I’ve been feeling a bit fatigued this last week. Maybe it’s the nights drawing in, or maybe I just need a holiday. Anyway, I thought I’d break with tradition; in place of a grand theme, here’s some unconnected snippets of life in autumn.
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The Zen of Notcutts
A couple of weeks ago, I hopped on the train to Yamaguchi, on a student’s recommendation. My destination was the city’s Hanahaku (flower festival), which I assumed was a floral explosion in the city centre. I was a little surprised when the shuttle bus turned sharply away from the town, and meandered through some scrappy, unprepossessing countryside before screeching to a halt in a colossal car park in the middle of nowhere. It was like arriving at some exurban aerodrome.
Inside was stranger still. The flower festival had the aesthetic of a kid-friendly theme park crossed with a provincial garden centre: Chessington World of Herbaceous Borders, if you will. People wandered around a budget Chelsea Flower Show spin-off in one corner, and a sea of brilliant colour oscillated in the wind around an almost empty Eden Project-style dome. A giant inflatable tulip stood, solitary on a hill, watching the harbour. My favourite thing was the swings, arranged in a line to face out towards the choppy sea. The whole place felt powerfully British, actually- I even got some good chips, and ate them under a parasol in the rain.
A World Upside Down
I knew there was something strange going on when a fellow teacher casually mentioned there were police outside. Police? On Hondori? There are never police on Hondori. After my shift, I descended four flights of stairs and stepped out into a world turned upside down.
I’ve never seen anything quite like Hondori on Halloween. Thousands thronged through the arcade, costumed to a man. Jesters, zombie nurses, convicts, power rangers and queens-of-hearts in drag jostled for attention. Two young guys in karate gear wrestled for a crowd. A T-rex got big hugs from strangers. People were visibly smashed, including some who looked a bit too young to be drinking. In a city where the streets are usually sedate and orderly, this bacchanalia was quite the coup. I was too distracted even to take photos.
The Mayor Threw Rice Cakes at Me
If there’s one thing city mayors love above all else, it’s a quirky local festival. So each November, come to Fukuromachi Park and join all and sundry at the Inoko Matsuri festival, where a rope is tied with eighty-eight ropes to eighty-eight tough-as-nails bamboo trees, causing it to float above the ground. Bounce up and down on the rock, clinging on to a bamboo pole as you receive a blessing.
Later, as you mill about between festival organisers in blue happi coats and perhaps try some sweet, spherical donuts, someone will haul drums into the charmed circle. A band will beat a manic rhythm as fires* are ceremonially lit by torches. And while you’re entranced by the pulsing drums and the flames and the sheer primal spirit of it all, the mayor and other local dignitaries will get up on the floating rock and throw mochi (pounded rice cakes) at you. If you catch one, they’re delicious when briefly steamed and seasoned with soy sauce; I’m told you can put them in the toaster too.
Finally, after some delay, four young men will enter the circle and cut the ropes, four at a time, causing the bamboo trees to spring back upright with a shake of the leaves. The rock will slowly sink to the floor, and the ceremony will be over. Supposedly, the roots of the festival are a medieval fertility ritual, but it all felt deeply Polynesian to me.
A Flood of Colour
Autumn is in full swing here. I still haven’t put my heating on yet, and it’s warm and sunny today, but the nights are getting cold. So I guess it’ll happen soon. On Friday I should be heading to Sandankyo, up in the mountains, to take in some of those legendary Japanese autumn colours. For now, I’ll leave you with some snapshots of autumn in Hiroshima. I refuse to call it fall.