Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Let's Autumn Festival in Ainan!

This weekend had been an ominous blank in my calendar. From experience, that can be a bad thing when you're living in the countryside - things don't tend to naturally materalise to fill the blank the same way they do in the city. I'd heard rumblings of this weekend being the weekend of Ainan's autumn festival but hadn't thought much of it. I'd have a lie-in and if it was still going on when I rolled out of bed, I'd check it out...

Well, luckily for me I naturally woke up pretty early to the sound of a drum parade marching through the streets. Curious, I grabbed my camera and ventured outside. Lo and behold, there were my kids, carrying a demon cow float through the streets.

It took all hands to the deck to transport the cow around town, as well as three kids inside it to help manoeuvre it through the streets. It wasn't hard to see all the different floats that were being paraded around the different parts of town - as soon as I'd left one behind and rode my bike away for a few minutes, I just had to follow the sound of drums to find the next one.

Some were carrying cow floats, others mikoshi.

Whatever it was they were carrying, everyone was headed to congregate at the same location: a grassy plain by the riverbank. It wasn't long before I found some of my favourite kids. One of them quickly kitted me out in his own happi (the festival jacket) and before I knew it, I was helping them to carry Ms. Demon Cow all around Johen.

One of my favourite kids gave me his happi to wear. My hair looks strangely blonde in this shot...

When we reached the riverbank, there was even more of a spectacle to behold. Each group arrived kitted in different traditional wear, and each put on a lengthy performance for the waiting crowd.

The Cow Demon circles the makeshift shrine.

As well as the Demon Cow, one enduring symbol of the festival was the Karashishi.

The Karashishi is a mythical lion. Two men don the Karashishi gear and put on a performance in the middle of the crowd. The performance may include a boy playing taiko (Japanese drums), engaged in some kind of taming ritual with the Karashishi, as well as a priest-like figure, who seemed to be blessing the lion.

Around the lion's neck are many sheets of tissue paper, which are considered a symbol of good fortune. During the performance, the lion sheds these papers and any daring crowd member who is bold enough to break into the performance to grab one is promised the good luck the paper represents.

"That's how you do it."

Not so fast! Dad disapproves of Tiny-chan's attempt to grab herself some lucky paper.

Once the performance is over, the Karashishi breaks into the crowd and it's once again a scrabble for his lucky papers.

So my quiet nothing of a weekend turned into probably one of the best days I've had here in Ainan during my whole time as a JET. The locals went out of their way to include me in the festival, and the kids were so excited that I'd turned up to watch them perform - I was quickly kitted out with a happi, given a beer and invited to help carry the Cow Demon around town with everyone. It sounds like a cliche, but it really did seem to bring the whole town together - it felt less like a cluster of individual streets and houses and more like one big playground.

...and, of course, I wouldn't have been embracing Japanese culture if I hadn't spent the evening celebrating a post-festival toast with the village granddads. Oh, life.

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