Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Wisteria Festival

The fifth day of the fifth month was traditionally the time of the Wisteria Festival. It signalled and celebrated the beginning of the summer season. At this time of the year many houses and shrines were decked out with garlands of wisteria. The participants in the ceremonies adorned themselves with strands of flowering branches, the women dressed in their finest kimono, the patterns and colour of which reflected all the subtle shades of the flower in question. From early in the morning onwards crowds begin to gather from far and wide across the island to enjoy the dancing and musical performances that are staged in various locations around the garden. The settings for those events were located around those places where the wisteria is grown, by being allowed to scramble over a series of hooped frames, and in one place over a long narrow raised stage of polished boards. Thanks to skilled pruning at the opportune moments, the flowers now hung down in thick clusters over the heads of the performers, as if they were stars punctuating the night sky.

One of the popular highlights of the festival comes midway through the day, just as the sun begins to pass its zenith. When a troupe of dancers with slow, staccato movements counter-pointed by a building and increasingly frenzied accompaniment by flutes and drums begin the Wisteria Dance. At this point, Shigoto had been given leave by Maguro Sensei to join the crowds that had gathered near the raised stage where the dance was to be held. Shigoto had looked about, but he could not see his mother in the throng of onlookers. He managed to push his way to the front from where he could follow the action closely. He knew the story depicted in the dance well enough as his mother and grandmother had spoken of little else the previous evening.

The dance depicts a story as old as Japan itself: amid a stand of tall trees on the slopes of the sacred Mt. Fuji, a wisteria vine is carried high toward the heavens. At the critical moment of the unfolding of a new flower-bearing shoot, a hawk that happens to be crossing the sky catches the movement out of the corner of its eye. It swoops down at blinding speed under the cover of the brilliant light, and plucks at the tender shoot with its talons before wheeling away back towards the sun clutching its prize. Out of a sense of sadness and loss, all subsequent shoots on the wisteria take a vow to the gods that they will never raise their heads towards the sun, lest they too be plucked before they may display their beauty to the world. The vine then transforms itself into a serpent in order to snare the hawk should it ever dare to return from the sun.

The dance climaxes with a single dancer on the stage crouched low on all fours, whose torso is covered by a large fine silk square of cloth, the colour a vibrantly shimmering, yet delicate tone of green. As the figure begins to uncoil and rise from the ground, the drums settle into a steady insistent rhythm and the flutes running out soft rising scales. The dancer rises further, and as the cloth falls back to the ground, it is revealed that the dancer wears two face masks; a white mask with pursed red-painted mouth to the front, and a bright red mask with black open lips and a long protruding nose, to the rear. As the volume and pace of the music begins to build toward yet an inexorable pitch of intensity, out of the intricate and complex arrangement of the wisteria coloured kimono of the dancer, unfold two arms that are slowly raised heavenwards. Clasped in the dancer’s hands, which become fully revealed, as the sleeves fall back, is a highly polished bronze disc. The music reaches its orgiastic climax as the dancer reaches up at full stretch, thrusting the disc skywards; all around the tumescent figure froths and cascades the billowing kimono cloth, and the sun glinting in blinding concentration from the highly polished surface held aloft. Few are the hearts that can bear witness to such a performance and not be moved to the very core, and the dance invariably concludes with a crescendo of applause from the audience.

At the hour of the rabbit (3 pm) a grand colourful procession headed by white robed, chanting Shinto priests from the Hatsukari Shrine, accompanied by the entire Saeko family, messengers from related clans and political allies, musicians bearing numerous instruments, loyal retainers with their flapping banners of rank, itinerant poets, painters, and priests, craftsmen of wood, stone and clay, fishermen, farmers, and shopkeepers, all gathered in a precisely ordained order to take a sacred mirror to the banks of the Great Dragon pond. There, gifts of food, gold coins and fancy jewels from the Palace are offered to the ‘Mover Across the Endless Sky’ and various esoteric ceremonies of purification and thanksgiving are performed amid a welter of hand gestures, recitation of ancient prayers and clouds of fragrant incense. From there the assembly would make their way to a part of the garden where there was a representation of a sacred mountain, a tall conically shaped grass covered hill encircled by a stepping stone path. Here more dances are performed, albeit in a lighter spirit, before the main party returns to the Great Hall for an extensive banquet. The crowd of extras, the curious, the hangers-on and the simply miscast, at that point begin to drift happily away to the makeshift stalls in the town for a cup or two of sake, thus as in other similar circumstances, what begins in great solemnity, draws to a close in a less than tidy and dignified manner for some.

