This post was contributed by Raquelle Brant, Administrative Assistant for Academic Records in Education Abroad, who taught English in Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching program for three years. Teaching English around the world is one way to take your career abroad, giving your resume a boost with international experiences and perspectives. Learn more about how the English Language Center can fuel your dreams of going abroad.
One of the most memorable experiences I had while living in Fukui, Japan from 2015 to 2018 was attending the Echizen Paper Festival, in the neighboring small mountain town called Imadate. This festival, held each year during Japan’s Golden Week holiday, was to honor the goddess of paper, called Kawa-Kami Gozen.
Legend says this goddess taught the local people the art of papermaking about 1,500 years ago, and during this three-day festival, the goddess comes down from the mountain so the people can celebrate and honor her. The goddess is housed in a portable shrine called a mikoshi, which the men of the village carry back up the mountain on the third day to enshrine in her home, known as Otaki Shrine.
On the way up the mountain, the mikoshi is brought to many smaller shrines where a ‘battle’ ensues, with the prize being the right to keep the goddess at one of the smaller shrines. The men push the heavy mikoshi back and forth in a tug-of-war, but each year they are defeated and she ends up back where she began at Otaki Shrine.
My friends and I followed the mikoshi from the village square and to each shrine along the path, enjoying free food and cheering for the battles. We were taught how to beat the taiko drums to keep rhythm for the shrine bearers, sharing our stories with the friendly locals and having a great time. I saw many of my co-teachers and my students, who were all too happy to share with me this important part of their local culture and celebrate together.
At the very end, as night fell, everyone gathered inside Otaki Shrine to listen to the Shinto priest, who performed a ceremony to enshrine the goddess once again. There was a power in the tall cedar trees, the cool mountain air, the people gathered together around this glimmering golden mikoshi, the chanting of the priest. The animistic Shinto religion teaches that gods, or kami, exist within the rocks, the trees, the rivers and the mountains— anywhere special and unique. It was a foreign concept to me, and yet, although mysterious and elusive, somehow I could actually feel the presence of the kami that gorgeous spring night.
As I come from a very young nation with several different cultures and peoples, experiencing this festival taught me so much about the value and power of tradition, especially those of a largely homogenous society with an incredibly long history. I marveled at a culture so ancient, with practices carefully preserved and coexisting with a rapidly changing modern world; with people willing to preserve their way of life and pass it on to their children, despite the sobering fact that small towns are rapidly disappearing due to the disastrously low birth rate in Japan; with people who are wondering how much longer these traditions will continue, and how many people will remain to continue them.
I sensed a glimmer of hope from some of them, who saw a small group of foreigners mixed in with the local people eager to learn and participate in this festival. Tourism was a big priority for them— it was a way to keep the traditions alive by sharing them with the rest of the world. Much of the work I did at city hall, where I worked when I was not teaching English in elementary schools was to help create resources in English to assist with this endeavor, and this festival was a tangible reminder of how important this work was to keeping this little town and its beautiful culture alive. Despite the challenges of modern Japan, I hope this festival will continue. I want to experience it again and again, to share it with others, and to be a part of its future.