and moved out of the house; fortunes were built and demolished as the century closed and now Japan is forging its way through the early years of this new millennium; and here is Renyu, permeating the air, the trees, the concrete around him; here is Renyu, bouncing on our backs, taking his annual tour of the town, watching the world circle around him, not a day older now than he was when these worshiping elderly were born.
But we lifted Renyu again, each time getting just a little bit better, each lift getting just a little bit easier. Again we shouted “seiya-sa,” to each other, chanting as we step in unison, about 50 pounds on each of our backs, variously hunched. Renyu, up above, bounced and played, the red-orange tassels swaying and baubles jingling in a faintly Eastern way, like bells tolling through pre-dawn mist in the hills. The morning wore clouds but she reluctantly gave way to noon, clad in shimmering sunlight through fog, dappling the dusty streets and corrugated roofing of the procession’s path.
I don’t believe I’ve yet encountered anything so conducive to fostering the Eastern collective mentality as carrying something as heavy as we did. Alone, I am powerless to lift the palanquin — alone, any of us would be. But together, working as one body, we could lift the full 900 pounds onto our shoulders in one quick, second-long maneuver. If one person stops pulling (or in this case, lifting) his weight, everyone else must contribute, or the palanquin falls. But by far the best incentive not to go rogue, as it were — the best incentive to move with the group is the rhythmic rising and falling of the palanquin itself. The second I fell out of step, the weight of the wooden beam would crash down upon me; and for every step that I didn’t square myself away, another crash would land on my shoulders, another pile driven down my spinal column. My shoulders aching for respite from the abuse, I clung to the beam above me, pressing myself into the wood and trying, as best I could, to merge myself with the beast above me, rearing and bucking with the energy thrust up through its bearers below. It didn’t serve to try and carry the thing, to try and propel your energy up and into the thing. It didn’t serve to think of carrying in the traditional sense — to think of pushing against gravity and moving another object. Lifting, in the way that I have always known, didn’t work here.
Instead, it seemed to require an act of faith, almost — faith in yourself that you’re holding this up, faith in the group around you that the measly 50 pounds of force each of you is pressing upwards is enough to sustain the 900 pounds the palanquin is pressing back down. The force that I exerted didn’t seem to move the weight at all — it was almost as if I was pressing into a wall, or upwards into a ceiling — it simply wouldn’t give, no matter how hard I pushed. So instead I submitted to Renyu my 50 pounds, and I moved with the palanquin; and physics, dependable and mathematic, sat atop the whole thing and tallied the forces our silly bones and muscles were pressing up against gravity and determined that this sufficed.
I went home that day with bruises on my shoulders and my Individual’s Spirit broken. My back ached from hunching and my legs could barely be counted upon to lift me the six inches from the outside into my house. And sitting on my sofa, typing away, I feel like I ought to know something more about physics, or something more about Renyu, or something more about Shinto. But I can’t access it in any normal sense of the word. I can’t clack out the words to explain what I know now that I didn’t know on Friday; nor can I say with any degree of certainty that I do in fact know something I didn’t know on Friday.
But I guess it’s a little bit humbling to think that for three hours, I went for a stroll with a group of foolhardy Japanese, their centuries-old tradition, and a weight that would have straight-up murdered any of us alone.
Ed. note, 12 Sept 2022: For the palanquin-carrying ceremony, I borrowed a pair of traditional tabi shoes from Mrs. Suzuki, under the expectations that I'd return them afterwards. However, through a combination of thoughtlessness and growing anxiety, I neglected to get back in touch with Mrs. Suzuki even once over the course of my 4 years in Yubetsu, the tabi becoming a bit of an albatross as they grew dustier and dustier by my front door, until, on the eve of my final departure, I threw them out. I consider the non-returning of the tabi to be one of my greatest embarrassments during my time in Yubetsu.