On the upper floor of a rural ryokan (inn) overlooking a hillside in Nara
prefecture, home to one of Japan’s ancient capitals, seven men in their
twenties, thirties, and forties dress for a matsuri (festival) for which this
small town enjoys some national renown.
It is midmorning, early in July 2000. Standing about the dimly lit, tatami-
matted room, the seven men are dressed only in handako (short laborers
pants) and tabi (socks). Tiny pockmarks make similar patterns on each of
their sinewy backs. As they move, massive dreadlocks like tree roots sway
across their backs, chests, and thighs. Some of the men have bound their
locks with hachimaki (ceremonial headbands), or contained them in tams.
As the one woman in the room moves busily about, the men work in
pairs. One man in each pair stands with his arms raised to shoulder level,
lengths of sarashi (a long spool of white cloth about the width of a forearm)
wrapped tightly around his ribs. The second man grips the other end of the
cloth. Pulling away from his partner with all his strength, he grunts as, with
loud snaps, he tugs the sarashi taut. The first man revolves slowly to wrap
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