Bonden: Pageant | About Town | Rush
I was advised by all parties to leave all valuables in safer climes as I would be actively shoved and tossed about and so the contents of my pockets could not be guaranteed to stay with me.|
Dazed at the start of day two, Bonden festival.
The Bonden were lined up in front of city hall. The wind was blowing a more severe sort of atmosphere. More men in less clothes; pajamas all around. Straw shoes. Men huddled in their pajamas inside the abandoned Kamakura, drinking sake and eating strips of dried shredded cuttlefish.
Some official-looking men also in the traditional pajamas started the day by making speeches, serving sake, cuttlefish and uneboshi at 9.40am and later walked in front of the group.
Fireworks for noise announced the start of the procession. We pushed our Bonden in line behind some others. The mood yesterday had been some pleasant pageantry; the mood today was serious jocular pursuit. We march our giant Bonden along until we reach the group in front of us.
Each movement is accompanied by chants of Jya-sa! in call-and-response. Our group and all the other groups, separate motivational chants. Yamanaka Shitoshi in straw shoes with a near constant smile who yesterday sang the Bonden song today blows a whistle to issue commands.
I was the designated hornblower until a large older man asked to blow on it and then resisted returning it. I was feeling a bit petty about having my job stolen until I realized this was my chance to experience all the Bonden and keep my teeth from being knocked in as I would invariably end up shoved with a large shell pressed to my face.
Ladies didn't carry the Bonden, but before the affair started they were part of the procession, making loads of their own noise.
As we paraded through the narrow streets of town for smiling snapshotting onlookers,
most of the whistle commands and excitement surrounded powerlines. The culture of tall sculptures clashes with the low-strung haphazard above-ground power and phone lines common in Japanese cities. Each Bonden nearly dragged down some power line on each street. And each time we would have to shift from a proud erect stance to a sort of half-erect leaning stance held by a bunch of our men running under the powerlines. Running fast, and working hard to bring the Bonden back erect, because you're only vulnerable to be passing when you're not standing upright.
I was warned beforehand that there was aggressive competition, that other teams would try to pull on our fabric skirt to pull us back, there was lots of jockeying for position. But it seems there was a pretty strict code of conduct that didn't leave room for much monkeying around with the procession. When the Bonden were erect, they were not to be passed. It was only when they were relaxed, at an angle, or laying down, carried on the shoulders, that one Bonden could pass another Bonden. Various Bonden had height troubles with power lines, but a low-slung bridge presented a great free-for-all.
A great rushing and chanting and burst of energy and hauling and heaving on these heavy poles with their odd loads, by nature unbalanced and unwieldy, now used as battering tools and rallying points for groups of men in pajamas pushing against each other in the streets. To bring an end to this chaos, I saw our team erect our Bonden and then some members rushed immediately to help the team behind us erect their Bonden to establish a more impervious lineup.
The team was taking turns; only one person carried the Bonden at a time,
while others would hold back the skirts. Carrying the Bonden was a major effort, I discovered, when I took my turn. Two hands around the thick pole sticky with serious grip tape, I tried to lift and lean but I could not a cantilever serve for something so supremely top heavy. Each of my efforts to lift was immediately followed by serious assistance as my weak arms let the Bonden lean hard and fast towards some buildings. And still there was more tutorial from yesterdays cantor; they were all quite eager to have my try to succeed holding the group phallus.
When you're under a Bonden,
you can look up his skirts
Bonden, as it has been explained to me after some drinks in a darkened "snack" club, refers to the penis. The Bonden festival is for men, groups of men design and decorate large phalluses and carry them through town to the temple. It's a chance to display talent, wealth and strength, and probably a coming of age, except that most of the Tapurosu team was married, many with kids.
The Tapurosu Team
Unlike the pretty pageant of yesterday, today's emphasis was strictly on valiantly carrying forward a large phallus.
I took to playing gopher of sorts, holding the skirts, making noise, running around putting my foot down to help someone rest the Bonden at pausing points or when the grip was being switched off. Only a few men in our group were willing or able to support the Bonden and they rapidly tired. It was a long walk out of town, with frequent brief stops. Sake was served liberally, from people out in front of their houses and businesses along the way, by a member of our group adorned in small jingle bells and sporting a bamboo flask and a backpack with more bottles, by groups in the spirit of good cheer.
There was a cold rain and a slight wind. We emerged from town, with not so many powerlines to fear. The terrain was plain snow with mountains in the distance; the Yokote valley. We were about seventh in line, we shifted back during one ducking session for a power line. Considering how many of these giant warrior sculptures were made to attack the town's electrical infrastructure, there was little or no official alarm or response. Most Bonden groups fairly well shoved their Borden out from under the powerlines. Our Bonden of a rider astride a horse was fairly complicated and so we had to devote some considerable attention to the town's infrastructure to be sure that our warrior didn't get carried away and bring down a sparking electrical snake into the streets.
