Thursday, February 08, 2007

rules and the kamakura

Modified from the original written for the USC Triathlon Newsletter 02-08-07:

The theme this week is rules. Rules. Always rules. Wherever you turn in this world, there's always rules. Speed limits, parking signs, tax declarations, demands of parents, orders of bosses, grading guidelines of professors, grad school application instructions, directives from coaches, announcements of race organizers, drafting rules, course infractions, littering limits, sportsmanship codes, it's all just rules rules rules. Just the MAN keepin' US down, yo. There's so many of them that it makes you wonder why we bother to live with them.

In February of every year the city of Yokote in the Akita Prefecture of Japan hosts the winter Kamakura Snow Festival (not to be confused with the April Kamukura Samurai Festival in Kamakura, Japan). The Kamakura Snow Festival marks the time of deepest snow in Yokote, and traditionally brings in the lunar new year on the traditional Japanese calendar. As part of this festival, children build snow huts capable of seating several people, and then light them with candles and spend several nights inviting passers-by to come in and share roasted mochi (a sweet dough made from rice) and amazake (a sweet rice drink served hot).

Kamakuras were actually a survival tool, and like their counterparts in Native American cultures exploited the insulating properties of snow to create an emergency shelter. Historically, they were among the first lessons given to children to help protect themselves in the event they were stranded in a blizzard, and to help them to see snow as a useful tool rather than an object of fear.

Over time, however, the festival incorporated expectations of behavior. Children, as good hosts, were expected to be cheerful, generous, polite, and welcoming to any strangers seeking shelter from the winter. Passers-by, as good guests, were expected in exchange to be respectful, grateful, and courteous to their hosts, going so far as to maintain the custom of removing their shoes and entering the snow hut in bare feet, even in freezing sub-zero conditions.

The objective behind this was only superficially to pass on Japanese codes of behavior. Deeper than this was the ulterior goal of having children learn the larger purposes for rules on conduct: how to get along with other human beings, especially those you don't know.

Because there are times when you will have to deal with strangers. Because there are times when you cannot avoid any others. And because there are times when conditions are harsh and elements brutal and circumstances beyond hopeless when the only thing that will remind you of your humanity and who we are is the ability to reach out to a fellow human being and offer them a measure of comfort against the darkest depths of an uncaring, unrelenting, unfathomable harsh winter...and the only way for us to finish the race in such conditions is for total strangers to work together.


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