Jinja Matsuri in ****-machi
I lived and worked in northern **** prefecture from 1996-1998. In my
spare time I rode my mountain bike all over the northern part of the
prefecture. One of my favorite treks took me to a village not far from
where I was living. There were many steep hills surrounding the village.
Anyway, on one Saturday in late June of 1997 I left my bike at the bottom
of one of these hills (I had climbed almost all of them), confident that of
course no one would steal the bike (it did disappear once, but was found a
few hundred feet away under the shed of a farmer who had pinned a
carefully-written note in dictionary english to the seat: "I seize own's
bicycle under rain" - he had moved it to get it out of the rain). The
village people were used to me by then and would always bow and ask me how
I was enjoying the village, and would remind me to be sure to come to the
"*****" (a word I didn't understand) ceremony in late July at the local
So on this one occasion I started up the trail going up this one small
mountain, only to be met by a number of polite farmers who had come
sprinting over from their work in a nearby potato field, bowing
apologetically, blocked my way up the mountain path, then 'politely'
escorted me down to where my bicycle was parked. They told me in Japanese
that I shouldn't go up the mountain because 'it was about to start raining
and the mountain is very dangerous in the rain' (there wasn't a cloud in
the sky that particular day, and I had learned to hear such expressions for
what they really meant, as 'it's none of your dang business why we don't
want you to go up the mountain')
Back in my town, the following Wednesday I taught my local weekly English
gig at the local police station, where I was on friendly terms with the
local police. This week there was a weird tension in the air, and at one
point the chief of police came into the lesson to participate. He stood
there smoking and whispering to another officer, and I caught bits of their
conversation in Japanese (which I wasn't supposed to understand)
"...*****-machi no mondai..." ('the problem in ***** village', the village
where I had been escorted off the trail leading up the mountain). Then
later the conversational part of the lesson turned to the discussion of
'drugs' in America. All sorts of questions: did I personally know anyone
in America who 'took' cannabis. How about in Japan? I started to get a
real case of the creeps: under the eyes of constant scrutiny in my town
and in a very visible government position I had been extremely careful and
had never gone near any cannabis while within the borders of Japan, so what
were these guys getting at? The lesson ended amiably and nothing further
was said, at least outwardly, though after having been in Japan for awhile
already I had definitely learned to read social atmospheres as an indicator
as to what was really going on apart from what was being said.
Later in July, I finally put it all together: In the company of a group of
Japanese friends I went to ****-machi's shrine festival. As we stood in
the front part of the shrine grounds a group of men wearing headbands
appeared at the foot of the mountain I had been blocked from hiking on.
They were carrying something enormous which at closer glance turned out to
be a huge bunch of dried hemp plants 'from last year', which of course I
recognized instantly, bound together in a sort of column. The distinctive
leaves had been stripped except at the very top of the bundle, and the
whole thing was about 20 feet [6 metres] high. They stood it upright in a clearing
and anchored guy lines to keep it upright.
The ceremony consisted of young men standing in a circle around the huge
hempen column with their backs to the column, and trying to set fire to it
by tossing flaming torches backwards over their shoulders. They tried to
aim for the leafy crown of the column, and eventually they hit it, and it
began to burn. Eventually the guy lines holding the whole thing up burned
too, and it collapsed in a deluge of sparks and a familiar smell.
As so often as I had experienced in Japan, one of the local
English-speakers approached me to tell me about the whole ceremony, as if I
hadn't been able to figure out what was going on. With him was the chief
of police from ****. They explained that the large column was made out
of 'rice stalks' (I smiled and nodded, and naughtily said in Japanese "Oh!
single stalks of rice plants 18 'shaku' high growing on a mountain?
omoshiroi naa! ["interesting, huh!]") and that the ceremony was intended to
pray for a good rice harvest. The local people, he said, had in former
times woven cloth from the stalks of these 'special, very high-growing rice
plants' and this ceremony was a holdover from those times. I knew this was
bulls**t and they knew it was bulls**t; I wondered if they knew that I knew
that it was bulls**t?
Months later I was in **** city and visiting a place that did indigo
dyeing. During our conversation about hemp and textiles I was not
surprised to learn that the 'hemp ceremony' of ****-machi was famous all
over the prefecture. I learned that the village had special permission to
continue to grow hemp on one mountain, for the shrine festival.
So what had happened, I presume, was that when I was going up the mountain
there I had been intercepted by local farmers who thought that I was just
another gaijin who was after their hemp. Truth was, at the time I had *no*
idea that there was hemp growing on the mountain there, and that due to the
current twisted way that people are taught to think about hemp today in
Japan I would not have gone near the place for fear of embarrassing my
Maybe next time I visit I will bring the villagers some of the indigo hemp
cloth I spun and dyed years ago while living in California, as an offering
in their hemp shrine.