We turned off a highway. Onlookers lined the roads. The Bonden procession stopped. Each group removed their sculpture from their Bonden, leaving just a fabric wrapped color ball at the end of a pole. Some men removed their shirts to stand bare-chested in the freezing wind.
Immediately the Bonden appeared lighter than what I had seen before and I was possessed by some pride to see that I could pick up the Bonden and stride with my cohort. I found I could lift it handedly and all my strength was required to keep it balanced, erect; as long as it was erect moving forward was no problem. Feeling bold I ran alone holding the Bonden past the group ahead of us. My Tapurosu team friends cried out in surprise; this was breaking the rules, running forward during an acknowledged rest. I was called back amidst smiles.
We were now on snowy paths unpaved, up into a wooded area. The second string of weaker men who couldn't carry the Bonden before here stepped up to haul wood. And the other folks pushed on their back to help them up the slippery snow covered hill trail.
We came to a wooden temple gate. Groups ahead of us tilted their Bonden forward and ran pushing it into the gate. Great chants of Jya-sa! rose from those behind the Bonden and those inside the temple gates working to keep them out. Besides offering a chance to party down in the dead of winter, the goal of the Bonden matsuri is to shove the Bonden through the gates of the temple as previous temple goers work to keep newcomers out.
Approaching the First Gate
We made it through quickly, after some hard shoving. It was a small opening and a large group of men. Immediately on the other side, recent victors stood close to the gate, making for thick swarm of male bodies. Some had stripped down to the waist. Chants of Jya-sa. Smell of sweat. Snow falling from the trees in big clumps. Shoving packed flesh. Working to keep large wooden poles aloft.
The First Gate
The view from the other side:
Pushing their Bonden into the gate for entry
Now two are coming and men are piled into the doorway to push back
The Bonden come through, plowing into a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of men and poles.
Cheering - for to keep the men out, or for them to push their way in?
A thick crowd in the forest before heading up the hill.
After each of the groups had made it through, we turned and walked on in thin procession. This was an uphill climb on a slippery snowy path through quiet forest all the while bearing the Bonden. There was no jockeying for position, even the enthusiastic whistling and Jya-sa chants died down. I took a few turns carrying the Bonden; the greatest trouble was to keep your footing. For support we pushed on the carrier's waist from behind. It was a long trudge.
We came to a broad opening rimmed with spectators. A long steep hill approach led to a severely aged looking wooden temple gate. Groups lined up at the bottom and ran up the hill pushing their Bonden before them, as two or three dozen men within the temple worked to repulse them.
Under an old plain wood gate
It seemed to enshrine the seniority system in Japan. The first people to shove the Bonden inside the temple turn to guard the gates into the temple. Each successive group that hopes to push their phallus into the golden gates must prove themselves stronger than those that came before them. The people on the temple side keep them away in a limited way; the temple guardians greatly outnumbered the Bonden-pushers and so they could have effectively guarded the gates. Most Bonden were turned away twice and the third time they made it through. I suspected that this was built into the shoving mentality some unspoken language agreement that someone should only have to fight so much before they're allowed to join the club.
...rush up the hill
We shoved our way through, once repelled, and then returning. It was fast, once we got past the guardians we ran through the temple foyer with our Bonden out a side door and back into the forest. We set up our pole and most of charged back into the temple to take our turns keeping other folks out.
The entrance to the temple
I took my turn as a temple guardian after we had won. It was some of the most intimate human aggression I'd felt in years. Endless minutes of shoving bodies, chanting and shouting, pushing against each other, pushing each other forward. And inherent antagonism, with a shifting threshold. There was supposed to be a point at which the Bonden bearers passed over the transom of the temple and so they had earned their right. But in the fray it was never clear when the fighting was to stop and some folks threw blows and hard looks at each other, for only those few minutes that they were within elbow-range. Still I never felt afraid to be caught in this anger, only that I would be trampled, for to fall down in these sorts of crowd situations is the worst fear. So it was a measure of the inherent will of the Bonden festival that I felt two or three separate young men work to pull me up by my bright orange jacket when I tripped over the wood beamed floor and found myself at the bottom of a dangerous surge.
Hard surging to keep out who was us.
All Bonden through there was a rapid collective clapping chant and a great release of breath. We stood sweating smiling under cold sun. The men congratulated each other. The onlookers congratulated the men. People began to file down the hill. Two drunk boys with thick cheeks stood up in their yellow pajamas and offered themselves to block any Bonden.
One more charge was performed without resistance for the television crews and then we all departed down the hill. I had lingered long, so my group was long ahead on the quiet trail so I slid down the hill on my ass to catch up with them.
Bonden: Pageant | About Town | Rush