Amid all its ultra-modern innovations, at its very heart, Japan is still a land of ancient tradition. Each region has its own unique cultural attributes, and most, if not all of their holidays and celebrations are based on some practice that dates back to the earliest days of its civilization. The Japanese celebrate the ephemeral cherry blossoms in spring, they celebrate the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, they celebrate the rice harvest, they celebrate the full moon, they celebrate the Emperor’s birthday, and they celebrate the returning spirits of the deceased.
One day, while out and about in the suburb of Ikebukuro, I witnessed one of the liveliest and most dazzling celebrations of all: the Omikoshi parade. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I was headed over to the east side to buy a meter of cloth, when quite unexpectedly, I found myself in the midst of a throng of spectators lining the sidewalk. Over the tops of their heads, I could see an enormous and elaborately embellished structure bobbing along the parade route. It looked something like a miniature temple building, splendidly decorated with Japanese crests and golden filigree. I pushed my way through the crowd for a closer look and discovered that this colossal edifice was actually being heaved along the city streets on the shoulders of about a dozen strapping young Japanese men. What’s more, they were dressed in traditional garb, which consisted of short, open-front robes called hanten, and white cotton loincloths called mawashi, which left their naked chests and buttocks quite exposed.
I was transfixed. I had never seen such an unabashed display of flesh and sinew. All those gorgeous young men, chanting in unison, laboring and sweating in the noonday sun, to transport the statue of their Shinto deity through the streets of Higashi Ikebukuro. It was…spectacular!