How To Ward Off the Plague with Demons and How Great It Is To Discover the Wonderful People Who Are Family
02.11.2016 - 07.11.2016 62 °F
I always wanted to see a local Japanese festival. Little did we know that when we arrived in Onomichi on November 2, we'd walked right into the middle of one. A unique one. One that is held only in Onomichi.
It's called Onomichi Betcha Matsuri. Not "betcha" as in "yah, sure, ya betcha", but more like "beh-cha." This is a festival (matsuri) has its roots in the bubonic plague! As getHiroshima.com explains, "When, in 1808, plague was sweeping through the porttown of Onomichi, the lord in control at the time ordered local shrines to perform purification rights in an attempt to ward of the disease. The rights were to be performed over 3 days and two nights and, in addition, an omokoshi portable shrine was carried through the streets with young men dressed a lion and three demons named beta, shouki and soba at the head of the procession." So today Onomichi--nowhere else in Japan--declares a city-wide holiday between November 1 and November 3. In the old part of the city, where we stay, virtually every non-retail business that wasn't necessary was closed and some of the retailers were closed as well. Everyone was out on the streets--fortunately with sunny weather and a high of the lot to mid- 60s.
The festivities begin in earnest with the procession of the mikoshi (portable shrines), led by a Shinto priest, down city streets to the beat of drums and rhythmic chanting. But the real fun began when the three demons showed up, two of whom are shown here. The thought is that if the demons bop small children with a bamboo whisk or a bamboo pole, those children will be healthy for the next year. So the demons waded into the huge crowd to bop as many kids as they could.
Festivities continued into the evening at various shrines around town. Onomichi is dominated by a huge and very steep hill. Here are the steps up to one shrine. At the top was the requisite torii gate. Beyond that people were cooking festival street food. Like yakisoba (fried noodles). And here are sausages and cuttlefish on the grill. And what's a festival without music?
A few days later, we took a bus out to Innoshima, a nearby island, where my father's family comes from. A few years ago, we had totally surprised my father's first cousin and his wife by dropping in unexpectedly. Because they don't speak English, we wondered if any of their children might. So after we returned to the US, Pam wrote a letter in English, which a Tokyo friend was then so kind to write out in kanji with the appropriate niceties. The letter was sent and then we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally we gave up.
Until earlier this year, when lo and behold, Pam got an e-mail from the couple's son--her second cousin. Yes, he could speak a bit of English. Yes, he was happy to hear from us. And several months later, his company sent him to Seattle to a convention. He was supposed to meet us for a day after the convention was over, before he flew back to Japan. But alas, that was the day that Pam ended up in the hospital with a bad case of vertigo. So she never saw him, leaving Dick and her aunt and uncle to entertain him.
The long and the short of it is that we were invited to have lunch with him, his family, and his parents (the elderly couple whom we met in 2014) in Innoshima. And what a lunch it was! And this photo doesn't even show all of it!
After lunch, we were invited to the elderly couple's home for tea. But before tea, the wife of the second cousin offered to dress both Pam and Dick in kimonos! It took a bit less than an hour to fit Pam into her kimono and about half that time for Dick.
All in all, we were treated like beloved long lost family members. It was wonderful to find out how nice our Japanese relatives are! It's a day we'll long remember (even if we did catch the wrong bus trying to get back into town and ended up circumnavigating Innoshima before we were able to catch the right bus).