Justin Hall's personal site growing & breaking down since 1994

watch overshare: the story contact me

Hc : : Akita: Yokote: Bonden
Bonden: Pageant | About Town | Rush

Men about Town

Now that man's gift to the gods had been judged by man, it was time to hit the town. We strapped the Bonden to a small truck and with a van following behind, we drove into a nearby neighborhood. The men all disgorged, save the drivers, and we proceeded as follows:

  • I would announce our arrival or presence outside of the store with a sustained blast on the conch shell.
  • One man would be holding our wooden banner, announcing our group, with our a third-place Bonden award affixed. He would take the wooden banner and clatter it against the doorframe of the store.
  • Another man held a megaphone, and he would open the door to the store, restaurant, hotel, office, home, and lean in singing the Bonden song.
  • Two or three young men from our group would enter, with megaphone man and conch boy perhaps following behind. If the location was prestigious or familiar, some of the senior members of the group would personally make the communications and solicitations.
  • Either way the young men from our group came bearing a bamboo flask of sake and small rough cut natural bamboo cups. They would put this cup in the hands of the storekeeper/nurse/innkeeper/office worker/car salesman/housewife/salaryman and pour them some sake, while the singing continued and the group called out variously.
  • At some point an envelope would be offered from the business, with their name written on the outside of it. We would take the envelope, and give them a Tapurosu towel, wrapped in plastic as a gift.
  • Then we would leave.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan keeps clippings from English language newspapers for the last ten years. A few months back I sat down with the file full of "right wing/nationalist" press clippings and read about all the recent right-wing misadventures in modern Japan. Notably, a favourite tactic of the right wing is to pick a business and sit outside making a lot of noise about the proper fate of the nation and the role of the emperor until the business makes some donation and then they would move on.

What we were doing seemed similar. We would stand outside, make a friendly bit of noise to let people know were were there, and then five or six large guys wearing pajamas and dark robes would stand in the midst of their business day carrying on and encouraging drinking, until they gave us money, and then we'd leave. It was amusing to watch the faces of customers as we interrupted their meal or shopping experience to blow horns, sing ancient Japanese songs, and inebriate the people serving them. The community seemed fairly tolerant, but there was not a ready means for these people to transition from spectator to participant.

All this fuss for some money. The amount in the envelopes was typically 1000 yen, though people gave as much as 16000 yen. The people who most enjoyed the arrival of our small party seemed to be small businesses, with older proprietors, they would drink, and chat with us, and come out and look at our Bonden in our truck. Some stores didn't fare so well; two proprietors hid where I could only see their hands and didn't emerge after we had lingered just a few minutes, so we left without incident. We were not a threatening bunch. At the cake and sweets shops, our men purchased small candy treats for themselves. So little was demanded other than about $7.50 for the cause.

We raised money by carrying the Bonden tradition to the local businesses: "Hey check out our hard work!" And, "Hey we spend our money here all year long, we'd like you to support our community cause." The liquor stores and alcohol distributors invariably gave us beer as well, which were happily imbibed in the back of a pickup truck immediately afterwards. We would take breaks from our fund raising to urinate on the property of the people who had just given us money.

Any possible extortion seemed forgivable, as the Bonden in Yokote makes for a parade, which brings in tourists. Leading up to this weekend of Kamakura and Bonden, Yokote was asleep. I had my choice of hotels, offering me discount rates since things were so quiet. Then this weekend of Bonden everything is full, the streets are packed with people. Part of it is the cute kids in snow houses and part of it is the older men shoving about their designed phalluses. So the door to door Bonden celebration is also an acknowledgement of the economic arrangement of the festival: we spend time and money to build this crazy Shinto wand, and more people come to town and spend more money at your store, so you should give us a cut.

The money which might total over $2000 goes to the group to recover costs for building this elaborate sculpture, money goes to facilitate drinking, and money goes to the temple.

