text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
As the year’s end is getting closer, Tokyo remembers its old self, when people were much more superstitious than they are today and tried to propitiate the kami, the small and big deities living in the Kanto plain and its surrounding mountains, hoping for a new year without earthquakes, fires and sickness. Especially in the eastern part of the city, away from the skyscrapers and the fashion industry, stores are filled with the new year period’s colors: the dark green of the pine tree, the light green of the young bamboo, the beige of the shimenawa (注連縄) sacred ropes, the white of the shide (紙垂) paper lightning, the gold of the tawara (俵) rice bales and the red of the shishi (獅子) Chinese lion; despite the allusive aesthetics of the Kyoto imperial court, the Edoko (江戸っ子), the “children of Edo” had always felt more comfortable in the abundance of colors and in exaggeration.
A part of this exaggeration which unfortunately got lost centuries ago were the Toshi no Ichi (歳の市), the end of the year bazaars; I say “unfortunately” because from the existing pictures they really seem pretty impressive. Still, anyone being in Tokyo during the second and third weeks of December can experience how the city must have felt back in those days if they visit the Hagoita Ichi (羽子板市), a unique bazaar which specializes in the sale of paddles of the old game hanetsuki (羽根突); these paddles are called “hagoita” and for the last two and a half centuries they have been identified with Kabuki and its actors since their oblong surface is decorated by fabric and paper depictions of them in their most famous roles.
As a rule hagoita aren’t bought by common people; they belong more to stores than homes (unless it is the home of a hardcore Kabuki fan). However, during the three days of the Hagoita Ichi, the crowds in front and around Asakusa’s Sensoji are enormous –I haven’t yet figured out why but with time I tend to reach the conclusion that it is one of the many ceremonies that make the Japanese feel Japanese: a hagoita is one of the most characteristic objects of their culture because of its dual value as a talisman and promise of prosperity and as a promotion medium of some of the most undoubtedly Japanese images. Even if they don’t actually buy them, they want to be in the place where they are sold and feel that not a day has passed since the era the Kabuki was portraying current affairs –with one more year looming, the need for reminders of the past is pressingly urgent.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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