CATCH a bullet train out of Tokyo at night, and watch the megacity warp into a single continuous strip of bright and indecipherable signage. The carriage seems to float above the rails and a polite hush reigns within, as the view blurs into Yokohama, then Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka; the world outside the window a boundless field of energy. The circuit finally breaks at some point north of Kyoto, where the countryside suddenly begins, and all that electric light gives way to occasional fires in the distance. Inside one of those fires is an evil wooden fish, burned in effigy every year by rowdy Japanese villagers. The men of Iburihashi, a small community of rice-growers and light-industrial workers near the Sea of Japan, have been doing this for almost a century.
They call it the Guzuyaki Matsuri, or “monster fish festival” taking inspiration from an ancient coastal legend about a wanton creature from the deep who steals onto land and drags a local maiden to her death, or something even worse. “I think even in Europe you have stories like this,” says Yoshikazu Umamori, one of the event’s organisers. “A monster comes to town to take a young girl, so the village people catch the monster and burn it.”
Given that this legend is so obviously rooted in the old dark fears of rural cultures – the fear of outsiders in particular, which can still be felt in many places by visitors to modern Japan (or to the Highlands of Scotland, for that matter) – it seems especially unlikely that a foreigner such as myself should be enlisted to help re-enact it. But here I am in Iburihashi, wearing a headband, a bright red “hapi” coat, and split-toed, thin-soled “tabi” slippers that make my feet look like little white hooves, staggering under the weight of a colossal carved fish, and chanting in time with 20 or more other men as we carry this thing along narrow village roads, which are lined on both sides with cheering spectators and glowing paper lanterns.
There are actually two fish (or “guzu”) in this festival, and ours is supposed to be the good one, hoisted by the older residents, and a few fellow guests, in symbolic defence of their daughters. The wicked guzu, with demonic lightbulbs for eyes, is carried by younger males in their late teens and twenties. They run it recklessly ahead of us, literally fishtailing as they go, teetering on the sharper turns, almost tipping their load onto the crowd or dashing it against the ground. At the end of this parade, the two teams will stage a monumental fight between their cumbersome icons.
The fiendish fish will lose, as always, and be cast into the flames. Before that happens, however, we have to haul them both around for hours, and the allegorical righteousness of our burden doesn’t make it any lighter. Its heaviness is terrible, absurd, almost hilarious, distributed across a hard bamboo frame and sitting on our shoulders with all the agony of martyrdom. I would laugh out loud if I didn’t think it would sound like screaming. I cannot believe that people do this for fun, some of pensionable age and many of them drunk. As one of the youngest carriers of the good guzu, I might as well be trying to heft a cargo ship on my neck with the inconstant assistance of tipsy, elderly monks. Free alcohol is in ready supply from an ornamental cart, which follows behind us on squeaky wheels, packed with ice cold beer and “umeshu” – a sweet, sour, and potent plum wine.
More than once I look back to see my fellows walking beside that booze wagon rather than holding the guzu, red-faced and giggling with a can in each hand. To be fair to the old-timers, they have done their part in the past. When we drop the fish to take a rest (a relief that feels like momentary levitation), Yoshikazu Umamori tells me that he lifted the young man’s guzu in his day, as his father Shinji did before him. Shinji’s generation, who came of age after the second world war, had inherited the Guzuyaki Matsuri from their own fathers, who began it in the 1920s.
As Umamori understands it, the initial impetus was relatively straightforward. “Almost always, Japanese people are serious and quiet,” he says. “Just once a year, they want to be crazy.” His reasoning probably holds true for a whole calendar of comparable festivals held in every prefecture of the country. For a nation that works inordinately long hours with very few holidays, Japan has always been exceptionally prone to pageantry and revelry.
In all the major cities, but especially in the provinces, local folk tales, customs, or archaic seasonal rituals provide occasion and excuse for all-consuming public parties. According to Umamori, this particular event hasn’t changed much in 90 years, except for the addition of what he calls “the old fish”, to cater for those aging villagers who wanted to make room for their sons, but weren’t yet ready to give up their role entirely. Another, smaller fish was also recently introduced so that little boys could take part in their own advance procession. Umamori, now in his early forties, leads the old fish from the front, but his twin sons Ken and Jun are barely two, and still too junior to help.
Instead, they sit in the papier-mâché mouth of the guzu, thus adding incrementally to our suffering when the time comes to pick it back up, although their extra weight is negligible when compared to the full-grown drummer who straddles its back, pounding out the beat that is supposed to set our pace. “Washoi!” calls Umamori. “Washoi!” we shout in response. The word itself has no specific meaning, he explains, in a strained voice over his shoulder. It serves as a kind of battle cry, drawing on internal and communal strength. “You have to lift with your spirit,” he tells me, “not just your body.” Sobriety is the enemy of this endeavour, and several of our indolent team-mates at least have the decency to pour beer down my throat while I do their share of the labour.
As the night goes on, the pain recedes, and the giant fish itself seems to swim back and forth across the street. For a while, it is almost possible to imagine that it’s moving of its own accord, bringing me face to face for one second with pretty girls in kimonos, old ladies watching from their doorsteps, young mothers bearing their unbearably cute babies. Faces, in other words, that I will never see again, all smiling at me with sympathy and goodwill, allowing me to believe that I am one of the good guys, and not the sort of visitor to pull them into the sea.
Even though it’s not my fight, I feel sufficiently invested to develop a blind, howling hatred of the bad fish by the time the final battle begins. In the car park of the local train station, which has been cleared and decorated for the event, the two guzu face each other down, both breathing heavily from the exertions of those underneath. “Washoi!” I bellow. “Washoi!” repeat my comrades. “Washoi!” comes the echo from our foes across the car park.
Then we charge at each other, stopping just short of a head-on smash to reel around sideways and attack again, oafishly and uproariously no doubt – through the red mist, I can see children actually rolling on the ground at the classical, physical comedy of it all – but also wholeheartedly, risking hernias, slipped discs, and coronaries to drive evil from the village.
When it’s over, our brave and battered fish is loaded onto a flatbed truck to fight again next year, while the vanquished monster is hauled away to the bonfire. One of my most spirited companions continues to taunt it while it burns, spitting whisky on the flames until he is hauled away for his own safety. We applaud his enthusiasm, but privately I am wondering if our victory doesn’t count for much when the same guzu wins every time. “Well, the new fish always gets burned,” agrees Umamori, “but the old fish only wins if you feel like it did. Sometimes I don’t. This time I do.”