A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-12


We have a great many other holidays; it is impossible to speak of them all. Simply to name some, there are God Fox's day on the second of the second month; the Feast of Dolls, for little girls, on the third of the third month; the Feast of Flags for little boys on the fifth of the fifth month; the ablution mass in the sixth month; the Tanabata (eve of the seventh) on the seventh of the seventh month; the day of chrysanthemum flowers and the festival of Inoko late in the fall, not to mention festivals of several local deities. The vital importance of these holidays to us children centered in the dainties and delicacies with which our mothers and sisters served us then and not often at ordinary times. We enjoy boiled red beans and rice on the second of February; rice-flour cakes wrapped in the leaves of a species of oak called kashiwa on the fifth of May; rice-flour cakes daubed with the an on the day of the Buddhistic ceremony of ablution; roast and boiled chestnuts and rice and chestnuts on the ninth of September; and the saké on almost all occasions, but with a spray of peach blossom inserted in the bottle on the third of March, and a bunch of chrysanthemum flowers on the chrysanthemum day.

In Tanabata and Inoko the boys of the town used to club together on payment of a small fee, the biggest among them presiding over their affairs by common consent. Our first work is to canvass such houses in consecutive order as have large front rooms, soliciting their owners to loan us the room for a few days for a temporary club-house, free of charge. And when we are given by a generous man the use of his house, thither we convey our common property. The property comprises the scroll gods, a holy mirror, the golden gohĕi (a sacred brass ornament), a pair of pewter saké bottles, splendid curtains, a large number of the sambo (offering stand of white wood, sometimes varnished), countless Japanese lanterns, timber and board ready to be put together for an altar looking like a staircase, Chinese crimson felt carpets, several drums and certain kinds of bells. These things have been handed down to us by successive generations of boys, repaired each year and additions made by donations or by "chipping in," and all nicely packed in chests, on the sides and covers of which we read the names of some that have died, and of others that are yet living though well-nigh to the grave. The boys take good care of the old heirlooms, that they may transmit them without injury to their successors. The older boys take the things out and set up a place of worship; on the days of festivity the members come to the headquarters with their lunch-boxes well stocked. We assemble not to worship really, you might as well understand now, but to have a good time. Fruits and cakes have been taken in by the managers from the wholesale merchants, and are piled up in pyramids on the samboes upon the steps of the altar; they are to be divided equally among the stockholders afterwards. The lanterns are lighted brilliantly at night; a special lantern is hoisted on a very high pole planted before the house to signify our quarters.

At Tanabata we march through the streets with green bamboo trees, rending the air with certain shouts and beating the instruments, and upon meeting the boys of other streets have a scuffle. The scene is a confusion of bamboos and bits of rainbow-colored papers which are tied plentifully to the branches. After a hot contest we come home to the club, eat a hearty lunch and celebrate the incidents of our victory. The day after the festival we take our bamboos to the sea and cast them off to be drifted away by the waves and finally up to the Heavenly Stream or the Milky Way, where the gods may read our wishes written on the rainbow-colored papers. On this day everybody goes swimming, because the sea-monkey is handcuffed that can lengthen one arm enormously at the expense of the other, and draws in and drowns people, especially boys who go swimming in opposition to their mothers' remonstrance.

At Inoko we bring forth our gorin. A gorin is a spherical stone, usually granite, with an iron belt loose in a groove around the great circumference; the belt has many small rings through it. A club of boys possesses five to ten gorins of various sizes. To the rings are attached ropes, and calling at the families to which came male offspring during the year, the boys utter words of blessing and pound the ground by pulling up and down the solid stone. After a series of thumps a depression is left behind. We hold gorin collisions with neighboring powers. A challenge is sent to other clubs to meet us with their best gorin on neutral ground at such a time, that we may know which is stronger. The war gorin is equipped for the contest with a network of ropes, exposing a portion of the surface that shall deal the blow; the leading boys guide it in the battle by several strong ropes. Generally in the collision more noise is heard than the clash; however, not rarely the contest is kept up until one or the other splits through the core, and the opposition is so strong as to cause older people to interfere in the affair, because it infallibly entails unpleasant feeling between the parties and a scrimmage at all times. I call to mind that our club used to plume itself upon the strength and durability of its gorins; no, not one received so much as a crack, albeit many and severe were the tests to which they had been subjected.

