During a lull in the festivities around the Shitaya Matsuri in Tokyo’s Ueno district I saw this group of children playing with the traditional Mizu Fusen (water balloons) in the street while wearing lovely summer festival clothes. I have seen these water balloons in every festival I have ever visited but I had no idea what they were actually for, a fact for which I blame my “academic” style of Japanese education! When a foreigner comes to Japan to learn Japanese all schools can be fitted into two basic ways of teaching: the “kintaroo style” or the “academic style” (this is just my observations though). The kintaroo style is when students are taught from a purely cultural perspective, with an emphasis on starting with the childhood classics and childhood experiences shared by all Japanese. This way of emphasizing cultural awareness by teaching old folk tales and symbols. and through them grammar and vocabulary, is a very important method I think, although hardly the most effective. The academic method on the other hand dives right into tables of grammar and lists of kanji to memorize. Learning to speak good Japanese however, is impossible without understanding the culture of Japan and how Japanese people think. Just because you can read a comic or even the morning papers in Japanese doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand Japan or the people here. For that, you have to start at the very beginning, with the toys and the stories and the childhood manner lessons that form the basics of Japanese culture. And for me, not having ever seen these mizu fusen in use was a gap in my understanding of the Japanese. But now, thanks to observing these kids, I now know a little bit more than before.
It’s Tanabata again! Tanabata festival is one of those hard-to-explain Japanese festivals that sneak up on us every year and sort of signals that summer is here and the festival season is now officially open. I think one of the main reasons it’s not very famous among foreigners is because it is so targeted to kids! It is a star festival (quite unusual theme in itself I think) that along with so many other customs came from China in the mid 8th century and merged with local shinto customes. It is officially celebrated on the 7th of the 7th, every year but some towns, temples or groups prefer to follow one of the two other semi-official calenders of Japan. This is great because it means I usually have 5 days of tanabata celebrations every year! Three days around the 7th of July, and then on the other two days of the lunar calendar and the lunar-solar calender. Imagine if Christians celebrated Christmas the same way!
One of the most visible aspects of the festival are the wish-slips that people attach to bamboo stands all over the country in the days leading up to tanabata, almost every department store or town hall and most schools put these up where visitors can write their own wishes for the coming year. Since it is a star festival, tanabata has also been picked up as a Japanese alternative to the global Earth Day, and people are encouraged to turn of lights for a couple of hours at night in order to properly enjoy the stars. A great concept and I hope it becomes more popular in the near future. I have lived in Tokyo for many years but I don’t think I have seen more than a handful of the brightest stars. At least this energy conservation campaign were are enjoying now is paying off in that respect, the skies have never been more beautiful!
Here’s some of the photos I took during the early evening at a Tokyo tanabata festival. Focusing on the kids, the foods and the games. See the photo of the ramune bottles waiting to be recycled? With temperatures hitting over 30 degrees C even at night, ramune is the drink to enjoy! Also note the little guy in what at first appeared to be a yukata. A slight wardrobe malfunction revealed that it was a cleverly designed set of PJs!
There’s nothing I love better than seeing people in their traditional clothes. Here’s two very cute kids I saw on their way home in Koganei, Western Tokyo, on March 20th. The little girl is really interested in the photo she has just received, but the little boy seemed more interested in my camera. Or, it could be that he is aware of the fact that he is being photographed wearing a kimono that is several sizes to small for him! Either way, it was a beautiful day, long walks, ice cream and sun! Enjoy!
This is a post I wanted to write a long time ago but I never felt I had enough material to cover this subject, and since I don’t think I will find any more hidden photos on my hard disks, it might be time to post this now, return to normalcy and get back to business!
Do you remember the many posts I did on the festival i visited in the lovely city of Kakegawa in Shizuoka prefecture a couple of years ago? Well, here’s a few more, about a ritual dance that is quite special to that city. Every neighborhood has their own team that maintains one of the giant festival floats as well as musical instruments and costumes necessary to perform in this important festival. I think this is a fantastic way of tying the community together and instill a sense of pride and belonging in society as a whole. I think one of the reasons behind the low crime rate in this country is just because of festivals like these. It’s hard to neglect the people around you if you have taken part in these festivals for as long as you can remember!
In this ritual dance, the local teams follow a carefully laid route with their giant festival floats, just like in many other Japanese towns and villages, but in Kakagawa they make stops at certain houses and businesses in their area to perform a ritual dance that blesses and safeguards the recipients of this ritual. The children line up and perform a complicated dance lasting about 10 minutes involving chanting, music and ritual batons. Naturally, the best way to get a dance is to sponsor the teams, the festival floats alone costs about 300 000 USD to make new, but even maintenance can be pretty expensive and time consuming. In this way the local teams and the local children tie valuable relationships with local businesses and wealthier citizens, which in term is extremely valuable when it comes for them to find jobs, raise their own families or in case of fires or earthquakes. In this way people in these cities cement their senses of belonging, especially since these festivals have remained unchanged for hundreds of years, and the youngsters can enjoy the stories of their grand parents taking part, and in turn the stories their grand parents told them of these festivals.