IES has several program-sponsored field trips planned for the semester, and the first of these was a trip to Narita for its Taiko Festival! Getting there seemed a little tricky, especially since IES staff isn’t going to hold our hands anymore for this kind of thing and we had to make our way to Narita ourselves. After a short train ride and an even shorter trip on the monorail (in hindsight probably not the most cost-effective way to go), I met up with several IES friends at the Chiba-Minato station. We all got on the same train and headed out to Narita, passing quaint countryside scenery as we went.
We arrived in Narita and left the station as soon as everyone had gathered. First on the agenda was eating eel at a restaurant, and to get there we walked down the main street where the festival was held. There were people everywhere, and shops selling sweets and souvenirs left and right. Our restaurant was near the end of the street, closer to the huge temple. As soon as we arrived, one of the women behind the front desk dashed to the stairs and called up, “The IES people are here!”
We all went upstairs and, after taking off our shoes, crowded into a long room with tatami floors. We sat on cushions on the floor at low tables, and were served food one course at a time–salad, soup, and then the main course. The eel was served in a square red box; four eel steaks atop a bed of white rice. It had a buttery, rich flavor, but was also full of bones and difficult to eat.
After our meal we were given some free time to explore the festival and temple complex. I shopped around with some friends and ended up purchasing a new Daruma doll from one of the vendors. We also tried some of the desserts that were being sold, such as chocolate-covered bananas and “sakura” flavored ice cream.
At the end of our free time we all met up at the main temple to participate in one of the day’s fire purification rites, which are generally open to the public. We took off our shoes and sat off to the side, while the central seating area filled with tourists and locals alike.
Monks in colorful robes gathered before us and sat in a line. One monk did most of the chanting; he also sat closest to the central fire pit. He set the pit ablaze and began to chant before the open flame. Incense burned. Bead rosaries clacked together. The monks chanted together in a drone that filled the whole room. They were invoking the power of Fudomyo-o, a Buddhist divinity; fire represents Fudomyo-o’s wisdom. Another monk beat a giant drum at the back of the room, sending sound pulsing through the audience.
Some of the monks got up and approached the attendees, who handed them purses and bags. The bags were taken over to the flame and held near it for a few seconds before the monks returned them. Our supervisors explained a purse blessed in this way would not only shed any bad things it contained, but also ward off future evils. I had my backpack blessed; I figured it couldn’t hurt.
After the rite was over, we all went back outside and split into groups for a tour of the temple grounds. There were so many buildings that it was difficult to keep track of them all, and all of them were decorated with exquisite carvings and metalwork. For me the most fascinating of the structures we visited was the Okuno-in Cave, or, rather, the doors to it. This particular shrine is only open for three days a year–July 7th through 9th, during the Gion Festival. The shrine itself is 11 meters deep. Seeing the enigmatic doors, half the height of the average human, made me wonder what the inside is like.
The tour ended at the Peace Pagoda, a more recent addition to the temple complex, and we were allowed to wander around by ourselves for a while. My group meandered through the labyrinthine Japanese gardens and stumbled upon a pond filled with very eager fish.
At around 5 PM we made our way back to the main temple, where a stage had been set up for the main drum event. Hundreds of chairs stood across from the stage, but many of them were empty–these chairs were reserved for people who had bought (expensive) tickets. Most of the attendees stood in the aisles around the chairs, crowding the edges. I managed to find a spot behind a group of old ladies, so if I stood on my toes, I had a clear view of the stage.
We stayed for two acts, then decided to head home. The first act consisted of a group of middle schoolers, all pounding on the drums with impressive force for their sizes. The piece they played was relatively simple, but they managed to work some choreography in as well. The second act was a professional group, and it was clear that they had been practicing for much longer, and much more intensely, than the middle schoolers had. Their song was lengthy and complicated, and their choreography was impressive. Their dedication showed clearly in every drum beat.
All in all, the Narita Drum Festival was incredibly fun and a great opportunity to see Japanese culture in action. If you’re in Japan for the festival in future years, I would highly recommend a visit.
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<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Lauren Fellows is a Japanese major, geology minor studying at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. She hails from Boulder, Colorado, and is glad to be going to school in a place with both mountains and a water feature (the weather, however, leaves something to be desired). Lauren is a huge dork who loves drawing, watching anime, writing stories, and taking pictures of toys when she isn’t spending long hours training to beat the Elite Four in the latest Pokémon game. She’s ventured to a few places outside the United States, most notably France and Israel, but this is her first time in Japan and she is SUPER EXCITED. While in Japan she plans to make friends from near and far, experience anime culture in its natural habitat, and explore an urban jungle unlike anywhere she's ever been before. The adventure of a lifetime is just over the horizon!</span></p>