One nice afternoon in Kyoto, I went with my host-sister—an American girl named Becky—to a small shrine in the Kyoto backstreets, to attend a festival of monsters.
The word yokai doesn’t have any easy English equivalents—often translated as “goblins”, the word strikes me as too petty and impish, conjuring images of skulking, cackling figures that scurry out of sight, smug and delighted at having misplaced someone’s left shoe. And while some yokai are like this, many are far more serious, more deadly and more concerning. There are some yokai who steal and eat children; yuki onna are women who exist in the snow, dead by the crimes of men, and lure men to them where they freeze to death. There are also umbrellas who hop on one leg, and close around a person to swallow them whole, and akaname, a figure that licks bathtubs clean of dirt and mold.
I love them.
Each year, the students of PacRim are expected to do an independent research project, using the opportunities only a trip like PacRim can offer, and using our time in these many countries to do first-hand research on our subjects, things we could never manage to do tucked away in our libraries in America. For me, this meant wandering the streets of Kyoto looking for tengu, an old figure in Japanese folklore, a kind of yokai that is part-man and part-bird, often anti-Buddhist, and usually depicted with a red face and long nose. Sometimes. Other times they are dark-haired pretty boys, or small talking birds, and sometimes they are not monsters but gods.
In the interest of looking into my subject, and answering the question of when and to what purpose tengu are yokai and when they are kami, I found myself walking with Becky to a yokai matsuri.
To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what made it a yokai festival, specifically. It had all the usual trappings of a festival—crowded with people, stands on the sides selling food and games, and people dressed in yukata out to enjoy the festivities.
Admittedly, many of the guests were not in usual festival fare.
Between us, despite my best intentions, the festival wasn’t terribly useful for my research. It was a terribly lot of fun, though.
The narrow space was teeming with people, children enjoying themselves and parents trying to keep up with them. The area continually resounded with screaming and shouting, coming — I discovered after a little investigating — from a booth that was selling a popular soda in Japan, Ramune, distinct for the unique designs of its bottles, which are stoppered by a marble the purchaser depresses into a space for it near the top, opening the bottle and also preventing the marble from rolling into the drink. The two men working the stall were having a right old time, and probably having the most fun of anyone there.
At the front of the courtyard beside the shrine was the smaller, decorated, portable shrine that is pulled out for festivals and celebrations.
I have no idea what they were expecting to do with it, the space was far too narrow and short for it to be carried by a large group of men, but it certainly was pretty.
I found a poster on the side of a shrine building with a list of events for the two-day-long festival—almost none of which I could read at all, though I could at least determine what times these character-named events would be happening. It explained the presence of many rows of chairs positioned in front of the shrine, where a rather surprising number of people were sitting and relaxing. One was scheduled to occur half an hour after Becky and I had arrived, and so, after making the two-minute loop around the festival space, and armed with snowcones and me with a bottle of Ramune I had purchased solely so I could get a video of the screaming salesmen, we waited.
The event turned out to be a performance of a high school dance team, who were being taught some of Japan’s traditional dances. After being announced by a young man I can only assume was the team’s captain, the somewhat large group of them took their places on stage, and waited for their music to start.
Finally, a little embarrassed, the captain laughed, asked everyone to wait just a moment, and rushed off to take care of the technical difficulties. Everyone laughed. And not much later, the captain was back, the group took their places, and the performance started.
They were clearly well practiced, and it looked like a good time. They performed a second time, this time with even more members crowding onto the stage, by which time it was quite dark, though not quite late.
Becky and I had to make sure to get home for dinner, though, so with a few more pictures—and still no real idea why it was a yokai festival—the two of us returned to our host-mother.
I hope that the next time I go to Japan, I have a chance to attend another matsuri — the festivals during summer are especially famous, and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at scooping goldfish with a small paper scoop.
But, though it was small, my first Festival was wonderful.