festival vehicles

On 23 October 2004 the Niigata earthquake, registering seven on the Richter scale, shook the entire district of Uonuma.The aftershocks continued for several weeks, and were followed by unusually heavy snowfall in November. Koshirakura village was cut off from the neighbouring towns.The whole community had to be evacuated from their homes; they used the old school as a shelter, sharing the classrooms, the gym and the kitchen. Once the electricity was restored, people became aware of the damage that had been inflicted on every house. And when the snow melted in early spring, the earthquake’s real impact on the local infrastructure was revealed. Road surfaces were buckled and cracked.The distinctive patterns of terraced rice fields and irrigation systems were erased by landslides. A few buildings, the Slow Window and Star-Gazing Platform among them, had collapsed and were beyond repair.The earthquake loosened them from their foundations (they were set on packed earth rather than bedrock) and then the weight of the snow dragged them down.

Fortunately there were no fatalities in Koshirakura, though the disaster and its aftermath made the community – and especially the elderly– feel more vulnerable. Their longing for the arrival of summer was more acute than ever. The concern in Koshirakura village was to ensure the continuity of the summer events, particularly the Maple Tree Festival. The villagers were looking forward to seeing the faces of the students who would be working with them that summer.

The theme of the 2005 workshop was the making of life-expressions – manifest in built forms and objects as well as performances and celebrations.

The initial shorter project was to make film clips under the title, ‘Koshirakura Story 2’. The key themes were love, loss and rediscovery.

Team 1 film clip is a romantic tale involving a man and an insect, which unfolds along the path between the 300-year-old cherry tree at the corner of the school and the small shrine in the centre of the village.

Team 2 related a journey through the village in search of a lost baseball. Shun, a local boy from the Katagiri family, and Marike, his friend from Holland, are playing in the gym. The story begins when Marike misses a catch and the two chase after the runaway ball.The ball is never found… until Team 3 picks up the story. A stranger from the USA, camping in the wilds, finds the ball several days later at the lower edge of the village. It is finally returned to Shu on his bicycle.

The main project focused on the design and making of vehicles that could be used in celebrating the Maple Tree Festival. Mikoshi means a palanquin for the gods. It gave rise to the omikoshi, a portable shrine set upon four wooden beams that enable it to be carried from place to place. The Maple Tree Festival, however, is believed to preserve the concept of mikoshi in its original form, with a sacred tree being used as a vehicle for the gods.

But rather than emphasising gods and mythology, the vehicles we created were related to the activities of people and the recurring patterns of behaviour that unfold in response to the annual festival. The construction process began by recycling the Slow Window and Star-Gazing Platform.They were disassembled into a series of parts which were then combined with new details in new structures. An unusable pile of timber was made into a big bonfire in the middle of the playground, which was lit by Masanobu San, the village chief for the year.

With the help of 19 sketch models we created a story-line associated with the Maple Tree Festival. At this stage, most participants only knew about the festival from photos and the stories told by students who had attended in previous years. This knowledge was often partial, and certain aspects and characteristics were interestingly exaggerated. The routines of singing, shouting, water pouring, playing and improvised games were translated into structural dimensions and mechanisms. Three teams were formed to design and construct three distinctive vehicles.

Team 1 made a vehicle for the expression of loud voices and pouring water. 3 mm-ply was cut in particular patterns and put together to form a megaphone. Combined with a wood box water-pumping device, it formed a two-wheeled water-pumping loud voice amplification vehicle that could also be used as a mobile seat for carrying a couple while showering them with voices and water.

Team 2 made a vehicle for play and safekeeping. Wood decking panels were folded around a swing set.The protective structure was designed to encourage children under six to participate in the festival activities while at the same time cradling them against the general boisterousness.
Team 3 made a palanquin for goddesses. During the festival the maple tree travels between houses to celebrate memorable events that have taken place that year, such as a birth or marriage, a special birthday, the extension of a house, or successes in business and studies.The mobile platform was originally conceived as a podium for speeches, for singing performances or for the celebratory kiss requested of a husband and wife. It was developed further to allow a group to sit together comfortably, elevated above a ground which was often awash with water from the celebrations. It was also put to good use as a shuttle vehicle for the elderly women of the village, who provide catering and other essential support for the festival.

The first two vehicles are folded and stored in the stage of the gym during the off-season. The third vehicle is used at two other sites during the year: under the cherry tree for the cherry celebration party in the spring, and as a small bridge at the bottom edge of the village. This last site has been used twice in past workshops for installations. Here the platform is located above the small waterfall, facing the terraced fields of rice which extend towards the horizon.

The festival was more crowded than in previous years, with additional participants from the neighbouring town, an English-learning group from Tachibana, architects from Tokyo and a volunteer engineering team sent by the Maeda Corporation.The cinema screen was re-erected at the shrine for the premiere of ‘Koshirakura Story 2’ on the eve of the festival (though a heavy downpour forced us to postpone the screening till the following night).

The new parade comprised the traditional mikoshi, followed by a line of three new vehicles carrying water, loud voices, wooden toys on wheels and people.There were more than enough participants to perform the additional festival rituals.