Young children jump Throw handfuls of beans
With open bags held up high To cast out all your devils.
Elders throw down fruit. Is that all it takes?
Today was Setsubon Festival, a kind of farewell to Winter and welcome to Spring. Seems early according to the weather, but actually it was somewhat Spring-like and plum blossoms are increasingly visible. I went to Nezu Shrine and by 2 pm, the crowds had gathered. This was the travel I loved and remembered from my epic year-long odyssey around the world in 1978-79. Besides studying music and documenting it wherever I went on my old Sony cassette player, I went to every festival within shoutin’ distance. The Festival was—and is—the gathering of all the cultural energies—the music, dance, drama, artwork, food, religious practices and more. Indian festivals were simply extraordinary—men waving flags atop elephants while drums, cymbals and horns charged the air, processionals with thousands chanting carrying portable shrines, all-night dance dramas and shadow puppet plays. Likewise the Balinese (also Hindu) festivals that we witnessed that same year. When my wife and I arrived in Kyoto at the end of that trip, we happened into the Gion Masturi Festival. It had the same type of colorful display of the Indian Festivals, but we couldn’t but help note that orderly procession on streets with police controlling the crowd—quite a contrast to the India!
If I am to be remembered for anything from my time at The San Francisco School, I hope it will be my contribution to, creation of and long-term commitment to the school ceremonies and celebrations, much inspired by that year of travel. The opening ceremony, a unique Halloween ritual, the St. George mummer’s play, the powerful Martin Luther King ceremony (see 2nd entry in this blog), the Samba contest, the Cookie Jar contest, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Mud Pie song, closing ceremonies, graduation and more. These community gatherings bring together the core school values in a memorable pageantry of color, music and just plain fun.
So back to Setsubon. My blood was tingling with anticipation watching the children gather under the raised walkway while the flute player and drummers sat down. Finally, a roll from the drum and high-pitched whistle of the flute and out come two masked devils. They approach the walkway, where the elders in the community walk down carrying bags filled with oranges, peanuts and other goodies. The devils run away, the elders face the crowd and throw out the treats to the screams of delight from the children. Kind of like a mass Halloween trick-or-treat, everything given at once. The bags are emptied within a few minutes, the elders wave to the crowd and return to the temple.
It was fun, but I thought, “All of this anticipation for five minutes?” Quite a contrast to the all-night Hindu ceremonies. But then a new group of elders came out and the whole thing was repeated. And repeated and repeated. I finally went for a walk around the neighborhood and returning 45 minutes later, it was still going on!
What values were being enacted in a ritual way? I was moved by the metaphor of the elders throwing down their blessings to the children from above and the parents letting the kids be the closest. (I caught a bag of roasted nuts and though the kid in me wanted to hoard it, I gave it to a little girl next to me.) This all seems the proper order of things and one elderly man in particular was so happy to give his bounty away, shouting in delight with each toss to the crowd. I thought that if America were to enact the actual values we are living at the moment, the festival would look something like this:
Adolescents are on the platform showing off their perfect bodies. The children are down below screaming and copying their sexy moves. The parents are waiting in the car to take the kids to soccer practice when the festival ends. The elders are sequestered away from it all, watching bad TV.
The setsubon I had been told about was a bit different than I witnessed. I expected to see children throwing beans at the devil while chanting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” Apparently, that had happened at my Ryokan with the owner’s son, but I missed it. But the last part of the ceremony is that you’re supposed to eat as many soybeans as your age. When I returned, the owner’s invited me to do just that and laughed at my laborious counting of the roasted soybeans. It was a tough job, but anything for a little extra luck. Happy Spring!