Six years ago, on the third day after arriving in this tiny town near the 45th parallel in northern Hokkaido, I found myself at the festival grounds of the town’s annual summer festival. How I arrived there is a mini tale in it of itself, and one which I eventually would be delighted to relay. However, for now, suffice it to say that somehow, I was there, and that I knew not a soul. But such inhospitable conditions were not to last long. For not long had I wandered alone when I received a sudden tapping at my left shoulder.
I turned and had to lower my gaze a foot or two to a little gray haired old man, his nose swollen and red, his eyes blood shot, and a nervous smile splayed across his lips as he wrung his hands nervously in front of me. He was wearing a deep purple robe of some sort, not altogether much darker than his current complexion, that extended only slightly below his waist and was secured around his middle with a cloth belt knotted like a shoelace.
It took him a moment to build up the courage to speak but he finally managed a very appropriate, “Hello,” followed immediately by the more surprising, “Please. Follow me.”
I could have drunk the alcohol floating off his breath. Yet his manner was so intrinsically harmless, I immediately acquiesced.”OK,” I said half laughing, whereupon the man’s smile squashed his eyes into two tiny narrow slits. He led me over to a seating area, a few sets of plastic white lawn furniture strewn about haphazardly in the middle of the crowd.
“Here. Put this on,” he urged, picking up a similarly colored jacket from off one of the tables and handing it out to me, his face brighter than ever and causing me to experience involuntary recollections of chewing gum and oompa loompas.
“What is it?” I inquired, taking the jacket from his imploring hand.
“It’s a ‘hoppie’,” he replied, beaming with delight.
I honestly wasn’t initially sure if he was referring to the name of the clothing or his well being. But either, I decided, were good enough reasons for me to comply.
He helped me into the jacket and quickly ushered me over to a group of similarly dressed men, all of them over 50 or 60 with freshly slicked combovers and polished shoes. I didn’t know it at the time, but this particular group I was adopted into was basically comprised of the top most powerful men in town, including the mayor, the superintendent of schools, and a number of high-ranking city councilmen. They all welcomed me joyfully, and in varying stages of inebriation, patting me on the back, shaking my hand and bowing endlessly.
In front of us stretched a long double-line of women in white yukatas. And behind us, other groups of ruddy faced men in green and red ‘hoppies.’ The whole procession wrapped itself around a spacious grass and concrete infield, now covered in great blue tarps, smoking barbecues and a mass of people busily roasting sliced mutton, noodles and marinated pig intestine.
Over the din of conversation and blaring Enka music, a shout of ‘Kampai!’ arose here, a roar of laughter there. Somewhere a baby was crying. And all around, playing children screamed as they darted in and out through the line, snatching a few morsels of food before flying off again to rejoin their friends. The sights, the sounds, it all wound up along with the greasy smoke and infused the air with a delight far more intoxicating, I believed, than any alcohol might have been.
Still unclear as to exactly what I was getting myself into, I turned and asked the permed, gray-haired gentleman standing next to me.
“It’s a dance!” he proclaimed, his big eyes twinkling and the gray curls bouncing around on his head, “a special dance done only in this town.”
“A dance!?” I cried. “But I don’t know the dance. ”
“That’s OK,” he assured me, batting his big eyelashes and patting me on the back, “neither do we. Just watch those ladies in front of us and you’ll be fine.”
Suddenly, I no longer thought it peculiar to be drunk at three in the afternoon. And I was further reflecting whether the delightful air was perhaps not quite as intoxicating as I initially supposed when the music on the loud speakers abruptly changed and the dance begun.
Thankfully, it was a slow dance, intended to be performed wearing traditional Japanese clothing. It involved simple steps, first to the left and back, then to the right and back, then forward and back, ever so slowly circumcising the infield. Our arms swung here and there, now gently pushing forward, now gracefully spreading upward, and finally clapping three times. We moved to the singing of a nasally old man, wailing along to the melody of bamboo flutes and twanging shamisens, set to the steady rumble of taiko drums, all of which was occasionally punctuated by a chorus of high-pitched, whiny women.
Although my contributions at first were not entirely complementary to the lovely, yukata-wearing ladies in front of us, they meshed quite well with the alcoholically impaired efforts of my purple-‘hoppie’d comrades. And as the whole thing repeated over and over again, my skills gradually improved such that, just when I got the hang of it, the dance finished.
A cheering applause rose up throughout the festival grounds. From within my group a jovial round of hand shaking and endless bowing once again ensued, and I received a unanimous and unrefusable invitation to join them at their BBQ later in the afternoon. Then the music on the PA switched back to enka, at which we unrobed our purple jackets, and dissipated along with the BBQ smoke.
It was in a state of euphoria that I wandered through the grounds, occasionally being hailed by some brave young child or kindly greeted by some polite adult. Even in my home country, I had rarely ever experienced a feeling of community, let alone the sense of belonging to one. Yet ironically, foreigner though I may be, here in this tiny town in the northern frontier of Japan, where culture and tradition plod along as lazily as the cows in the pastures, when the leaders of the community offered me that jacket, it wasn’t just an invitation to join their dance, it was an invitation to join them.
I couldn’t help but wonder what other ‘dances’ the day had in store, and who my next dance partner might be. But I didn’t have to wait long, as my next invitation soon came, calling wildly and unseen from within the crowd.
“OOOOhh! Sehhhhnsei! Hahloooow! My neigh moo is Mi-ki-kohhhhhh!”
To be continued …