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Calling spring into a mountain village The Monzen Harukoma in Kawaba

Young men dressed as women Call spring into this mountain snow-covered village

The village of Kawaba is in northern Gunma prefecture at the base of
Mount Hotaka. In the district around the ancient temple of Kichijoji, a unique entertainment called the Monzen Harukoma has been performed ever since the Meiji period (1868-1912), This seemed to me a curious period for such a performance to have its origins in, being neither modern nor ancient. When I asked about it I was told that a family of traveling entertainers from a neighboring village used to visit, but when they became unable to come anymore due to illness, young people from the village took over their role. The unique part is that the family members are all played by young men who, apart from the Pa role, dress up as women.

The day of the Monzen Harukoma gets off to an early start. At two in the morning, members of the Preservation Society are already in a local community hall getting preparations underway. Ladies from the local Women’s Association take charge of make-up and dressing the young men in kimonos. Preparations proceed amidst a congenial atmosphere, with the occasional exclamation of “Eh, does this go on first” —because, after all, this only happens once a year— and the putting on and takingoff of clothing. Several hours later, thanks perhaps to the remarkable achievements of modern make-up, all the men look reasonably pretty, much more than you might expect them to in the guise of women.
At five am, after a drink of sacred sake and a commencement ceremony, they set out for Kichijoji. Outside it is still dark, the snow that began the previous evening still falling. According to the weather report the temperature this morning is seven degrees below zero. Although I have dressed warmly, my toes are numb inside my thin-soled shoes.

After a dedicating a performance of Harukoma songs and dance before the Buddhist altar, a chime sounds from nowhere at six o’clock, the signal to set out on the door-to-door entertainment. There are eight performers altogether in two groups, each with a Pa, a Ma and two daughters. Over the course of the day they will visit all 120 houses in the area.

Soon after setting out the sky begins to lighten, and a calm peaceful village scene like something out of a folk tale, emerges in the pale of the dawn. And through this setting walks the group of young men colorfully dressed in kimono. It is too surreal. I trail after them, worrying about them walking the frozen slippery roads in their unfamiliar geta sandals, but instead I am the one to stumble and fall. Not once, but twice.

At the first house we visit the two daughters enter by the side enclosed veranda, and put on a display of their song and dance to the beat of Ma’s fan drum from outside. Meanwhile Pa goes into the house from the front entrance where he is offered sake and receives a tip.

At every house they visit he is offered sake, and is not allowed to leave until the glass is dry. By the tenth house he is in rather high spirits, and by the twentieth house he starts getting tangled up with onlookers, becoming incapable of speech not long after. The simplicity of Pa’s collapse has a charm which is part of the behind-the-scenes fun of the Monzen Harukoma.   

The original purpose of the Harukoma was to pray for the prosperity of silkworm cultivation, and although there are no houses raising silkworms these days, everyone still welcomes the entertainers with sake and warm food. Perhaps because a visit from these rare guests heralds spring. “When the Harukoma comes, spring is near,” said one old lady who offered sweet sake even to an onlooker like me.
Without my noticing, the snow stopped falling. In Tokyo, the Japanese apricot blossoms began to bloom that day.

【Harukoma Festival】

This festival is held every February 11 in the temple area of Kawaba village, in the Tone district of Gunma prefecture. Young men from the village dress up as a family of traveling entertainers, putting on make-up and kimono to play the mother and daughters, and go around to all the houses in the temple area performing their dances and praying for safety and abundant harvests.

【Getting to Kawaba】
●By Bullet Train
Seventy minutes to Jomo-Kogen Station on the Joestsu Shinkansen from Tokyo.
Approximately thirty minutes by taxi from the station.

●By Car
Ninety minutes on the Kanestsu Expressway from Nerima interchange to Numata inter-change.
Then about 15 minutes on route 263

Kawaba Village Homepage
Kawaba Village Tourist Association
Setagaya Ward Residents’ Health Village