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Onbashira Groove

Eric Madeen



In a country that need not list hair or eye color on driverís licenses, I stand out like one of those giant erections lugged around in a fertility festival in the countryside. Which is why a foreign couple notices me, beckoning me over out of the flow then offering me a camera. My wifeís asking me -- in Japanese -- what they want. A shot of themselves, of course. I check out the expensive Nikon. Theyíre German photographers, they tell us, shooting the Onbashira for a travel magazine in Frankfurt. I verify, as ritual dictates, the shutter button.

Mountain boots. Baggy tweeds. Red suspenders under vests trimmed with lenses and sundry. Big toothy smiles. Natural blond hair. A guardrail behind their knees. The roll of clouds over cedars as backdrop. Snap. "Sank you--"

Kyoko, quick on the draw, evens the account, producing our camera.

We have something in common, our age, that precipice of late thirties with forty coming fast and heavy. I say, "Quite a festival."

"We come here every day since Tursday," the German says. "We've been lucky so far. But today, though, I don't feel good about today." He shakes his head and looks at the clouds, then back hard at me. In one of those rare, earnest moments when the light and emotion open up magic space, the brown of his iris is translucent like a marble, and the way he's looking at me invites a gaze that sees deep into his skull -- all shimmering brown glass. We kind of bow our heads into the intimacy and silence and hum "Mmm," "Mmm," "Mmm," thoughts harmonizing: someone is going to die today.

Such profundity is hard to pull away from. We do so awkwardly, through the ritual of exchanging name cards and small talk and waves of the hand that push us apart.

Up in the Japan Alps the Onbashira festival comes around every year of the Tiger and Monkey, so twice in twelve years stretching back twelve-hundred years to the Heian Era -- a depth of time driving the crowd up the mountain. Between the pines pressing the road there we are, my wife and I, clamoring along short of breath in -- what would look from the sky like -- a giant Chinese dragon. Three miles long. Snaking up toward the august Onbashira slope. Vibrant happi coats, headbands, feather dusters. Cheered by hawkers, their hands dripping wet over wash tubs, screaming out brands of soft drink and biru.

What you canít see from the Fuji Film blimp up there is the urgency down here. On this last day of the festival I feel + wince at! + such urgency. In its most sharpened form: an elbow so keen in my ribs that Iím amazed it belongs to a Japanese grandmother. On her push on by she clobbers my wife just ahead of me. Kyoko is nearly bowled over by what must be shopping bags of yams for her brood bowing politely through in her wake. In this hot and sweaty dragon down here. One-hundred thousand persons clawing up my backside. For a better view.

Of the spectacle.

Just outside of a town called Suwa in Nagano prefecture + nearly four hours from Tokyo where, for the record, my wife helps people with their emotional problems and I profess information technology. Out of our element we woke up in a country inn then eased into scalding hot springs all the way up to our noses -- flaring after pine-scented air to take back with us. Now, though, weíre scenting something else. Call it hunger.


At dawn I fall into a rope line as if I own it. Amidst much grunting -- "yoisho, yoisho" -- and chanting over bird chirp and silky threads of fog shagging pines I grab one of them there viney strands, wrap it around my wrist, then lean into pulling this huge cedar log up the mountain so that it can be ridden down -- the part I want to get off on, following my guidebook's direction under Must See Festivals in Japan.

Harnessed to the log are two long lines of people in dazzling festival colors. I'm doing a damned good job of confusing the Japanese in my line. I can't understand the language but feel a prick of disapproval. Some grouch grumbling, "Gaijin wa da may. Da may!" His friends chime in, "Mmm, da may-yoh!" Icicle stares. More grumbling. "Onbashira wa Nihonjin dake nan da." I'm relieved when a round-faced fellow holds my eye and musters up another view, "International good." A few others, then a few more, feed into this stream. "Mmm, intanashanaru." One even pours me some sake from a flask. "International good." I bow, say thanks -- "Domo, domo" -- then make a big show of breathing fire after guzzling it which brings another two shots which I down like tequila. Getting back to work. Spitting on my hands. Rubbing them together. Flexing for the crowd. Then tugging at the huge timber inching up the mountain road lubricated by water. Ahead buckets of it slap the asphalt -- now punished with the scratch of wet brooms sweeping. One hand clapping. Dig it. The real Japan.

Round face points at my bicep and nods, as if to say, "See how the monster works." Others, encouraged, chime in over the jeers of the gaijin da may crowd.


