All this makes for a city of character, and one proud of its history, much of which is re-enacted at the yearly Okunchi Festival derived from the strong Chinese influence in the city. Today is the first of three festival days and I have been accorded the high and, as far as I can tell, unprecedented honour of being a foreign participant.
At the crack of dawn I find myself sipping green tea in a shop in the city centre which has been commandeered as a dressing room. I am to be a flag-carrier on the Treasure House ship, and Mrs Takashi is arranging me into a rather attractive off-white silk kimono with maroon and black trim. On my head I wear a red and white bow and on my feet yellow-beribboned white cloth shoes with two toe-holes. Not what I would choose to wear in my local but quite restrained compared to some of the outfits I've seen here. Mr Takashi, who will be with me to tell me what to do, puts out his cigarette and we go off in search of the Treasure House. It turns out to be one of several decorated floats, called mikoshi, each one representing a different neighbourhood. Twenty young men have been deputed to heave it through the streets - not as easy as it sounds as it has 20 schoolchildren aboard.
I fall in behind the elders, who wear complex outfits of black kimonos and black bowler hats. If you can imagine Ian Paisley dressed as a geisha girl, you'll begin to get the picture.
When we reach the Suwa-Jinja Shrine our Treasure ship is hauled into the arena, amid much cheering. There are some foreign tourists in the crowd. I think they must be British because one of them catches sight of me in my kimono and red and white bow and performs the wildest double take I think I've ever seen. After the ritual presentation of our float to the Shinto priests, the children sign and play and enact a short drama. Then we all stand back and let the frenetic display begin. This consists of hauling the fully laden float backwards and forwards across the arena as fast as possible. It's flung one way, then the other, raced to the brink of a steep stone stairway, wrenched to a halt, then turned laboriously back again. Teeth are clenched, eyes rolled and bracelets of sweat are sent spinning through the air. The boat keeps moving as long as the audience keeps cheering, and the more passes it makes, the more successful they're deemed to be. An added hazard is the presence of half a dozen television crews, not including our own. I get clouted on the side of the head by a video camera and at one point Mr Takashi has to race into the arena to retrieve his flag which has become coiled round a TV cable and is scything its way through the crowd.
The rest of the day is a considerable anti-climax. Thank God.Reuse content