Well-Prepared & Fantastically Imperfect: Sankuro 2023
After two posts on the unique Shinshu tradition of Sankuro, most writers would consider themselves having ably and adequately satisfied their readers’ appetite for descriptions of this pyromaniacal display down by the riverside. Not me.
My son and I were supposed to be at Yasaka Shrine up the road by 10 am. At 9:56 we bolted out the door and took off running. (I’m happy to report I can keep up with my 6th-grader for at least 500 meters though he may have slowed down for me.) We got there in time to be told to pick up the remaining two long wooden poles and follow everyone who was on time and already on their way, to the Susuki River and the hallowed Sankuro grounds that we would soon be setting ablaze like a bunch of drunken chain-smoking day-campers.
The thing I like about events like this in Japan is that no matter how ultra-prepared everyone is stuff always goes off track. It’s a wondrous combination of attention to detail sprinkled with moments of zero foresight. As fanatical as the Japanese are about doing things not just right but as close to perfect as possible, they’re still human. And they’re collectively totally cool about it. I love them.
Down on the sacred Sankuro grounds pretty much everyone involved was already there, full into the business of preparing to incinerate stuff. A blue tarp was laid out on the grass, half-inhabited with year-old daruma dolls who, being a year old, had reached the Age of Sacrificial Objects.
Bundles of straw sat in a neat, flammable pile. Pine branches and decorations from New Year’s 2022 lay in a less-organized mound, a steady stream of people walking right in front of me and my camera to add their contributions to the pile. Over near the embankment on the far side of the cement stairs were cardboard boxes containing the all-important bento lunches.
These were the main ingredients of the day’s festivities, but no less important were the wires and ropes and scissors and hammers necessary to carry out a proper family-oriented inferno. Under the direction of no one I could see everyone went about their tasks: the fifth-graders dutifully pounding holes in the tops and bottoms of the daruma dolls with ball peen hammers; the sixth-grade boys lacerating each other’s faces with wielded pine branches; sixth-grade girls chatting and glancing at their smartphones and, some of them, being helpful. The moms corralled stray bits of tinder and separated with surgical precision certain parts of the old decorative items that had been left at their feet as if they weren’t just going to burn it all anyway. The dads stood around staring at the wooden poles at their feet.
I stood my ground, determined to wait until I could finally take a picture of that pile of pine branches.
Soon the dads got to building teepee frames for the twin pyres. To tie the horizontal wooden poles in place we used ropes fashioned from straw. Very traditional-looking, very cool. And never the right length. Some were too short to lash two poles together without worrying that whoever had to climb that teepee later would spend the afternoon in the ER explaining to the medic that a teepee that had collapsed under his feet. Other lengths of straw rope were laughably long (to everyone who didn’t have to spend forty minutes wrapping a wooden pole like it was a mummy). (In Japan, evidently, you have to use the whole rope when tying a knot.)
The dad who weighed the lightest was nominated to climb up and lash the upper poles in place. This didn’t prevent one of those lower horizontal poles from cracking under his boots. (Pro Tip: In case of emergency in Japan dial 1-1-9.) This in turn didn’t prevent a few of the sixth-grade boys from vying to be the first to scramble up the teepee and stand there like the Lion King waiting for all the other creatures of the land to bring him bundles of straw.
Each demarcated neighborhood has its own Sankuro. Most neighborhoods build one teepee pyre. Mine builds two. I guess we have a lot of people. Or a lot of wooden poles.
When the first teepee pyre was well on its way to maximum flammability we began constructing the second one. This was when someone realized that we’d forgotten to tie a piece of rope to the top of the first one so we could string up last year’s daruma like big fat cranberries on a Christmas tree. Someone had, of course, gotten the rope ready to go. It was lying right there on the ground, only semi-trampled by the straw-toting newly-pubescent arsonists-in-training.
This time none of the kids wanted to be the Lion King.
We managed to remember to tie the daruma string to the top of the second teepee. What we didn’t do this year, like we’ve done in previous years, was hang a third string of daruma between the tops of the two teepees. I don’t know if this was due to a lack of daruma or to one fantastic collective moment of forgetfulness. Though it’s just as well. The string was probably going to be too short anyway.
The sixth-grade boys get the honor of lighting the torches to set the pyres blazing. The girls, it seemed, couldn’t be bothered anyway. And while all that straw went up just as quick as it always has, today’s fires seemed not to last nearly as long as they usually do. Normally the infernal flames last long enough to set the youngest kids crying, send the closest kids diving head first into the river to save their scorched scalps, and cause the cars passing by up on the bridge to start swerving. It’s by far the best part of the day.
But as blazing hot as the fires became in those first few seconds, in the next few they began to die down. There was barely a singed eyebrow in the entire crowd. It was a total let-down.
The firemen on hand quickly pulled the suddenly-bare wooden teepees to the ground with the wires that they had not forgotten to tie to the top beforehand.
With that the twin pancakes of hellfire began to spread, burning the grass and sending the parents running for the buckets of water that they had bucket-brigaded up from the river while their sons were slashing each other’s faces with pine branches (and while I was hanging around taking pictures).
And when the flames and the smoke had died down to an acceptable level of safe danger the firemen invited all the kids to come over and roast the mayudama rice things they had made and stuck to their willow branches. With nary a breeze to blow smoke in everyone’s faces, we were all left with the singular joy of getting second-degree burns on our knuckles roasting these traditional and utterly tasteless balls of rice powder.
The day ended with the bucket brigade dousing the fires and shoveling the water-logged dirt and ashes into heavy plastic bags while the kids jostled politely for the drinks and snacks that had been prepared and politely guarded, over near the embankment on the far side of those cement steps.
Our final task was to haul those now-blackened wooden poles back to Yasaka Shrine; my kid and his friends, and all their dads, in a dutiful procession as I snapped a few more photographs. I was the last one to fall into wooden pole duty. There were three of them, lying there in the grass. Like they had been prepared just for me, the guy who had spent most of his time taking pictures of everyone else working and playing Lion King.
For all the twigs and bits of straw and stray shreds of charred debris that had adorned the events of the day, there was nothing left of Sankuro 2023 except two big patches of burnt grass and a pile of wooden poles on the grounds of Yasaka Shrine, left to wait for next year’s fun.