Packed into a mud field are over 200,000 spectators. This place back here, though, where my wife leads me, simply will not do. First, we can't even see the slope. Second, we have nothing to squat upon but silver shreds of a thermos bag that I just tore into place-mat sized squares -- to be set with the dinner plates of our rearends. But where to set the table? Packed like life rafts are these blue plastic sheets spread everywhere. In the drizzle we stand in a muddy aisle, looking around for what doesnít exist. All eyes on the foreigner, I feel a blush burn my cheeks.

An interloper squeezes past. For not removing his footwear heís scolded -- "Kutsu!" Shoes! Making himself thin, hand slicing the air (a subway move), he bows, with the jerky motions of a robot, down an easement gap, backs into a crack, then squats, unashamedly, in the manner the French would term position de cabinet. He looks up toward the slope with lifeless eyes under a droopy dimwit's hat.

Stuck in the aisle, jostled on one side by spectators pushing through and on the other by complaints that we're blocking view, I'm vexed, and not in the least charmed by an obasan holding up her akita clad in a happi coat to a chorus of coos.


I'm not having any of this festival. I'm soaked and my bladder's bursting. This Onbashira is what but a gawk. A frustrated stare. Covered by tatemae, or surface chatter, that has it all around that the last two days of deathlessness are good. But I can't help but feel the hungry tug of the deeper darker honne, or truth, that deep feeling coveting just that, the deep and dark to feed the Onbashira god his sacrifice. And who's the Onbashira god? Not the mountain god invited down in the shape of sliding timber, as legend has it, but the masses down here in the mud, squatting haunch to jowl with the stoicism of a cigar store Indian, waiting for someone's death to poke life into their eyes. Then a wave of anguish will sweep down over the lot, cresting in primal frenzy. That is, if someone will be so kind enough ...

Now my husband's nagging. While the crowd is Japanese and thus content to play the hand dealt them, my husband's not. I watch his vision ravel on the pines just off the Onbashira slope. "Kyoko," he says, "we're out of here. To higher ground. Try for a view from those trees up there."


I'm feeling good and high from the rush. Then I see this gaijin on the edge of the tree line. He's behind the tape and flagging me down like a signal corpsman. Sigh. In Japan foreigners have a way of coming at you as if you're Racer-X, long lost brother. When in reality you're complete strangers, having nothing in common but your gaijinness. I want to bail. But we make eye contact -- serious lock-on -- and he wonít let go.

Gray at the temples. A paunch. Figure him for about forty. At his elbow a Japanese woman with a kind smile. She squeezes closer to her man as I offer my hand. A semi-firm shake. Since there's no mooring yet for their names I miss them both.

"I saw you rocketing down on that timber," he says, nodding toward the log being dragged away to some shrine, where my guide books says it will serve for six years as one of four august shrine poles. "How? Scared? Talk to me."

We talk. He's East Coast with the accent and the rest, professor at a college in Tokyo. The more I know him the more it fits. His manner hints at glibness, like anyone trafficking in language for a living. This has me rocking back a tad on my heels and raising my head in such a way to look down my nose at the effect of, "Why don't you come see for yourself, Perfessor," rocking in now, giving wife a wink meant more to goose husband, as is this manhood tweaking, "come check out this little man's game Onbashira?" I raise my eyebrows, bury the lance, "Last log of the day." I hold up two hands, six fingers, press them at him, find his eyes, don't let go. "Last chance to board the train for Onbashiraville. Next train ... six years."


Through the trees I see this big gaijin under an unruly mop of red curls flashing by on the Onbashira log. Tall with huge shoulders he alone manages to ride to the bottom to incredible cheering. Angry at having their thunder stolen, the official riders are furious. Having won, in a lottery, the chance to ride then waited tense years to do so, those Japanese men in yellow-and-black uniforms who fell higher up, now run down punching and shoving interlopers who ran out like crazed soccer fans then jumped on. Or tried to jump on. At the bottom a dozen official riders charge this red-haired gaijin in his sky-blue happi coat and shaganappi headband. They stop short, noting his size, that he's a foreigner, now raising his fists to the cheering crowd roaring at him, the gladiator. He milks the attention, bows to it, this way, that.

His eyes glimmer, as if from fever. That, along with freckled cheeks, tengu nose, fist-sized chin, adds to the dashing figure he cuts. I beckon him, magnetized by this warriorís aura. He sees me, pretends not to see me, then finally ambles over. We talk. His deep, syrupy voice mixes hillbilly twang and cowboy drawl: "I grew up on a spread just outside Roundup, Montana. You know?" He makes a lassoing motion. "Round up?"

