Thursday, February 21, 2008

2/24/08 I, Samurai

As is often the case with our extracurricular assignments, I had very little idea what I should expect. Information is usually short and vague at best, and is accompanied with a "you have no choice" sort of attitude, which annoys me greatly. However, this experience has definitely brightened my outlook for future tasks. So, the story we were given was that we were all going to dress like samurai and walk in a parade. We are city employees, and so are often called to do city sponsored events. Fine. Lets go.

The four of us began the night with a rendezvous at the board of education building. Keeble was still hanging out with us at the time (he has since left to mess around in New Zealand) but our boss wouldn't let him participate so he was delegated the duties of group photographer and cheerleader.

Keeble, how I think he'd like to be remembered: in Japan, at a cheap Italian restaurant, with a kid's menu stuck on his head. (I must have that T-shirt).

Once fully assembled, our party then rode our bikes to a nearby school where an army was being outfitted. The gymnasium was lined full of crates brimming with all sorts of clothing, armor, and weaponry. At this point I realized how cool this was going to be. Several seniors we strolling around fully decked out in their armor, complete with helmets sporting a large metal centerpiece.

After a bit of monkeying around with the various costume pieces, one of the staff helped us with everything. It soon became apparent that we couldn't have put everything on ourselves even if we had known what the heck we were doing, due to the various straps that needed to be tied off in awkward places. While I waited my turn to get suited up, I did a bit of preparation. They had warned us days earlier about how cold it was going to be, so I put several little adhesive chemically heated pads all over myself. I didn't know how long we would be marching through wind and snow, so I was a bit worried that my heat source mightn't make the trip. I then pulled on a few layers of provided black two-toed ninja socks, and patiently waited my turn.

You can see one of the toasty little squares stuck to my shirt.

I had assumed the assistant people were just volunteers at first, but they applied everything with an efficiency that I decided must belong to a professional samurai dresser. Perhaps they work for the same company that the armor was rented from? I don't know.

When it was finally my time to shine, everything went smoothly. There were almost 20 pieces in all. It wasn't genuine stuff, obviously, but I felt like everything had a movie-prop sort of quality.

Putting on some puffy pants.

The rope shoes were amusingly small.

The one small snag that did occur was the arm and shoulder covers. The first one we tried was too small, and the second pair they managed to find just barely fit. It was so tight that I couldn't raise my arm past my shoulder, which really cut down on my fighting effectiveness.

Squeezing into the shoulder sections. I am cursed with beefy arms, I'm afraid.

I would have looked pretty cool even without the actual armor.

Soon we moved on to the breastplate. Maybe a little bit small, but not by much.

The helmet was one of the coolest parts. The part that covers the neck was made of several smaller plates tied together. This made it possible for the armor to flex with the movement of the head.

One by one everything was strapped into place. Once everything was finished I could concentrate of the serious business of whipping my sword out and pretend-stabbing everyone I walked past.

I'm not gonna lie. This is going to hurt.

And thus, my transformation was complete.

The other guys were similarly excited about their new toys, and we played around for quite some time.

The whole squad.

Mike, about to get stabbed by myself.

Clarence striking an impressive pose.

Katherine in an example of the girls' uniforms, and one of the older guys with the much nicer outfits.

The little circles with the two lines through them are the seal of the Ashikaga clan.

Once a bit of time passed, we were all directed outside. I immediately realized the issues that would arrise involving my several sizes too small rope shoes and the cold, wet, and snowy earth. I hadn't yet made it to the bus when the moisture began to soak through my socks.

A bus. Full of samurai.

The whole army was carted in a couple of trips to the parking lot where the parade would begin. A couple of speeches and a roll call later, and we were on the march.

When it began to snow, we were all covered with ponchos, in an effort probably meant to protect our clothes more than our bodies.

I had a rope shoe malfunction that was slowing me down, but otherwise the armor held up great.

There were a few people in scattered groups watching the parade as we marched down the center of the street. Standing in the snow in the middle of the night wasn't on a whole lot of peoples' calendars though. Most of our fans consisted of the poor souls waiting in their cars, idling through several green lights until the last of us had passed the intersection.

A few times, due to pictures or whatever, our section of the line fell behind a bit. A few of us took this opportunity to catch up with a bit of a jog, swords at the ready. It felt pretty cool, and the armor made satisfying clanking sounds as we moved.

When we approached the end of the line, we all ripped off our silly trash bags and donned our game faces. Here I am about to be assassinated by an evil Mike.

Nobue from the International Office at city hall was attempting to get her picture with us, but I was forced to chop her in half for interrupting the parade. Pity, that.

We walked and walked. Then walked some more, until we finally arrived at Bannaji temple, where a sizable amount of people had gathered. One of the reasons for the whole parade was the festival of Setsubun.

Setsubun, which marks the beginning of spring, is interesting in its application of roasted soybeans. A popular practice at Japanese homes is for a member to put on a devil mask, while the rest of the family berates and throws these beans at the "evil spirit", convincing it to get the heck out of their house in a symbolic purification process. People then eat one bean for each year they have lived, for good luck (of course!).

Typical little Setsubun devil mask that I picked up at the supermarket.

Our army made several lines on the steps of the shrines. It was a pretty exciting feeling, as a rope semi-circle held back quite a large crowd of people that had come to see us. I was a bit surprised at the popularity of the event, although if each person in the parade had one loved one show, it would have been a crowd on its own. Maybe ten or so press people with large cameras occupied one section of the crowd, some of them standing on ladders to get a better shot. Wooden boxes filled with beans were passed out to all of us. Then, at the signal, we heaved handfuls of the beans into the crowd. Many of the people were attempting to catch the airborne legumes, I assume in order to eat them for good luck. The whole scene was pretty intense:brights lights, beans everywhere. I heaved a handful or two at the press section, which I am sure they appreciated.

A shot of us all lined up, from the crowd. Somehow I managed to end up front and center of the whole group, and thus in all the pictures. Not sure how that happened... Ahem.

Once the crowds dispersed and all the bean tossing had ceased, our army gathered around a bonfire and did some "huzzahs", honoring our victorious vegetable assault. You can make out my gimpy arm futilely trying to reach above my own head.

Afterwards there was a thank-you party. It felt strange. Most of the speakers were thanking us for participating, but I felt like I was the one who needed to be doing the thanking. This experience, free of cost to me from beginning to end, was one of the best times I've ever had.


Aftermath. I was told that because of all the reporters, that I should keep an eye on the news outlets for coverage of the event. Apparently, although the parade happens every year, it is a noteworthy occasion in the area. I was pleased to see a color picture of the event had made it into the shimotsuke shimbun, the paper that serves Ashikaga and the rest of the prefecture.

Give it a click to enlarge. You can see Clarence, arm outstretched like an angel, beans captured in midair. I, on the otherhand, am the faceless person standing directly in front of him, smiling as I shovel another handful of beans from my little box. The other guys all got stuck way in the back though, so I guess I can't complain too much.


  1. Those samuarai outfits look damn cool. You are lucking to be able to do something like that. Did you ever think many years ago that someday you would dress up like a samurai and march in a festival parade in Japan?

  2. Yeah it was super cool. While walking, I was thinking to myself about all the things it would be fun to do in the armor. Go to a sushi restaurant, watch a movie at the theater, go shopping, teach classes. I wish I could have kept it for a day. It was an excellent opportunity.