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Six ferocious Lions

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SIX FEROCIOUS LIONS: TAKAYAMA JAPAN AND THE SPRING SANNO FESTIVAL
                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2011

Six ferocious lions chased me down the street! Their jaws snapped loudly and violently as they gave chase. The local population ran away from them, screaming and hiding in mock terror. I ducked into somebody'’s garage and stuck my video camera cautiously out the door. The lions surrounded the building and ran into the shop next door, terrorizing the shopkeeper. One came chasing into the garage after me, threatening the camera with his big teeth. Back outside, they danced a fierce lion dance, bobbing and weaving and stomping their feet, accompanied by loud drums and gongs. Their dance ended with a coordinated rhythmic snapping of jaws, then they moved down the road, attacking the next shop.

Actually, the lions go from door to door, chasing away evil Kami spirits (like me) and giving each homeowner luck and prosperity for the coming rice planting season. Their costumes are a curious mixture of dragon and lion, with dragon scales painted on their fabric backs and carved wooden lion faces.

It was the Spring festival in Takayama Japan. Takayama has two festivals each year, one for the coming of Spring, and one for the Autumn harvest. The festivals have been a tradition for centuries. Most of the men of the city are active participants. They all get into costume and parade down the main streets of the city. Groups of them push extraordinary multi-story wheeled parade floats through the streets. Many of these floats are antiques and are now considered national art treasures.

The floats are the most colorful element of the festival. Each one proudly represents a district of the city, so each district is constantly in competition with the others to build and maintain the most magnificent float in the parade. They are very tall and elaborate chariots, and they can be several stories high. They are covered in fabulous paintings, silk curtains, carvings, and ornamental woodwork, most of which is dazzlingly gilded in gold paint. One massive parade float held giant drums, gongs and a small orchestra of other traditional instruments and players.

The tops or sides of some of the floats have small curtained pavilions. We later learned that some of these are stages and backdrops for Karakuri puppet shows. Small groups of puppeteers climb up inside the floats, and manipulate very realistic mechanical puppets made of wood and cloth. Unfortunately, we arrived at the festival rather late, so we only got to see the very end of one of the puppet shows. In ancient times, the animation must have seemed nothing short of miraculous, especially for the children. In this day of animated television, the old puppets were picturesque but somewhat stilted and slow moving. Still, I admired the skill and creativity of the puppet makers, especially when the puppet’s wooden hand picked up a fan and flipped it open. I am still trying to figure out how they accomplished that feat!

The processions of proud residents continued all afternoon. They represented all aspects of Medieval Japanese society. There were the lords of the land: the Daimyos. The local “Daimyo” rode in a magnificent rickshaw chariot, surrounded by his “Samurai” warrior army. His robes were of the finest silk, and his swords rode proudly by his side, as the most significant emblems of his rank. Standard bearers preceded him, announcing his presence. Servants followed him, shading him from the sun. Samurai warriors, strutted all around him, wearing their armor, and holding burnished shields. Most of the belts held genuine Katana swords. I was sure that I was seeing most of the finest preserved family heirlooms still in the town. Most of these swords would have been borrowed from the sacred ancestral shrine in the family'’s house, and only brought out a couple of times a year, just for these festivals.

Below the Samurai were the Ronin (paid soldiers) and peasant farmers, who acted as bearers for the floats, or as bearers for the Daimyo’s' rickshaws or for the other wagons and rolling carts which carried drums and gongs. Others supported the chariot of the head priest of the temple. Behind him came a very special golden palanquin which was supported by priests. This, I later found out, contained the Kami (spirit) of the Shinto temple in town. Once a year, the Kami leaves the temple and parades around the town. The local Buddhist priests also joined the parade.

Beyond this, there were groups of musicians of all stripes, both young and old. Schoolchildren carried banners, struck gongs and sang songs. Old men, dressed in peasant straw hats, played flutes and drums. Each group of parade participants walked with great civic pride in their heritage.

As they walked, I realized that there were no women participating in the parade. Only the schoolgirls were welcomed openly, if they were young enough to fit in with the boys. I found it sad, since in early Japanese history, women were taken more seriously than they have been in more recent times. From the 11th century up until the 16th century, women enjoyed many equal rights and privileges, including the right to inherit land, equally with their brothers. Women of the Samurai class were considered warriors just like the men. They were given swords and Naginata spears, and they were taught how to use them. They were expected to fight and die for their Daimyo in a pinch. It was only later, in the 17th century, that they lost most of those rights, and they were seen as pawns in the games of power between families.

My thoughts of women's’ rights were interrupted by the reappearance of the six ferocious lions, as they chased everybody down the street one last time.

Thanks so much for reading! Diana

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