"I can imagine," I say, "Roundup."

About Japan, his "Just passing through, sleeping wherever" makes him sound more like a drifter than a traveller and me, permanent resident, like a small-town sheriff, now scrutinizing a name card positioning him as an International Business Consultant. "I'm strong on the International side all right. Just travelled for a year through Europe and Asia. But still need some firming up yet on the business side of things."

I feel mistrustful, not knowing where the travel money's coming from, then off-balance. From across the gulf of years that separates a man's prime -- his mid-twenties to my late thirties -- he stings me with a challenge.


The Professor's nervous. He wants to. He doesn't want to. He folds his face into an origami of fear. Hidden emotions curl his lip. Twitter out in a "Huhhuhuh." He's buying time. "Me ride a log?" Stalling. "Down that suicide slope? Huhuhuh."

"You laugh?" I jerk my head back, mock insulted, and give him my cowboy spiel, "I'm serious, Professor. As I said, it's not as dangerous as it looks. Why, I've ridden palomino buckin' broncos at rodeo that threw me ass over elbows and nearly broke my ass while that there's just some stupid log. Jeeze." Shaking my head. "Nothin." With that, lance buried and twisted, I fidget a look back and frown. Too many cops. Too few people to slip through. "Gotta go, Professor. You take care--"


He keeps holding up six fingers. I can't help but do the math; in six years -- the next Onbashira -- I'll be over the hill, too deep into my forties. I want to hit something.


Tears stream from his wife's eyes. She keeps turning away into her sleeve and saying, "Kiotsukete. Kiotsukete."

"Have to do it, honey." He looks teary-eyed himself, pecking her cheek which she pulls away from him. "Hey wait a minute there, Cowboy." He ducks under the tape. "I'm coming. I'm coming."


Now. We sprint past police grabbing and yelling at us. Cowboy laughing, "No comprendo Nihongo." I glance up. The Onbashira slope's wickedly steep, like an advanced ski slope in off season, and framed by pines, people and a tower of media scaffolding on whose bars spectators perch like crows. The muddy center of the slope is shiny smooth from the action of the logs. Here and there skull-sized stones peek out of mud into mist. And my count, at different elevations, of one mountain boot, one loafer, and one running shoe turns Cowboy's simplicity pitch treacherous. Climbing up breathless and trembling at the thought of riding down on this Akimiya ichi no onbashira, the biggest log of the festival at eighteen meters, teases out CNN images of six years back when an Onbashira log snapped its tether. Crushing a few. Maiming many. Now here I am scrambling up, feet struggling for purchase, and there's Cowboy far above, giving me the evil eye and bellowing down Led Zeppelin: "... like the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove."


The Professor's already panting, down on all fours over the steep spots and lagging farther behind. I could kick myself for conning him along. It's always the pussies who get hurt.

Then, finally, we're in the rope line. Horns trumpet, as if in a fox hunt. The red-and-black team. And a Shinto priest in white robes. Take turns strutting the length of log jutting over the edge above us. The leader does a little dance at the end of the gang plank to get the crowd going. He raises his arms like a conductor and keeps them raised. We're close. The Professor interprets the singing of the girls. In long skirts, vests, headbands, they sway like willows and chant, "Deep mountain, big tree coming down the mountain, becoming god." He opens his hands as if to present the festival to me. "That's the Onbashira -- in a nutshell."

More fox calls. And lecturing. "Started back in Heian--"

I can't resist a little fun, poking a stick in his spokes, "Hey what?"

His puzzled stare comes to perch hard on a slow student. "Heian, or Kyoto, was founded by Emperor Kammu in 794 ... " He finally finishes and I say, "All that history noise and those people not able to marry in an Onbashira year and the fancy axe felling and dragging and shrine froufrou may be well and good, Perfessor, but you can't deny the fact that this is where the whole thing comes to fever pitch." I indicate the drop of the slope with a chop of the hand. "What I live for, moments like these."


