The story of the 47 Ronin, has been retold many times in plays, televised drama and movies over the years. Their tale of sacrifice, courage and loyalty, is very much in the hearts of the Japanese people. This September, NHK aired 忠臣蔵の恋 Chuushingura no Koi, a drama set in the same historical background. Chuushingura 忠臣蔵 is the title given to fictionalized accounts in Japanese literature, theatre, and film that relate to the historical incident involving the 47 ronin and their mission to avenge the death of their master Lord Asano.
Every year on Dec 14, 赤穂義士祭 is celebrated in 2 separate locations - at Sengaku-ji in Tokyo where Lord Asano and the 47 ronin were buried, and in Ako, hometown of the 47 ronin.
Ako, a small town with a population of about 50,000, is located at the edge of Hyogo bordering Okayama. It takes about 2 hours to travel by JR from downtown Osaka to Ako. While switching to the local line at Aioi, it seemed to me that the train platform was not so as packed at what you'd expect at a subway station on the day of a major festival in Kyoto. It's a weekday after all, so the elderly makes up for most of the domestic passengers, while foreign tourists are far and few, likely due to the fact that Ako is quite a distance away from major tourist destinations and Ako has relatively less appeal compared to cities which have far more attractions.
While it is not a national holiday, it felt like holiday right here in Ako, where a festive mood emanates from the locals going about their tasks for the day, from the staff manning the information booth at the station, to the ushers lining the road.
The morning segment consists of a modern day parade, which started off with a number of school bands. I was still deciding where is the best available spot when the first marching band approached. The fact that I had a choice meant that it was not crowded along the street, and that the afternoon segment was the more significant event.
Most of the morning crowd gathered at the traffic junction which seemed to the focal point of the parade. Each contingent would slow down as they approach, allowing spectators to capture and view their performances better. After crossing the junction, each contingent would make a brief stop again to perform in front of the grandstand spectators. The number of people lining the street and in seated at this one and only grandstand gives you an insight to the scale of this event.
The parade lasted about an hour or so, while some visitors decided to go around the town when it started to rain. I had a light lunch at a street lined with 屋台 yatai stalls, browsed some stores selling local produce, before proceeding to where the crowd seemed to be gathering - the street just outside the main gate to the castle.
I did not expect that it was way more crowded here than what I had experienced in the morning. There was also a higher concentration of seasoned photographers, some whom have also brought their step ladders to gain a vantage point.
In most, if not all festivals, children will be involved in the performances. Cute children certainly can draw in the crowds, but more importantly they are imbued with the importance of the festival and hopefully grow up and carry on the tradition, generation after generation.
Next was a procession of floats. Well they are not the fancy kind found in a USJ parade, but let's just call these decorated lorries floats for convenience's sake. Each float is an enactment of a scene from the tale. The performers maintained a stoic expression and remained in their pose without moving, while the crowd cheered as the emcee introduced each float.
It was the adults' turn to take up the roles played earlier by the children of the 裏門隊 and 裏門隊, the two groups led by Oishi Yoshio which attacked Kira's mansion in Edo.
I wasn't surprised when the crowd reserved their loudest applause for the one dressed as Oishi Yoshio, as he is the main hero of Chunshingura. He certainly did not take part in the current NHK drama as I'd have recognized him, but he seemed to be a huge draw. After having featured in the parade holding a drum like how Oishi sounded it while launching the attack, he was ferried away on a float before he would have been mobbed by ardent fans, all middle age and older. It was only later that I found out that he is 二代目 中村梅雀Nakamura Baijaku II a famous actor who had appeared in numerous films and drama through the decades.
You may notice 大石内蔵助良雄 printed on his white scarf. 大石良雄 is Oishi Yoshio in Japanese, and he is usually referred to by his title as 大石内蔵助 Oishi Kuranosuke .
Performers in traditional attire made up the final part of the parade, which took a festive turn from the earlier part which was a more sombre event. Two guys could be seen carrying huge wooden mallets, which were used to break down the doors to the Kira residence during the raid. There was singing and dancing, some of the performers could be overheard chatting to spectators whom were their friends or neighbours.
After the parade. I proceeded to to visit 大石神社 Oishi Shrine, which was just next to the castle. Walking towards the tori gate, while gazing at the statues of the 47 ronin on both sides, I was overcome with sadness that they paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to their lord. I recalled a scene in the NHK drama where the Ako women gathered at the graves of 47ronin, pained at the loss of their loved ones yet fiercely proud of their deeds.
Going around outside the main hall of the shrine, one can see pictures depicting the tale. While some may dispute that the ronin were not driven by Bushido which had not come into existence at that time, there is no doubt about their loyalty and sacrifice which is why many Japanese continue to revere these men.