Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Betcha Matsuri


Monday, Nov. 3, was a holiday in Japan, which meant yet another welcome three-day weekend for me and Joe.

We took advantage of it with a day trip to the charming town of Onomichi, about an hour and 15 minutes away by bus. The draw: the Betcha Matsuri, or as I like to call it, the "Crying Baby Festival." This seemed like the perfect event to witness on Culture Day, as this celebration is very, very, very distinctly Japanese. The aim of the festival is to bring good health and well-being to little children, so tons of parents flock to the festival with their toddlers in tow.

Throngs of people were crowded around a shrine next to Onomichi Station when we got off the bus around 10:30 a.m. There were so many people it was hard to find a spot to witness the action unfolding in the center of the crowd, where some kind of traditional Japanese drama was underway.

Joe and I wandered around and ended up in a spot on the ground right next to the shrine when the play ended and the real action began. Suddenly the crowd crushed in to fill the grassy patch where the play had been, toddlers riding on the shoulders of their parents everywhere. Immediately, the screams and crying began.

"Kowai! Kowai! (I'm scared! I'm scared!)" cried one older girl as her mother dragged her by the hand deeper into the crowd. Tears gushed down her face. The mother was unphased.

Into the crowd came a few young men wearing creepy Japanese monster masks with wild eyes, horns, long noses, sharp teeth and long curling tongues. They carried bamboo whisks — long sections of bamboo with the ends shredded into pieces like a broom — or celebration sticks with a colorful ribbon fringe. Other men accompanied them with wooden rods and big drums.

Photo by Joe

Photo by Joe

Photo by Joe

Parents thrust their terrified children forward to be poked by the rods and hit on the head with the bamboo whisks. Children thus "thrashed" are supposed to have good health over the next year. As you can imagine, this was a traumatizing event for the children, being shoved toward frightening monsters eager to smack them on the head. They cried bloody murder, but many of their parents just kind of chuckled. Everywhere, hands holding cell phones and video cameras floated above the crowd, capturing their cries for posterity.

Photo by Joe
As Joe put it, "Faces are melting!"

I know it's wrong, but when I see the picture of the poor baby above I just think of Jesus Christ.

Photo by Joe

You really have to feel bad for the kids, but I also couldn't help but laugh. The kids are going absolutely ape-shit while their parents are smiling happily. It's ridiculous! And even if the babies are sobbing, sometimes they were still awfully cute. At one point I pointed out a very cute crying baby to Joe and laughed about how precious he was, only to have the mother shoot back a dirty look. Well, I guess I was pointing and laughing at her crying kid, after all. Joe said I reminded him of Nelson from The Simpsons when he points at someone who's hurt and goes "HA-ha!"

Not all the kids were bothered by the treatment. This little bugger was pretty serene:

Photo by Joe

Around noon the madness ended and some young men carried the omikoshi (portable shrines) and drums off to other locations in the city, where other babies would receive swats throughout the afternoon.

Apparently this festival traces its origin back a few hundred years to a time when three men walked around town wearing masks of the Betcha (demon gods) to drive the plague out of town. Now the Japanese commemorate the event with the festival.

In a strange sort of way, this ritual struck me as the Japanese equivalent of taking your kid to see Santa Claus. You know, when kids are really small they sometimes cry when mom and dad plop them down in the fat man's lap. That big guy with a booming laugh and a wild white beard can be intimidating to a little kid, but parents leave the kid there anyway and smile and take his picture. I gotta say, though, walking away with a promise of a My Little Pony has to be way better than being promised you'll avoid the flu this year.

Oh well. At least a lot of the parents took their kids to Mr. Donut after it was all over with. There's something to be said for that. Sprinkles make everything better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Damn you and your warm weather!

Sleep thaight, don't let the bedbugs bite.