Virginia McClain: Writer & Designer

Author of Blade's Edge and Traitor's Hope

Virginia's Pre-2011 Blog

Steps and Stones May Break my Bones but Plastic Katana Will Never Hurt Me.

Posted on May 5, 2010 at 8:43 AM

I have a cold, a nasty one. AND, I have tooth pain from hell that I've had since Saturday but can't get fixed until tomorrow, because Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week were all national holidays. I mention this because I think that those are two factors that are likely to detract from the coherence of this post. Sadly, both things are seriously messing with my head and I'm finding basic motor functions to be far more difficult than they should be. But, this post really shouldn't be put off. So here goes.

Monday of this week, was an event called the Uesugi Matsuri. This is a festival held in the town of Yonezawa a city a few hours drive away from Tsuruoka but still in the same prefecture (which for those who have forgotten is Yamagata). This festival sports a few events (I think) but the best event (in my opinion) is the Kawanakajima battle reenactment. If you've heard of the civil war reenactments back home then you kind of know what I'm talking about, only this has way more samurai, way more katana, and way fewer confederate flags. Or to put it another way, it's a thousand times cooler. 

This year Corey and I (and a fair number of our Gaijin compatriots) formed part of the reenactment. We were the Foreigners' brigade. I'm not entirely sure if there really was a foreigners' brigade in the actual battle or if some kind Japanese folk just decided to let some of the nerdier gaijin participate. Either way, for the last few years (at least) a number of foreigners have been taking part in the battle reenactment.

So, anyway, Corey and I participated. This happened because Corey got an e-mail saying "hey there are only 10 spots left in this cool chance to dress up like samurai and wail on people with plastic swords" to which he immediately responded with "sign me up, and sign my girlfriend up too!" He told me about it after he had done it, he didn't consult me at all. I consider this a sure sign that we are meant to be together. He knew, without asking, that the immediate answer to the question "Virginia, do you want to dress up as a samurai and wail on people with plastic swords?" would be "Does the pope wear a ridiculous hat?" In other words: scheduling conflicts be damned, other plans be forgotten, we ARE going to dress up like samurai and wail on people with plastic swords.

And Monday of this week, the day was finally upon us. At 9:00am we reported to a local middle school to don our armor and started getting ready for the big day. An awesome band of local volunteers helped us get dressed. Turns out, even putting on fake armor is tricky enough to need help.

The Armor: For those who are actually interested in the details of this kind of thing read on, for those that only want to know what happened when the action went down feel free to skip to the next paragraph: we were wearing a cotton gi like top that went underneath a very baggy pleated set of pants (similar to hakama - for those that do martial arts- or koulats - for those that don't) that was the basic underwear. Then we wore tabi socks with tabi shoes that had softish rubber soles and managed to look like socks still, on top of those we wore traditional straw sandals the name of which I am completely ignorant. Then we donned very light armor. It was essentially thick canvas with small metal plates sewn at intervals across the fabric. We donned these on our arms (from shoulder to back of hand), chests, backs and shins. Then we had a tiny piece of metal sewn into a headband to protect our foreheads. I sincerely hope that samurai wore more armor than we did. Though I will grant you that our range of motion and lack of heat stroke was far superior to our leading officers who were donning the more elaborate gear.

The action: There was a lot of standing around. Perhaps not dissimilar to real war, there was a whole lot of nothing that went on between fights. And really, there was only one main battle, but we did some practice marching first. That part was certainly boring, but messing around with our swords while waiting for things to happen was a lot of fun. Anyway, we were officially "involved" in this activity from 9am until 5pm. Yet we were only doing the actual reenactment from 2pm until 3pm. But we got a free lunch out of the deal so I felt that made up for a lot of the waiting. Anyway, when it got down to the real battle we did the following: We stood around while our commander drank sake and decided what he was going to do. We cried out some EH-EH-OHs to raise moral before the fight. We ran off to the other side of the river to prepare for our sneak attack. We waited for a long time while the rest of the battle happened until we were signaled. We lit torches that blew a bunch of smoke into our faces and made running and breathing rather difficult but which seemingly did nothing to our enemies. We ran across the river (and by across, I mean through it, we were up to our thighs in water at some points) and "surprised" the enemy forces. We fought them for a bit. I took on a few guys with cavalry spears and made them spin a lot. I fought some other people who were really surprised that the white foreign chick seemed to know which end of the sword was the pointy one. We retreated to our main force. We charged the enemy with our main force for the final battle. The foreign brigade formed a flying V and penetrated deep into enemy lines. Then we turned around to fight them all from their own ranks. We "killed" many an unsuspecting Japanese high school student. We battled heroicly, we died gloriously. I took out quite a few opponents (including a general or two) but was finally encircled by six enemy troops, some of whom were wielding spears. I took a few of them down, but was eventually stabbed in the leg and decided that it was time to begin my death sequence, I limped to charge a second foe and while striking him was yet again stabbed, this time in the ribs. I decided the next blow would be the one to fell me so I engaged a final confused teenager and tempted him in to stabbing me again as I cried out and ran him through as my final act. It turned out I had conveniently died next to a good friend of mine and we were able to chat while we waited for the battle to end. I coughed a lot. (Did I mention all the smoke from the torches?) After a few more minutes the announcer chick (did I mention the announcer and the freakin' film soundtrack that were rolling the whole time? probably not, but I should have, they were epic) said something about what an epic draw the battle was and  how said all the death was. Then people started applauding and that meant we got to stand up. All of our dead resuscitated we reformed ranks and stood up to be applauded and to let out a few more EH-EH-OHs.  Then the masses (and I really mean that, there were 4 or 5 thousand people watching the whole thing) breached the barriers and swarmed us for photo ops. A few small children and there parents wanted pictures with me, as well as a few high school boys and the occasional random 40 year old man.

From there it degraded into a whole lot of picture taking with friends etc. and then eventually we were herded back to the middle school in order to hand back our armor etc. And that was it. It was an epic awesome, wonderful Monday. I will of course be posting pictures. There are lots. Many of them will be stolen from other people's facebook pages. I will do my best to credit them, but keep in mind that I didn't have my camera on me so ALL of these pictures were taken by someone other than me. In other words, I'm not taking credit for ANY of them. :-)

In other news: Corey's mom is in town. We are having a great time, and we have been taking her to a number of Japanese temples and shrines almost all of which are at the tops of mountains in these parts. So, there's been a lot of step climbing lately, mostly stone steps. Hence the beginning part to title of this post. I hope to write again in the not too distant future to cover all of the super interesting things we've been up to that haven't involved wailing on people with plastic swords, but I fear this post is already long enough. So there you have it. More later, I'm off to blow my nose a few thousand more times. *le sigh*

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