Initially I told myself it was just the jetlag, or the fermented soybeans my host family had fed me the night before. I returned to my camera, snapping shots as fast as I could, 90% of them blurred by the fact that our lead-foot bus driver was sending our vehicle thundering down the streets of downtown Fukuoka, Japan. But a few seconds later I saw it again, the diapers.
My five classmates, my chaperone, and I all stared out the window with looks of horror and confusion on our faces. Our translators rushed to the rescue explaining the historical significance of the attire we saw in front of us. Grown men, hundreds of them, dressed in nothing but a thin shirt, sandals, and what looked like giant diaper. Our small group of Americans had stumbled upon the Yamakasa Festival, which the third largest city of Japan, Fukuoka, had been working tirelessly to prepare for. The entire city was decorated for the events, paper lanterns and neighborhood banners were draped over the streets, and the shrines were bustling with tourists and locals alike.
In the Yamakasa Festival, which celebrates the approach of the rainy season, neighborhoods create intricately decorated shrines, which are paraded through the city with a crowd of local representatives running alongside. These portable shrines (if you call a bulky object of over a thousand pounds portable) are carried through the city on the shoulders of young men with buckets of water being tossed at the shrine and the crowds waiting to see famous faces parade by such as the famous Japanese baseball star, “Mr.O”.
I had been in Japan for less than 24 hours and I was already overwhelmed by the modern western influence and ancient Shinto traditions that worked together to create the most awe inspiring culture I’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience. Stores were blasting music by current American artists like Usher and Katy Perry while men ran by in traditional dress chanting “Oisa” just like Japanese men have done for over two centuries.
Fireworks signaled the start of the parade and a sea of high-tech cell phones flipped open to record the action. Fukuoka natives from the ages of four to ninety four came running down the street surrounding the first shrine, where the mayor of Fukuoka sat leading the chants and making sure all the shrine carriers were on the same pace, yes, in the traditional diaper attire.
This day officially solidified my love for Japan, especially the city of Fukuoka. Located closer to Seoul, Korea than to Japan’s capital, Fukuoka is rarely visited by Americans unlike the tourist-infested Tokyo. Because of the festival the streets were crowded with people of all ages who would approach our group to test their English skills. Tossing out random, but apparently important, English phrases until they felt satisfied, they then said goodbye without us saying a single word.
Once every neighborhood’s shrine had run past, our exploration of Fukuoka began. The southern Japanese city was littered with parks and restaurants. Two large rivers cut the city into three parts, connected by wide bridges. Walking the streets of this city made me decide that, even in the extreme humidity of the summer, Fukuoka was the most interesting city I’ve ever visited.
Though my schoolmates and I were tired and confused by the twenty hours of travel and the language barrier, witnessing the Yamakasa Festival and the complex city of Fukuoka made us want to don a pair of the shimekomi diapers and shout “Oisa”!
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