School clubs are a big deal in Japan. My professor advised us all during our pre-departure class to join a school club while studying abroad. Thanks to my Japanese roommate, an Akita native, and a little research about the school at which I would be studying, I had already set my heart on activity in particular: I wanted to play the fue, or bamboo flute, with the Kanto Team.
Akita International University’s Kanto Team performing at the 2010 school festival
Kanto is a four-day festival held during the first week of August in Akita city. The kanto ,110-pound, 40-foot tall bamboo poles adorned with paper lanterns, represent ears of rice about to harvested in the upcoming months. Teams from all over Akita prefecture come to compete during the day in Senshu Park, with parades held nightly along Kanto O-dori street.
Men take turns balancing the kanto on their palms, lower backs, shoulders, and foreheads. Confident and experienced bearers will show off by balancing the kanto while wearing ippon-ba geta (sandals with only one support “tooth,” as opposed to two) or while wielding a fan or parasol.
Additional sections can also be added to make the kanto taller and more difficult to balance. Consequentially, regardless of how experienced a team might be, kanto are often dropped or become tangled in power lines, trees, and each other. The video below shows a couple cases of a kanto becoming too much to handle. At 2:58, you can see one kanto to the right moving very quickly down the street, probably because the bearer is having trouble balancing it. At 3:15…well, I won’t spoil it.
The performance is accompanied by taiko and fue music. The musicians play two different traditional tunes, one for when the team is carrying the kanto down the street to the next performance site and one for the actual performance. Here is a video of selected team members participating in the music portion of the 20120 competition. The march is played until 00:26, with the performance portion thereafter.
The festival is certainly quite a sight, but what is it like being part of it all?
Training was as rigorous for the musicians as for the kanto bearers, with two-hour practices two or three times a week. Although I joined the team backed by 12-years’ worth of flute experience, there were still a lot of new things I had to learn. Not only did a bamboo flute require difference technique, there was no sheet music, so all music had be learned and memorized by ear and according to fingerings. Fortunately, the team did not require musical experience to join, so new members got taught from scratch, and more experienced members were always willing to give advice and suggestions.
Since the team is mostly Japanese (I was one of three international students out of about 45 members), all practices and meetings were held in Japanese. The language barrier could be intimidating at times, but many of the older students who had already studied abroad were eager to chat with me about their own international experiences. Although I was often shy, especially at team parties, I did enjoy learning about and witnessing how school clubs are directed, and wish I could have gotten to know all my team mates a little better.
As for the festival itself, two words: sensory overload. I can’t even begin to explain the feelings the first time I stepped up onto the back of the truck, taiko beating directly behind, surrounded by everyone chanting a steady and enthusiatic “Dokkoisho, dokkoisho,” and being able to look out over a fully lit Kanto O-dori.
But as I explained, kanto frequently come crashing down into the street. Since the musicians are positioned in the street only a few yards ahead of the kanto, they have to be aware of their surroundings at all times. In fact, musicians waiting to switch in with those playing on the truck must crouch or kneel down on one knee instead of sitting so that they can jump out of the way if a kanto looks like it’s about to fall. Those at the front of the line often end up pushing back the players behind them. Similarly, those at the back of the line usually keep an eye on the next team performing ahead.
It wasn’t until the end of the festival that a couple of my team mates gave an alternative reason as to why the musicians, the majority of which are women, would hustle out of the way when a kanto began to precariously waver:
“There is a superstition that if a woman touches a kanto, it could make her pregnant.”
“So that’s why we all push and grab each other out of the way if it looks like it might fall? Well, besides not wanting to get crushed?”
I don’t know if anyone still believes this, or if my friends were just teasing me, but either way, next time I get to see Kanto (and I will, even if just as a spectator), I hope no one will get too offended if I end up reflexively pushing and pulling my neighbors out of harm’s way.
To close this post, some highlights from the 2012 festival (with a small crash at 1:33):