I aided and abetted this, with some enthusiasm. I took my job as hornblower quite seriously, dependably blowing before and after each entry, sitting in the back of the little pickup truck with the Bonden and blowing as we drove down roads and highways. This never struck me as the sort of sinister extortion I read about, not nearly as serious, just a sort of game played by young men in a small town. Obviously the progenitor of the community extortion.

When we went to Hiragen Ryokan, the older gentleman looked positively shell-shocked and didn't register who I was and just looked extremely uncomfortable to have this rowdy group of money grubbers standing at his genkan, foyer. Itoi-san gestured for him to recognize me and a slight smile passed over his lips but his eyes didn't shrink from the size of big and shocked. He shook my hand twice, still he seemed dazed and a little nonplussed. Another group with another Bonden was coming in as we were leaving. I felt a little bad, but clearly this was tradition, all the smelly, unwieldy, inappropriate ways of doing things that have been preserved in spite of the fact that people don't do things like that anymore. Tradition isn't only cute kids wearing straw shoes, it's boys getting drunk, singing in your hallway until you pay them to leave and then perhaps urinating on their way out.

How old we were acting was most obvious to me when we went into a convenience store, and the store really had no facility for dealing with us. I think the lady behind the counter, with four people in line and a fair amount of confusion, I think she poured the sake into a sink behind her. Man they even drank at the Japanese post office! But they wouldn't drink or give up the cash at the Koban, Police box.

But we were a nice bunch; nearly all the stores we went to recognized members of the group and stood to have a chat. They were busy working, and we brought a little bit of the party to their corner of the world. Why not?

Bonden: Pageant | About Town | Rush

Japan, Akita, Yokote Bonden Festival - All About the Yens
What's funnier than a foreigner? A foreigner blowing on a giant sea shell!

Japan, Akita, Yokote Bonden Festival - All About the Yens
Yamanaka Shitoshi our group cantor sang the Bonden Song in warbling tones through a megaphone. Other groups used a cassette deck strapped to their waist. I loved the sound of his voice. The serious old song was a charming clash with his ready grinning manner and fondness for drink. I aspired to learn this song and this attitude from him.

Japan, Akita, Yokote Bonden Festival - All About the Yens
We served sake to this bewildered child who was brought out from the back of a quiet town hospital to see this group of boisterous men. She, he, this child looked nothing but startled, and said not a word. The sake was whisked away into the unseen back rooms of the hospital where presumably it was drunk or perhaps used to sterilize something.

Japan, Akita, Yokote Bonden Festival - All About the Yens
This sake was served to the Mama at a drug stored staffed by a group of ladies in long white lab coats. If you click on the picture, you can see these folk of whom I speak.

Japan, Akita, Yokote Bonden Festival - All About the Yens
While there were some stores that turned us away outright, it was at the convenience store that I felt our group most out of place. We weren't denied or turned away outright, rather we were made to wait. It quickly dawned on me that we were extremely inconvenient. Who cared? We didn't get any money and I think the salesclerk poured her sake in the sink.

Japan, Akita, Yokote Bonden Festival - All About the Yens
This old lady knew the routine; she welcomed us with a smile, had ready envelopes, drank sake and bantered with the boys. When she saw me she laughed and gave us a second cash-filled envelope.

Japan, Akita, Yokote Bonden Festival - All About the Yens
While the Police didn't drink and didn't give us money, the Post Office partook of both these traditions!

This is midway through the donation driving, about two hours in. Some beer, much sake consumed. The larger half of the Tapurosu group rode hanging off the back of the pickup truck with the Bonden. I rode with this half until I began to feel woozy from the extreme whipping wind, booze and horn-blowing. Then I took my turn sleeping in the van.

Japan, Akita, Yokote Bonden Festival - All About the Yens
The one group of businesses in town we didn't hit were the "snack" hostess clubs. We retired before they opened; still I imagine these men I was with had patronized them some and so there might be some ready recompense. I caught one group of Bonden bearers out hitting up the snack clubs and late night restaurants. I say caught as some dodged to avoid being photographed when they saw me. No such behaviour by daylight!

Bonden | Yokote | Akita | Japan | trip | life

justin's links by justin hall: contact