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Death at a Festival by Cassandra Griffin
Death at a Festival
by Cassandra Griffin
I’d only just finished fastening my obi and already I could feel a drop of sweat racing down the middle of my back. My wooden sandals were cutting into my toes, and my back was aching from the rigid stance. Being much lighter than the traditional kimono, I was told the yukata was perfect for hot summer festivals like today's. I took a deep breath. Were you supposed to be able to breathe in these things? I was excited. I could put up with a few hours of discomfort, but there was no way I’d miss out on experiencing this Japanese cultural gem.
Confidently, I stepped out of my apartment and strolled to the nearest Hiroden streetcar, a charming feature of the tenacious city of Hiroshima. As a foreigner – a gaijin – living in Japan for some time, I knew to expect a little extra attention, but this was ridiculous. Sure, almost half of the car was filled with people garbed in colourful yukatas, but I stuck out like a fork in a sushi bar.
During the long ride to the festival, curious eyes eventually unglued from my direction. All but one pair. The woman who sat across from me looked as though she’d seen a ghost. Finally, she broke the uncomfortable silence, but unfortunately I couldn’t understand a word.
“Gomenasai. Wakarimasen,” was my feeble response to explain my misunderstanding. However, this didn’t discourage the determined woman who obviously thought that I didn’t understand because she wasn’t speaking loudly enough. She soon remedied that. It wasn’t long before all eyes were on me again. Her excitement rose until she was almost screaming at me. Grabbing the front of my robe, she told me in stilted English, “You are dead.”
Wide eyed, I searched the crowded streetcar for someone to take pity on me. Couldn't somebody save me from this crazy woman? People smiled, some giggled, others outright laughed. Whether it was at me, or at the woman, I wasn’t sure. The colour of my face now matched my pink yukata.
Only once she had thoroughly accosted me, did a female bystander intervene. She explained (in perfect English that she could have busted-out a little earlier, thank you very much) that I had made a horrible mistake. I had wrapped the right side of my yukata over the left. To my gaijin knowledge, this might have been akin to wearing two different coloured socks. I shrugged. What was the big deal? But my blunder, I soon learned, was actually in very poor taste. The crazy woman may not have been threatening to kill me, but I was certainly dressed for the occasion; I had worn my yukata the way they would dress a body for a funeral.
Once we arrived at our stop, the mad woman waved me on to the nearest restroom. My desire to fix my cultural faux pas outweighed my fear of the eccentric lady. I followed her inside. Before I could say “strip show”, the woman unravelled my obi and whipped open my robe for all to see.
As I stood in the middle of the busy restroom in my underwear, I hoped people would ignore the spectacle and avert their eyes. But this was Japan, and you don’t see a half-naked gaijin in wooden shoes every day. Was this the busiest restroom in all of Japan? I thought about charging admission fees.
Soon the puzzle pieces were put in place by practiced hands, and each subtle fold and tuck completed. As overwhelming as the crazy woman’s assistance was, her intentions were well meant and much appreciated. No longer dressed like the dead, I was free to enjoy the festival with the living. Now at least when people stared I could be sure it wasn’t because I was dressed offensively, but because I was simply a giant, awkward gaijin.
Miyajima Island, or Itsukushima, is located near the city of Hiroshima. Possessing a spiritually rich vibe, it’s where whitetail deer wander through streets like communal pets and monkeys greet visitors from the trees. The island’s famous torii gate is one of the most photographed icons in Japan. Maintaining the purity of the site has always been important to the local people. To achieve this, there have always been three main rules that are still closely monitored today: no cutting down trees, no dying, and no giving birth - no, seriously - it is for this reason there is no maternity ward in the island’s hospital.
Getting there is easy. You can either sail direct from Hiroshima’s Ujina Port, which can cost over ¥1,000, or if you prefer, there is a regular ferry service from Miyajimaguchi, which costs ¥340 return and takes 15 minutes. You can get to Miyajimaguchi by train using the JR line or the Astram line.
There are various restaurants dotted around the island, the most expensive of which boast the best views, coincidentally. If you’re spending the night, keep in mind that the restaurants close around 5pm, so make sure you stock up on snacks and plan to have dinner at your hotel. Most hotels also have lounges with drinks available.
Accommodation on the island can cost anything from ¥300 to ¥40,000 per night. Miyajima Tsutsumigaura Camp-jo is a campsite located on the beach about 4km from the port. Regular buses run between the port and the campsite from early morning to 6pm. The campsite has toilets and there is a bath-house nearby to use for an extra ¥300. There’s also the option of renting a cabin and an outdoor grill. The basic fee to use the campsite is ¥300.
On the lower end of the scale is backpacker’s accommodation for ¥2,500 per night. A mid-range hotel will cost you ¥7,000 to ¥14,000, or if you wish to splurge, you’re looking at prices ranging from ¥15,000 to ¥40,000. Most of the hotels are Japanese-style. Since this is a very popular tourist spot, if you wish to spend the night, make sure you book a room before you arrive on the island.
Cassandra’s local recommendation was Warwick Castle in England. Offering family-friendly activities all year round, the castle is a beautiful piece of English heritage.