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October 15 , 2002: Happy Clothes and Head Blows

It's been a strange time here on the island. Marked by consecutive weekends of two gaijin [foreigners] on the island at once, the town (and I) are still recovering.

The weekend before last Andrew came to visit. He arrived via "magic bus" and overnight ferry. As the taxi pulled up in front of the high school, my fellow sensei stood up at their desks and crowded the windows. As would be expected, Andrew wowed them with his Japanese skills and manners; he was an instant hit. While he was napping at my aparto in the morning, the office was abuzz with talk of the "handsome boy" who looks so Japanese. We were quite the spectacle in the junior high school and the principle took pictures of students shaking Andrew's hand as I looked on. They are now hanging in the school's lobby. The rest of the weekend we were inundated with social invitations. We sang karaoke with other teachers (Andrew was serenaded by my co-workers with a song that included his name—Hattori) and ate all over town.

It was an interesting experience to have Andrew visit me in my element. I got to show him around "my" island and I learned a lot more about my colleagues and companions with a translator in tow. For instance, he told me that the kanji I was given for my name had been explained to me incorrectly. It had been translated to me as "Give to Naru Island." I thought it was a great name and I felt it was appropriate—my experience should be guided by what I can give to Naru. Oh no—that's not what it means. Translated and confirmed by Andrew it means "Naru's blessing" (hold the laughter, please)!

Last week at work was fairly uneventful. I'm still finding my way through this maze of team-teaching. The highlight of the week was definitely my final class of the week. The week's theme was directions and I had the students racing on a scavenger hunt of sorts. The students really enjoyed getting out of the classroom, but because of school rules I had to accompany each team. This meant I sprinted all over the school grounds six times in 15 minutes. This prompted an invitation to anchor the teacher's relay at Naru's town sports festival next weekend. Oy.

This past weekend Dwayne-sensei, my predecessor, organized a homecoming. He had timed his visit to coincide with Naru's Shrine Festival. I had first heard of the festival over the town's loudspeakers, which broadcast inside of all of the shops and restaurants in town. While at the Ueki shop (my friends who own the liquor store), an announcement came on, of which I only understood matsuri [festival], and the date. Looking at my friends with confusion, it was explained to me as such: "The gods usually live in the shrine. One day a year they come out. We carry their houses." Really. I had no idea what to expect but Dwayne was coming back to carry the mikoshi [God house or model temple].

Yesterday morning as Dwayne and I walked to the Ueki house for lunch, I noticed that town had been decorated with bamboo branches, white paper flags, and lanterns. After lunch at the Ueki house, Dwayne and Yoshinao changed into "happy clothes" (tight, white synthetic pants and a traditional shirt and a headband) and left for the temple. I was then taken to the ferry port, where boats sporting colorful flags and bamboo puttered around the harbor. The biggest boat led the other 15 ocean-ward. It was loaded with the largest mikoshi, 30-40 of Naru's men, and, of course, beer. Lots of beer. After watching the boats motor out to sea, we jumped into the van and drove to another port where we waited (with a sizeable crowd) for their return.

Each boat came close to shore and chaos erupted. Not knowing what to expect, I was holding the hand of one of the children I was with. As I bent down to talk to him I was hit in the head. Hard. Then I got hit in the shoulder. The crowd was scrambling to pick up the prizes—the men on the boats were throwing bags containing mochi cakes. This bears no resemblance to parades in the States where princesses gently throw chocolates (or cheese in upstate New York), and children scurry to pick up the sweets. Here, men hurl the bags at shore—and mochi cakes are not light, airy confections—it's like being hit by a one-kilo bag of bread dough. So instead of getting hit, I tried to catch them or dodge them and pick them up after they landed. That was easier said than done; I was pushed and shoved all over the docks, mostly by Naru's senior citizen community. And they weren't grabbing the cakes for the children, they were being tucked into pockets and collected in bags.

After all the boats had come and gone, we raced back to the ferry port to reap the benefits once more. While I was helping the kids count their mochi cakes, I was suddenly grabbed around the shoulder and promptly whacked on the head. I looked up and was face to face with an enormous red mask and a long white wig. I was visibly startled by the event; my friends and students laughed and then explained it was a god giving me good luck for the year. Hit me again, please.

Returning to the Ueki shop, I helped prepare for the coming parade by pouring cups of sake and putting out small cans of beer. The men paraded through town, led by the sensei, or senior members of town and the men dressed as gods. I was repeatedly whacked on the head as I offered them beer, sake, and food. Then the mikoshi arrived. 20 men carry the largest of the god houses and, after enjoying treats at different stations, make it dance in return. The storeowners or residents offer money to the shrine and the mikoshi moves to the next station. In all, there were five or six mikoshi, as well as three- to five-year-old girls dressed in silk robes and elaborate gold crowns with scarlet lips, and a giant papier-mache whale on wheels. I was beside myself with delight.

It was incredible to see the town come together to celebrate and honor their gods. It was a visual feast—the bamboo and white paper banners blowing in the breeze, the brightly-colored flags flapping as boats charged out of the harbor and the white "happy clothes" of the men contrasted against the black, red, and gold temple that they shouldered. As I returned home, hours later, the sounds of men still carrying the mikoshi were echoing throughout the island as they snaked back to the temple. The experience of being able to participate in some of the events of the festival—even if just holding the hand of one of the kids, offering osake to older community members, or listening to my students, with such excitement, trying to explain the festival to me in English—was amazing. Being absorbed and welcomed into this small community is an incredible feeling and I am very grateful for their kindness.

I hope you are all doing well and know how frequently I think of you and miss you!


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2002 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475