The Ishidori

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There are all sorts of festivals in Japan, but we would like to present something different to you along with the kind of insight you will only get from Japan Daily. It’s called Ishidori Matsuri (石取祭), figuratively meaning “stone bringing festival.”

In the old days the meaning of Ishidori Matsuri was more literal when it was about collecting stones for the shrine. Today no one is collecting stones. Instead they are collecting money, and a little popularity along the way! Similar to the dragon dance you see in China Town – in Yokohama, for example – where a dancing dragon procession will present itself to your business or house for a nominal fee and perform for good luck, the Ishidori festival cars, or Ishidori “dashi” will make their rounds, stopping by businesses to dispense good luck through their own exuberant performance, and of course collect a fair price for that dispensation.

If you get the chance to be near one of these three-wheeled dashi you will not only feel – not just hear, but actually feel! – the sharp sound of clanging in your eardrums, but also the thunderous sound of percussion in your body. No kidding, Ishidori Matsuri is considered the very loudest of all Japanese festivals, and we mean business when we say you must consider ear protection when even in the vicinity of one of these dashi.

Originating in Kuwana City, Mie Prefecture, this style of dashi, replete with a taiko (large Japanese drum) on the back and at least two kane /ka-neh/ (a pan shaped bell) on the sides is guaranteed to create a sound that will carry very far. The official “Ishidori Matsuri” in Kuwana City is held every summer, but we are finding this type of dashi showing up in other cities for other festivals. At the time of this writing there was one making the rounds in Komono City, near Shiga Prefecture. Today’s report actually comes to you from Tsushima City, Aichi Prefecture, not Kuwana City. Our curiosity wasn’t just about this loud and dynamic dashi but also about how or why it seems to be getting popular in places that traditionally did not have this type dashi. In Tsushima City’s case, three Ishidori dashi were donated by Kuwana City to three particular groups that did not traditionally have their own dashi, and for that matter were not even allowed to participate in Tsushima’s Autumn Festival.

As a matter of fact modern Tsushima City in Aichi Prefecture was incorporated just after WWII, but it has existed traditionally for centuries originating as a pilgrimage and trading post. Festivals have been going on here for a very long time, such as the 600-hundred year summer festival we reported on recently. A traditional sight in Tsushima during these festivals is the “mountain car” style float, or dashi that has four large wooden wheels, ornate colors and patterns demarcating a specific town within Tsushima City.

These “mobile shrines” usually have soft, traditional music being performed by young musicians riding inside. At the top of the dashi are traditional puppets doing tricks or shooting confetti when the dashi is presented in front of Tsushima Shrine, a top-tier shrine within the Shinto religion. You can see this type of dashi throughout the Owari region in and around Nagoya City. They are old and heavy, requiring teams of men to heave and turn these cumbersome dashi in a technique called “shagiri” or “spinning the car.”

Given the centuries of tradition and the Japanese nature to not break from tradition very easily our curiosity was piqued. Why were the three Ishidori dashi given to these three groups in Tsushima City? More at the heart of our curiosity is the question, who are the people in the groups? This is not a question we could openly ask due to cultural sensitivity. Even Google got into trouble for that in 2009 (insert link). However it comes by good source and reference that these three groups represent a larger, historical residential area and people who were treated poorly when discrimination of certain groups was commonplace in Japan.
While history has not changed, the times have, and if there is more power in numbers, then we can say the people represented by these three groups are more empowered today during Tsushima’s Autumn festival. Accompanied by no less than a dozen cops for who-knows-why, the groups guide their three-wheeled Ishidori dashi easily, quickly even as they clang and bang their way around the city, each followed by its own group of people with striking festival attire, fancy hair styles, and attitude while performing with “kakegoe” or shouting.

The nimble dashi are perfect for accessing small traditional streets and lanes of Tsushima’s old town area that typically deny the larger, unwieldy mountain dashi which can only roll slowly towards the shrine in a long, straight procession. The contrast is unmistakeable as you see “cumbersome tradition” slowly keeping the line while “limber un-tradition” weaves in and out of a society that previously denied them.

The locals turn out in large numbers, some to support their own town’s dashi, walking with friends, enjoying the reverie, but many come to watch and listen to the Ishidori dashi that bring excitement and attitude that almost seems envied by the onlookers themselves. Tsushima City is quite conservative, so the contrast will not be lost on you when you see the Ishidori dashi in action.

You might get the impression the clanging of the kane (pan bell) or the banging of the taiko (large drum) is saying, “Look at us! We are proud, we are collected, and we will not be ignored. We live, we thrive, and do not care how we look to you!” There is a tangible air about the Ishidori that testifies to a subculture that was once suppressed, but is now stepping out with a lot of noise and color!

After all 16 traditional mountain dashi arrive and line up at Tsushima Shrine, the real party will begin as the Ishidori dashi join and park among the towering mountain dashi afterward. Dusk will give way to night, candles on the Ishidori dashi will be lit, and then off they go into the town again. The grand finale, of sorts, will be when all three face off in the middle of the street as they attempt to out-drum, out-clang, and out-shout the other Ishidori dashi. You see, each one has its own pattern, its own rhythm, its own history that sets it apart from the others, just as they collectively set themselves apart from tradition.