As Shigoto was going about his last minute task he looked up and noticed that the knotted branches of the ancient wisteria plants running over their supporting frames would support the body of a young man of his height and build, whilst also allowing him a privileged viewing position of the ceremony by the Great Dragon Pond. He was just registering this interesting information, when to his surprise he noticed leaning casually against a leg of a framework supporting the ancient wisteria, a bamboo rake with long curved teeth. Thinking rapidly he snatched up the rake in one hand, and with a glance over his shoulder to check that he was not being observed, he nimbly sought out the sanctuary of the branches above. Spreading himself out among the branches Shigoto realised now he was out of view of the procession making it’s was towards him, as he was hidden by the bountiful foliage. He smiled to himself at his good luck.

The procession had arrived at the point where the leading priest bearing the sacred mirror in both hands above his head, was about take the final steps forward to the edge of the pond, his steely gaze fixed far in the distance. Here he would utter complicated ancient and incomprehensible prayers and incantations, all the while the beating of the drummers and the shrill sounds of the flutes reached toward an untidy crescendo. At this point of dramatic tension, a bee, which had been attracted by the scent of the flowers landed on Shigoto’s nose and without thinking he let go of his grip on the rake, and tried to swat away the source of distraction. As he did so the rake slipped to the ground, gracefully and with barely a sound, it fell directly into the path of the unsuspecting and oncoming priest. As his next footfall touched the ground, the handle of the rake leapt violently up and caught him utterly unaware between his eyes, fixed as they were on the far horizon. To Shigoto’s horror everything seemed to happen in slow motion, he saw every moment of the crisis unfold from his hidden vantage place.

All that those in the procession following on behind saw was the priest apparently stumble and the sacred mirror suddenly taking on an unexpected and accelerated upward trajectory. In what seemed to the assembled observers, to be a moment when all time and motion came to a sudden and wholly unexpected standstill. With the exception of the mirror, which continued along its path, eventually having described a graceful arc through space, it splashed through the surface of the lake. An unspoken exclamation mark, to a sentence that hung limply in the air.

In the split seconds that followed there was only one man present who had sufficient speed of thought and insight to save the day from an even greater disaster. Maguro Sensei by virtue his ordination as Zen priest, was allowed to accompany the head of the parade, he had in an instant taken in the cause of the sudden change of course of the mirror. As the eyes of the shocked assembly followed, open-mouthed, the sacred object's flight path, Maguro Sensei with the swift thinking action of a man absolutely alive to the moment, dashed forward to reach the tottering, star-seeing priest, now further blessed with a rapidly rising aubergine coloured lump on his forehead. With one hand to the priest's back to steady him, Sensei reached out and with the other, swept up the rake from the ground, and with a single fluid movement, thrust it back in the foliage from whence it had come. The end of the handle caught Shigoto firmly amidships, momentarily knocking all trace of air from his lungs and also igniting a constellation of glittering stars before his eyes too. The rake was swallowed whole by the mass of foliage and remained lodged out of sight of the assembly below, as did Shigoto too.

The mirror flashed briefly as it fell through the layers of water before it disappeared entire into a dark cavern that was the mouth of Oguchi, an elderly koi carp which had been a wedding gift to Mameko Saeko, the dowager princess, some sixty-two years earlier. After a general recovery of their wits, and the use of their tongues among those at the head of the procession, discussion arose as to how the situation could be recovered. The debates were long and intense, but in the end, the resolve of the company was unanimous, the ceremony had to be concluded and the mirror restored to its proper resting place at the Hatsukari Shrine, otherwise dire misfortune was predicted to surely befall all of Mikura. A party of farmers were dispatched into the lake armed with sections of bamboo fencing to attempt to herd the fish into a bay. The plan called for Oguchi to be cornered and somehow persuaded to relinquish his prize, thereby allowing the formalities to be drawn to their proper conclusion. The unfamiliarity of farmers turned hunter-gatherers in attempting to corner a slippery quarry in an unfamiliar environment, gave the excited and boisterous crowd on the shore much cause for comment (not always complimentary at that) and needless to say, much amusement. It was even rumoured for months after that fortunes were won and lost that day in wagers as to which of the non-swimming farmers would be the next to be completely immersed. For a time the atmosphere among the onlookers traversed the complete cycle from ceremony to carnival. Eventually the reluctant fish was cornered between the knees of a half drowned member of the chasing party long enough for a number of his colleagues to fall bodily on it. Despite their every effort though, the mirror remained stubbornly in its hiding place. To conclude the ceremony without creating offence to any of the deities, the bemused and arthritic fish was placed in a temporary wooden holding tank, and in due course, the fish after much patient persuasion and prodding, which provoked a bout of indigestion, the mirror was spat out from the depths of Oguchi and fell to the floor of its container. Now the mirror resumed its place in the hands of the still bemused priest, and all was well with the world again, the natural order of things was set back on its course. Though the priest was to wear a distinct bump in the shape of a fish on his forehead for the rest of his days, and Shigoto was destined to spend many a long month consigned to sweeping leaves and other such menial tasks, under the stern watchful eyes of Maguro Sensei.

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