Besides the gorin sports, at Inoko we get up wrestling matches. On the yard of the club-house we build a circular bank of clay and fill the inside with sand; in this all the members contend in practice. Small as I was, I did not like to be thought out of fashion, and to pay for my uncalled-for prowess suffered from sores and bruises. In a body we visit the headquarters of the other clubs and negotiate the matches, which take place immediately on the spot in full view of both parties.

The ceremony of ablution is chiefly observed by Shinto priests. (Shinto is the native faith, holding up the sun for the center figure of worship and eight millions of spirits besides.) The way they observe it in my province consists in setting up in the temple-yard three large hoops of the sasaki tree (sacred to Shintoism) and inviting the people to pass through them. The hoops are supposed to take up the people's sins and transgressions, leaving them clean and fit for the further grace of the gods. Thus loaded with the earthly corruptions and loathsome pollutions of man, the round bands of the fresh, green trees, thickly stuck with zigzag white paper hangings, at the end of the day are taken to running water and washed thoroughly or more commonly committed to the sea.

At about the same time Buddhist priests hold mass for dead sinners. The different sects have different notions. My family were formerly parishioners to a temple of the Hokké sect; therefore. I best remember the mass as observed by that particular denomination. The church society and its officers meet in the vestry to take action in the preparation of floating lanterns. These are hasty, rude contrivances which the active of the parishioners volunteer in getting up; it does not require much skill in carpentry to make them, but it takes time to make so many. Look at one: an odd piece of board for the bottom, two split bamboos bent and stuck on it like the handle of a basket one across the other, and a hood of paper glued round the whole; a nail in the center holds a penny candle. All very inartistic indeed, as befits their use, as we shall see presently.

On the mass day all about the temple are strung up an untold number of the lanterns. Now, devout old folks and young come in streams all day to put up prayers for their beloved dead, and those so inclined buy the lanterns for the purpose of lighting the way for the departed. The goods when paid for are handed over by the presiding elders, who have charge of the sale, to the priest and assistant priests; they write sûtra verses on them and order them to be left before the altar. If business is good, by the latter part of the evening the entire stock is disposed of; the till rattles with money, and the priests are in good cheer. Then follows a great chanting and beating of drums, and after prayers have been said once for all, the lanterns are put on board several boats and the drums and cymbals also carried to enliven the next scene; the priests and committee walk down to the shore slowly. Things being placed aright, out they pull on the heaving sea—the incoming tide having been looked to beforehand, so that at high tide the lighted lanterns may be set afloat and go drifting at their will with the falling flood.

Ah, they are gone, the skiffs! We discern them no more. I want you to understand that it is a dark night, otherwise my picture isn't so good, although in point of fact the moon does often chance to look up on the occasion. And the moonlight on the swelling tide is not very bad, I acknowledge, yet, you see, I wish to preserve the grand effect of "fire and darkness." So, pray, gentle reader, indulge my fancy this time; I won't always ask this. Well, it's a dark night then: as the boats slip out of our sight we can hear the lapping noise that comes of their swaying from side to side caused by the queer Japanese mode of sculling. Ere long we cease to hear it; the vessels are well out in the obscurity. Do we not see anything of them? Not quite. The lights they convey show us their whereabouts. We are all this while on shore, mind you. The onset of water seems to take uncommon delight in driving us up, chuckling to itself along the beach, until at last we are crowded into a narrow strip of sand with the rest of the spectators. There! it's up to the high-water-mark; we won't be annoyed any longer. Let's sit down.

While we watch, ten thousand points of light dot the expanse; no finer illumination, I for one, ever expect to see on earth; and soon there blazes out a great ruddy flame from the chief priest's boat amid the confused echoes of prayers on all the vessels. That is the end of it, friends; sit still and look on, if you choose,—many indeed do so—and observe the lights recede and drift away, or die out. Of these some never return and are believed to have gone where they were bidden, others and a majority, to be frank with you, are washed ashore next morning shattered into fragments.

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