Last summer, one sparkling and lazy day, I found myself floating down a beautiful river in New Hampshire. I had great friends with me, we had great beer, and we had not a care in the world. The water temperature was perfect. Our children were all floating along merrily in a giant raft village up ahead. Life could not have been better.
We stopped at a sandy embankment, left our rafts, and all jumped in to cool off. I was talking to my friend when I realized I had lost track of my son (who thankfully was wearing a life preserver). When I looked up next, I saw him, my little 7 year old monkey, climbing a very steep embankment. He was scrambling up tree roots and dirt was tumbling down into the river as he climbed toward a rope swing about 30 feet higher.
My heart pretty much stopped and as I went to scream , “GET DOWN FROM THERE”, my friend gently put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Just don’t look, he’s fine”. I wanted to cry because though I’ve done similar things in my life, I just didn’t think MY 7 year old was ready for this. All the kids up there were twice his age and size. So, I turned away and closed my eyes and held my breath. And waited for the splash.
The splash came seconds later with whoops of encouragement from the others. I think he jumped about 6 more times that day and later when I asked my normally cautious child, “How was that?” he said, “Yah, it was okay”. He was so nonchalant. He had gotten his first taste of voluntary danger and adrenaline and he liked it (not unlike his crazy mother).
Yesterday, in another place and time, I watched some other 7 year old children engage in potentially dangerous activity. I found myself at an ancient shrine watching the “Omanto Matsuri”. This is a traditional festival where young men chase raging horses around a wooden arena, trying desperately to grab onto the horse and hold it while it drags them along. What this translates to is that the man has to run AS fast as the horse, keep pace with it, and also not agitate it more. Some of these men were fleet footed.
The legend is that they will become one with the horse’s spirit and bring luck to themselves and their families for the coming year. The longer they are able to hold on the more potent the luck. It was by far one of the most spectacular, insane, beautiful, and disturbing things I have ever witnessed (not always in that order).
The first horse who entered the ring appeared to be incredibly frustrated and as fast as lightening. A nice Japanese man had encouraged us to take his ring side spot, which meant climbing up the wooden logs fashioned into a pen and standing with your toes and hands almost in the ring. I learned fast, that when a horse is coming around a corner at about 100mph a lot of dirt gets kicked up and there is no way you are getting out of the way. I could almost feel the pulse of this beast as it charged by. It was terrifying.
As I looked on, my heart pounding, I saw a brave young man running , gaining purchase on the horse and holding on. Within seconds the horse struggled out of his grasp and threw him off straight up into the air. He may as well have been a sack of rice. When I saw him hit the ground he was but a few meters from where I stood. He was glassy eyed and not moving at all. I was certain he was dead. I gasped and shielded my child, who was now terrified. The young man was dragged off by some other warriors and they all formed a big circle and did some sort of chant and the next horse was brought in. At this moment I though maybe we should leave, but yet I could not leave. I was mesmerized and confused at how this could even be happening.
Most of the young men were in the 18-20 year range. But every now and then, they would bring a pony into the ring and you would see kids anywhere from 4-10 running and prancing around and emulating the behavior of these “warriors”. My friend, being a mother, asked me, “Why on earth would you encourage your kid to do this?”. Though I got her point and totally agree with her, I found myself uttering a single word, “Tradition”.
Tradition. It’s a big word. In todays world, we examine and question our traditions. we certainly question other’s traditions. Many of our traditions are based on cruel events or things that today seem politically incorrect or ignorant. Some are outdated and don’t fit into our current world. Take a look at Thanksgiving. How about the “Black Pete’s ” which are always a controversy when they appear with Sinterklaas in Holland? There are so many things we do as culture’s that are truly just done because it is “tradition”. Sometimes we don’t even know why we do these things, they just always have “been”. Other times, the meanings are so deeply engrained within us.
Do these young Japanese”warriors” need to do potentially kill themselves doing this in 2017? HELLLLLL no. But, they do it because they are proud, it is part of their culture, it is their tradition. What is a culture without it’s traditions?
When I lived in England, a friend invited me to go to the Glocester Cheese Roll. Curious as ever, I asked what this was. She informed me, that people go to the top of a massively steep hill, they roll a wheel of cheese, and everyone goes chasing after it. As they say in England “Tail over teakettle”. This sounded like perhaps the most ludicrous thing I had ever heard of. I actually thought she might have lost some of her marbles. Until I went, and realized, yes….this is Exactly what was going on. There were ambulances parked at the bottom of the hill and I’m pretty sure every single one of them had a passenger. Look this event up online and have a good old fashioned laugh. I saw a man dressed in a “Borat thong” with a wig on who looked like he had been through a meat grinder. But, apparently, people have been doing this for hundreds of years. And what do you think the prize is for this potentially neck breaking activity. An 8 lb wheel of cheese. I kid you not!
For me, as an American, a less dangerous and more sedentary tradition called Thanksgiving was always my favourite. Not because we were celebrating the harvest and survival of the first colony (at the expense of the natives) but because it was a time where my family got together , without fail, every single year and ate the same big meal and were together. I loved everything about it. After my dad died, the other members of my family decided (without asking how I felt) that this was no longer a tradition they wished to uphold. I guess they had their reasons, but just like that, something that had been important to me my entire life and was one of my few treasured traditions no longer existed. It hurt, a lot. But then, I realized I could create my own tradition , with my own little family or with my friends and though it was not the same, the heart of it and the meaning was intact (even if this year I will be in Thailand eating curry we will still find a way to give thanks).
I am very certain that I will look back on my experiences in Japan and if asked to describe this wonderful place in one word, “Tradition” may be the word I choose. Tradition, Pride, and Ritual are such a big part of the culture here and what makes it so fascinating.
I will never forget the young men I saw yesterday. Their bravado, their insanity, their mohawks, afros, and other distinguishingly wild hair cuts. Their split toed shoes and their dirty pants from being dragged across the earth by these frustrated beasts. The spirit of comraderie and the families sitting under the trees drinking sake, waiting to watch their favourite warrior and wishing great luck upon him.
With all this moving around, and my son being a kid of not one culture but ever so many, I hope that I can find some way to help him uphold a few “traditions” even if they are one’s that we have made ourselves. Or one’s that have been gathered like blossoms from a wild field of flowers. I hope that he continues to decide that such death defying activities are not part of his tradition, though somehow I doubt this safety will last forever, since he is my son. For now, I’m happy that he enjoys making legos and jumping off rope swings. Though I did see a gleam in his eye the other day when he raced down a hill on his scooter with me screaming, “Slow down” behind him.
Here’s to all of your traditions, may they bring you wisdom, joy , knowledge, and peace. Peace out people!