Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire Fest
Years ago, when our young family left India for my wife's next diplomatic assignment—Paris!—we stopped in Japan along to the way to visit old friends from our English teaching days. Dana's Japanese former boss, kindly Mr. Kaguchi, took us to a festival in his hometown—and almost killed us! I write about it in Kept: An American Househusband in Paris, which will be released this winter. Here's an excerpt. I hope you enjoy it. -- g
On the night of his hometown festival, Mr. Kaguchi picks us up at our friends' house.
“Your children should not come,” he says. “The festival is extremely dangerous.”
Dana looks at me askance. “Extremely dangerous?”
“Come on,” I say. “This is Japan. How dangerous could it be?”
Dana and I happily ditch the kids, and, after a short drive, we arrive in Mr. Kaguchi’s old stomping ground under a full moon. We drink from enormous casks of sake and snack on savory crepe-like okonomiyaki—literally translated as “grilled whatever-you-like”—until the organizers gather the crowd in the festival field.
“We must now scare the oni with balls of fire,” Mr. Kaguchi says.
The oni—ogre or troll—is a feature of many Japanese festivals, and usually the point is to scare, kill, banish, or otherwise hurt the oni’s feelings, often with fire.
“Oh, of course,” I say. “The oni must pay for his crimes.”
Dana and I follow like so many clueless sheep to the slaughter, as participants (men, women, children) are arranged in a circle around a tall bamboo pole with a wicker basket on top. The rules of the game are laid out, but since we’re not really paying attention and have pretty much forgotten our Japanese, we don’t exactly get the finer points, let’s say. My curiosity is piqued as everyone is given a ball of socks attached to a long wire.
“You must throw your ball into the basket on the top of the pole,” Mr. Kaguchi says.
I don’t understand how this will get rid of the oni, but, whatever … I look at Dana. “Do you smell, like, diesel, or something?”
She sniffs and makes a face. “Uh … I think it’s coming from the sock ball thingies.”
Then a guy runs around the circle with a torch and lights our balls on fire!
“Hajime!” he cries. “Go!”
With a rebel yell, straitlaced Mr. Kaguchi—and everyone else—slings his flaming ball of fire into the air. (Yes, I know “flaming ball of fire” is redundant, but it’s important to emphasize the flaming nature of our balls!)
Now, lest you are thinking, “Fireballs? What’s the big deal?” I need you to think this through. Close your eyes and imagine a couple hundred people launching a couple hundred fireballs into the air aimed at a wicker basket on top of a pole. Are you with me? Now imagine those people are standing in a circle. So, when these people inevitably miss the basket on the top of the pole in the middle of the circle, can you guess where the fireballs will go?
“Incoming!” I cry and hit the dirt as flaming missiles rain from the sky.
Hoping my will is in order, I scan the field of battle for Dana. Supporting the bulge of our unborn child with one hand, she stoops and grabs a fireball. She whirls it over her head like David with his sling.
“Woo-hoo! Die you oni scum!” she cries and releases her fireball into the air.
But, wait! There’s more. What we don’t know and are about to find out is that the basket on top of the bamboo pole in the middle of the circle is full of—the bane of the oni’s existence—fireworks! There is a great “banzai!” as someone, maybe Dana, makes it into the basket, and KABOOM! Fireworks shoot in all directions as the panicked crowd runs for cover.
When the fires have been put out and the ambulances are gone, Dana has some new holes in her jacket, but it seems unlikely anyone has died.
I study Dana’s soot-streaked face and say, “You think this is what war is like? You think it was like this at Normandy or Iwo Jima?”
“No. Not at all,” she says.
Maybe not—but sure we scared the heck out of that stupid oni. - g