“Kazuko, can we go now?”
“Oh. I want to stay.”
“You said we could leave early, before the end. I’d like to go now.”
“Wait. Ten minutes. We go the back street to train to avoid crowds.”
And that is how, a half hour later, I got stuck in a crowd of 20,0000 people trying to get to, and on, the train at the same time.
I was in the tiny village of Kurama, thirty minutes outside of Kyoto, where the Fire Festival attracted huge crowds. Kazuko, the new Servas host I was staying with, had agreed to go and leave early to avoid the rush. In the early afternoon we took the train that wound its way into the hills behind the city. We walked the tiny, empty streets of Kurama, filled with old wooden homes surrounded by trees and mountains. By 6:00 P.M., when the bonfires in front of each house were lit to begin the ancient Shinto fire ritual, the streets filled to overflowing. The festival started when small children carried small torches down the street.
At 7:00 P.M. men dressed in sumo wrestler’s loincloth belts, with a boatman’s shoulder protector over their shoulders, leg gaiters (like the express messengers in the old days who could run very fast), straw sandals, a bandana, and a fringe half skirt, gathered in groups of three or four carried twelve foot long, two hundred pound torches; bundles of brushwood covered by cedar boards and tied together with roots of wisteria.
Each torch bearer in the group yelled, “Sairei-ya Sairyo” (calling all the torch bearers to come together) as they went up and down the narrow streets. The number of torches increased as the evening went on. The men walked up and down the one-street town to the beat of the taiko drum. At 8:00 P.M. each of the torch bearers would gather at the gate of the Kurama temple to light one huge torch as an offering to the gods, the final spectacle of the festival that would go on for hours. Only a few people would be able to see the final part of the festival around the shrine where they had staked out spots in the afternoon.
I wanted to leave by 7:30 to avoid the worst of the crowds. That was when Kazuko said she wanted to stay longer. The last of the torch bearers went past our spot on the street at 7:45 PM. “Ok, we go now,” said Kazuko. But there was no where to go. Everyone tried to leave at the same time. The police stopped all movement on the back street for crowd control. We were squeezed in one massive crowd on the main street, essentially corralled into holding pens and only released when the next section moved forward enough. Kazuko was a nervous sort and her lack of English was hard for both of us. But I had made myself clear about leaving early. I was upset she hadn’t kept her word with me. I let her know this and she lost face. I knew my manners were bad, but I didn’t care. Early the same morning, Kazuko took me to the Imperial Palace to watch Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages), a parade with participants dressed in costumes from every period of Japanese history. A beautiful spectacle, that alone would’ve been my limit for being in a crowded area.
I should’ve been grateful Kazuko took me to two festivals. I had nightmares about this type of situation. I avoided large crowds. My heart pounded hard. My breath was short and tight. My head spun from the crowds and still being jet lagged. My clothes and the air reeked of pine smoke. There was nothing I could do but let myself be moved along with the crowd. I took a hit of Rescue Remedy and basically left my body and tried to stay as much on the edge of the crowd as I could. And that was how we inched along to the train station for the next hour and a half.
At one point the line thinned out to only three wide as we went along a path by the river. I breathed deeply. We arrived at the train station where ropes had been set up where lines of people snaked their way down the road. I groaned. For another hour we wound around this roped in area as each train came and went, about ten minutes apart. When it was our turn to get on I was pushed into the train by the official train pusher, an occupation unique to Japan. The pusher’s job was to cram as many bodies into the crowded trains doors as they were closing.
Once I was crammed in I stood by the door and held onto a pole and wouldn’t let go. I didn’t budge as more people were pushed into the train behind me. Something about knowing I could get out of this crowd if I needed to and jump out the window or door calmed me a bit.
As the train coming in the other direction, back from Kyoto, with just a few people in it passed our car the people looked in at our crowded car. I clawed at the window and mouthed, “Help me! Help me,” much to the amusement of the Japanese, who took this sort of experience in stride.
I was a wreck by the time the train arrived in Kyoto. But if this had to happen to me in any country I was glad it happened in Japan. There was a calmness to the chaos that kept me sane. No one was drunk, no one tried to pickpocket me, no one cut in the lines. I was proud at how calm I remained. If Cradoc had been with me I would have begged him to find a place to sit and let the crowds diminish before stepping on the train even if it took all night. Or I would have used him as a ramming rod to get through the crowds, as I did once in San Luis Obispo California when we were trapped in a crowd of Mardi Gras drunks when a fight broke out. Instead, I learned another lesson in overcoming some of my limitations.
I’d been in Japan just over a week. I’d been told when I could and couldn’t bathe; when I could eat my miso soup (“Not first, it’s too hot!”). I’d taken my shoes on and off 4,000 times, been taught how to bow, write calligraphy (badly I guessed since I kept getting scolded by Kazuko that I was doing it wrong). I was told how to mediate, how to wait in line, how to use the controls on the toilet. I learned the proper way to take a communal bath, buy a bus and train ticket, point to my nose instead of my chest when I was talking about myself. And most of all I learned not to go to any more festivals.