Feb 19, 2008


"Hello," said the old man.

It was snowing, and I was freezing. Or, rather, I wasn't freezing. It was that particularly awkward coldness, just above zero centigrade where everything is cold yet still sloshy and wet. My feet were soaked, and rivulets of water and snow chunks ran down my umbrella, I was being jostled by the crowd, and white-clad policemen milled about, looking like yetis or stormtroopers.

"You are lucky," said the old man, "there will be Sumo players." He'd been glancing at me for a while, and perhaps got the nerve, after a bit, to try out his English.

"When?" I asked. He pointed to the twelve on his watch, and traced the figure of a semicircle with with his forefinger, stopping at the six. "Maybe here," he answered. I gathered that the term "one thirty" was beyond his English abilities.

It was Setsubun, an annual holiday that involves demons and the throwing of soybeans. As near as I can tell, it's of Shinto origins, but every year Naritasan, a Buddhist temple, has a massive setsubun celebration. The main bit of the holiday: People toss soybeans out of their houses, all the while saying "Demons out, fortune in!" Occasionally, a member of the family dresses up in a demon mask, and said beans are in fact thrown at them.

At Naritasan, people for some reason only shout "Fortune in!" They do not seem to be about demon expulsion there. Maybe the monks and whatnot have some cryptic pro-demon agenda.

Anyway, I stood there in the rain for some time, wet snow falling on my umbrella. The crowds grew, the police stood there stoically, and the umbrellas of all the other people formed a kind of multicolored chamber. It was like being under a shield turtle made of canvas. All around me people were declaring that it was cold. "Samui!" someone would say. "Samui!" "Samui!" It was like being in human echo chamber. It's a sort of cultural tendency here in Japan to always state the completely obvious ("It's cold!" "It's hot!" "It's raining!" "It's snowing!") but it did begin to grate on me a bit. "Yes," I thought, "it is indeed samui. We've established that. Now can we please, as creatures capable of observing outside stimuli, move on?"


And eventually we did move on. The police barked as one for us to close our umbrellas, and soon we had no choice but to get soaked by the snow. But, with the umbrellas down, I could now effectively see the main steps of Naritasan, and there were, indeed, Sumo players.

Almost as soon as the umbrellas went down and the wrestlers and celebrities came out, the crowd went from a shivering mass commenting on the obviousness of the weather, to an enthusiastic, crushing, screaming mob. The crowd cheered, people crashed against me, and everyone was too busy making noise to comment on how samui it was. The instigators of the enthusiasm, the athletes and actors, were bedecked in day-glo outfits that simultaneously looked stupid and awesome. They were those Japanese robe things that have the big shoulder bits sticking out. Oh, just look at the pictures. You'll know what I mean. It's sort of ridiculous seeing Sumo wrestlers decked out in black and pink, but it's also sort of badass in a rather undefinable way.

In any case, they started throwing beans at us. Also, there were screaming girls.

The celebrities whipped out these wooden boxes filled with plastic packets of beans, and various aides were on hand to hastily refill them. They chucked handfulls at us, the crowd raising up their hands in order to catch them. Meanwhile, the people immediately behind me, a gaggle of Japanese teenage girls, lost all composure and volume control.

"Cho kakoi!" they shouted, "Cho kakoi! Eita! Eita!" They were shouting at a young, green clad male celebrity and exclaiming how cool he was. The girls jostled and pushed, pressing me chest to chest with the cop in front of me, greatly hindering my picture taking and bean catching abilities. "EITA!" My left ear hurt. "EITA!" My left ear hurt some more. Eita himself waved, and threw some more beans. "EITA!" It was like being in the opening scene of A Hard Day's Night, except it was stationary. "EITA!" The cop in front of me shouted at people not to push. This was probably because I was being squashed bodily into him and he didn't like it very much. "EITA!" Beans! Snow! People! "EITA!"

And then, after about ten minutes, it was over. The crowd dispersed, Eita and the rest of the VIPs were whisked away, and the umbrellas started to open again. I was no longer being jostled by the girls or chest to chest with the cop. The sudden absence of contact made the wind seem a little colder, and I walked as fast as I could to the station in order to keep myself warm.

Or tried to walk as fast as I could. The road back was packed. I was still with the crowd, and the merchants all had their shops open, hoping to reap the benefits of the festivities. In the street outside, people shouted about how it was quite cold, so they ought to come in and have some ramen. Have some hot sake. Have some hot tea. Merchants sold souvenirs and counted thousand yen notes with fingerless gloves, and the chorus of "samui!" returned.

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Sydney said...

Joe, you are really a talented writer! Over the past year your narrative voice has really developed into a cohesive, unique style that I look forward to reading. I hope that you're keeping track of all of these posts and the people in your life because would be one hell of a memoir someday. Actually, this day, if you wanted to frame the narrative arc as your first year in Japan. Anyway, thank you for sharing your experiences with us! I feel like I'm right there with you, with the cold and snow and the building excitement. I feel like I can almost smell the wet gloves and ramen noodles.

SonicLlama said...


Aw, shucks. Thanks, Syd.

Eric said...

Which one was Eita? Can you give a picture number?

SonicLlama said...

The guy in green in pictures 26 and 28 is Eita. Apparently he's not super well known, but I guess that the girls were big time fans of the show he's in. I found out that it's a historical drama set in the Meiji Restoration on NHK.

When I asked my female Japanese coworker if she thought Eita was indeed shoutworthy, she said "He's okay."

I'm assuming that this is one of his first mentions in a written English medium. I shall subsequently be taking credit for any and all international success he may have.

That's right, Eita... I made you.

Sydney said...

I don't know... A google search yields a lot of hits (313,000 to be exact; is that creepy to anyone else?) for Eita. And he does have a wiki. A really creepy wiki. It's unusual to provide a celebrities blood type, right?

Sydney said...

Oops! I meant "celebrity's"! Crap... I bet that gets me kicked off the grammer police. (I was already debadged from the spelling police.)

SonicLlama said...

Blood type info?

Not unusual at all here in Nihon. It's commonly thought to be an indicator of personality, and people take it about as seriously as westerners take horoscopes.

So, it makes sense that it's listed right next to his star sign.