Even though I chide him about the necessity of festival foreplay and how from the Japanese point of view we're like yakuza, notorious for not contributing to the muscle end of the festival, instead cutting in line at the climax, I can't help but feel that he and I are alike, living for the lightning bolt -- that makes worthwhile his camping out under picnic benches and my long nocturnal struggles into computerese. All for a brief, exhilarating moment of revelation missed by those who sleep well. The pursuit has us now clenching rope thicker than tow rope, pulling the mammoth farther over the edge, which gives me the sensation of rappelling then wanting to let go when Cowboy says over the horns, "Going up higher so I can mount up after she slows down" -- meaning that just after it dives and throws everyone.

"Me too--"




I know there's nothing I can do to stop my husband from joining this crazy guy. I weep watching them run off.

If Freud were right, that primal instinct springs from either Thanatos or Eros, then I won't hesitate in saying that this Cowboy fellow reeks of Thanatos. Negative, destructive Thanatos. Death instinct Thanatos. With his happi coat swagger, braggadocio, and siren song, this sly peasant cons my husband into riding some dumb log down a mountain. Men. The stupid things they have to do to prove themselves.

The wait for an Onbashira log to slide is interminable. I have to pee. But the horns are blowing. Now down through the trees comes a tarzan-like yelping of a Shintoist. Strings of firecrackers pop.

I can't see the log but know itís sliding. The crowd announces it, sucking breath.

A man's deep baritone ... followed by a coliseum's roaring. A crush of bodies shoves for the slope. Mashing and panting. Fists pushing at the small of my back. Now a screaming. A wailing. Sirens whoop over everything. Then hoarse voices pass down the mountain something grave and precious.

"Someone died." Can't hold it anymore. "A death."

The wet hot warmth spreads across my thighs, runs down my legs. "Someone was killed under the log." The initial pain "Some foreigner, it is said." followed by the sweet heat that flows up through you then "The log turned, crushing him." no sooner chills you to the bone.



When the infantry line of guys in yellow pry up the log with their sticks the mass of people push in to feed. Groan. Feed. Sirens scream and spray the mists with red minnows. A wailing pours down the mountain. I want and don't want to follow their gaze.

Orange springy locks caked with mud streaking, one long twisted smudge, over the earth side of Cowboy lying foetally at the bottom of a canoe-like scoop. His sky-blue happi's crumpled, lashed to the earth with snakes of dirt, misshapen about the chest and neck. A razor-thin red line runs across temple, cheek, nostril wing. His face wears an expression amending the nonsense about it coming naturally. Which tears ribbons of bile up from a stomach that doesn't want any of it, keeling over away from their eyes. I'm tempted to duck through the wall now breaking to let paramedics in with their hustle and stretchers.

One paramedic with silver hair and lab coat finally approaches, pulls his head down into his shoulders, and hiccups, "You speak ... Japanese?" He points, "Who ...?"

"My friend."

He squints in disbelief at our friendship when I have to read Cowboy's name from his card, then add, "He's an International Business Consultant."


"From," I say proudly, "a spread just outside Roundup, Montana."



Ich entwickelte die Fotografien dieses amerikanischen ... beim Todesreiten, und bekam einen Schock durch einer Vorstellung, die mich tief gefangen nahm.


One fall morning I fish a cardboard air-mail envelope from the mailbox. From Deutschland. The German photographer writes, "I hesitated in sending you this. But decided, in the end, that it's yours, to do with as you please." (I find it too haunting and go looking for matches.) But here it is alive in my trembling hands ...

The log teeters, dives, throwing uniforms every which way. Cowboy breaks from the rope line. I follow but keep slipping, watching him running as if under chopper blades, boot heels hacking across the slope. Arms thrust out after balance, head jerked violently up mountain, eyes so concentrated they look angry in their corners, mouth a dark hole twanging, "Come on now." Skipping once to get his stride before lunging, executing a Comanche mount to much crowd cheer. Shoulders back, he looks up despite the timber hitting that slick stretch where it wants to fly for want of friction. But there's Cowboy riding it, fists thrust high, face over curls tilting back as if to drink sky, and up through the whole of him comes this "Hey Hey Mama like the way you move."

Eric Madeen's work has appeared in several venues, foremost a short story in an anthology of expatriate fiction set in Japan (The Broken Bridge, Stone Bridge Press), Kyoto Journal, The East, the Daily Yomiuri, Tokyo Journal, All Nippon Airways' inflight magazine Wingspan and more. Inspired by a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in Gabon, his first novel, Tanga, is currently being represented by an Atlanta-based literary agency. He is an associate professor of English at Musashi Institute of Technology, Tokyo, and the Japan editor for the Joseph Conrad Foundation.

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