One morning about two months ago, at around 10:00 am, we had a surprise: a bunch of guys in happi jackets and white pants that looked like they were nicked from cricketers paraded past our apartment here in Okusawa, chanting and huffing and puffing like a troupe of big, bad wolves.
Over their shoulders they lugged a long, twisted up thing that resembled a skinny, beige dragon with a cute mush, and my wife Yoko calmly advised that it was the beginning of today’s festival for Okusawa Shrine.
And this was a snake, not a dragon. They weren’t gearing up for the Year of the Snake. No. I’m blessed to live a few hundred metres from a religious house dedicated to snakes.
About five minutes’ walk away, nestled amidst an array of beautiful old trees that look like the enormous cypress from My Neighbor Totoro, Okusawa Jinjya is a traditional Shinto oasis – er, shrine – that’s obviously not only venerated by the local population, but beloved as well, if the queue right around the corner and down the road last January 1 was any indication; then again, that’s typical at shrines during the wintry New Year period.
At other times at Okusawa Shrine you’re just as likely to encounter elderly women in kimono playing koto instruments to nobody in particular, or children in spectacular traditional costumes celebrating their birthdays.
There are little rock grottos and statuettes with red bibs, tadpoles in the tiny ponds, an entrance with suave lamplights in the evening, and glorious wooden buildings aplenty.
But Okusawa shrine is famed for that aforementioned 150kg, nine-meter-long daija, or shrine snake, draped over the torii gate at the entrance, which is often mistakenly referred to as a dragon – probably by fellow ophidiophobics like myself.
This lovable-faced dragon ring-in has actually been decreed an official local “intangible folklore cultural asset”, and dates back to a legend from the early Edo period which has it that when a plague assailed Okusawa, the god Hachiman advised the village head – via a dream – to walk round the village carrying a python constructed of dry rice straw, in order to set about recovery from the epidemic.
These days, a new snake is made (of twisted rice straw) by volunteers each year, in early September, and paraded around the shrine at the insanely popular Yakuyoke no Daiji Festival – which is what we apparently experienced the beginnings of the other month.
No hissing about it.