|The street with the Tanabata decorations|
The Tanabata Matsuri (七夕祭) is one of the most advertized Japanese celebrations; and when I say “advertized”, I mean within Japan since, as we all know, the only Japanese things that are advertized outside Japan are geisha, Mt. Fuji, cars, schoolgirls, manga and sushi (by the way, I hope one day I’ll have the chance to complain to some high-placed Japanese about this, since I am fully convinced that the country and the mentality of its people, and especially of its rulers, is the main reason that so few Japanese things are unknown outside Japan). Anyway, the Tanabata Matsuri, the July (or August, depending on where you are in the country) fair, is one of the most popular and loved summer events in Japan; it’s almost as popular and loved as the national high-school baseball tournament, but we’ll talk about that in a future post.
The story behind Tanabata is an old myth –old enough to have originated in China, like many other old Japanese things. It is about the stars Vega and Altair, which the Chinese (and the Japanese) have chosen to be represented by the princess-deity Orihime (織姫, lit. “princess who weaves”) and the cow-herder-deity Hikoboshi (彦星, lit. “star-boy”). Orihime and Hikoboshi are entangled in a love story that puts them in opposite shores of the Amanogawa (天の川, lit. “heavenly river”, more commonly known to us as “galaxy”) and lets them meet only once a year, according to the wishes of the princess’ father who is, of course, a king and, of course, very strict. This day, or to be more accurate, this night is the seventh night of the seventh month and this is exactly what the name of the celebration means: seventh night.
What you will see everywhere in Japan the days before and during Tanabata are bamboo branches on which people hang strips of paper with wishes (usually for better luck in studies and other academic pursuits) as well as various other decorations, usually made of paper. The “various other decorations” is the keyword here since, in the places where big Tanabata fairs are organized (such as Hiratsuka in Kanagawa or Sendai in Miyagi), the decorations are extremely elaborate and impressive; think of the most heavily decorated Christmas tree you’ve seen and multiply that by 10! Usually, the decorations are put up on the sides of one of the city’s main streets and for a few days this street becomes even busier with food and souvenir stalls lining its sides and with people strolling under the decorations, usually clad in yukata and clogs (the traditional Japanese summer attire which is almost always worn when going to summer fairs or festivals).
|More Tanabata decorations|
I won’t write more about Tanabata itself; maybe one day I’ll make a more eloquent post and also upload some of the pictures I took in the Hiratsuka Tanabata in the summer of 2010. This time, though, I would like to write something about a different Tanabata which happened in Ayase, the small city in Kanagawa where Atsuko’s mother's house is. Ayase has a unique characteristic: although the city doesn’t celebrate Tanabata in a big way, the street where the house is, does; in other words, Tanabata is celebrated by a single neighborhood in a city of about 80.000 people (Ayase is small by Japanese standards, not by normal standards). So, every year, some of the people living in this street (mostly men) go to a nearby bamboo grove, cut some trees (about 15-20 ft high), carry them back to the neighborhood, prop them up in various places (usually garage doors) and decorate them with things they make at home, usually made of paper. And in the night of Tanabata, they get together in someone’s backyard, put up tables and tarpaulins, bring various foods and drinks and sit and spent their evening eating, drinking and talking.
This year, I was fortunate enough to be a part of this celebration; obviously having spent quite a few days there, some people have started considering me an honorary Ayase-ian and asked me to go and help with the cutting and carrying of the bamboo and, after that, invited me to go and sit with them the night of the celebration. I accepted (of course) albeit surprised (of course; this is a place where a foreigner is still considered rare and intriguing), I went to the bamboo grove with them (that was an impressive sight by itself; at some point I’d like to go and take some pictures there, something I didn’t do that day because I had to deal with the cutting and the carrying), I carried a huge bamboo tree with Atsuko’s mother and on the night of the Tanabata, I went and sat with them. And, of course, I had a wonderful time.
The Tanabata of Ayase is something minimal compared to the Tanabata I saw last year in Hiratsuka (or this year in Tokyo’s Asagaya). But from one point of view, it’s much more beautiful since it is something not done for tourist reasons like the big Tanabata events but because the people of this neighborhood want to preserve a tradition. I don’t doubt that the same might be true to some extent for the big Tanabata as well, but there things become unavoidably more formal since municipal authorities and professional and trade associations get involved. In Ayase, you know that what you see is the sole result of the neighbors’ initiative and that for these people this celebration has a more personal meaning.
Like I said before, I didn’t take any pictures of the day in the bamboo grove –because I couldn’t. I also didn’t take any pictures of the celebration itself, but this was because I didn’t want to. The people from the neighborhood are exactly this: people of the neighborhood and this night is their personal and communal entertainment; in my mind, photographing them and publicizing these pictures would be an unwarranted invasion of their privacy and a betrayal of their trust. I did take some pictures of the decorated street though; two of them you can see in this post and more are in a photo album in Picasa which you can find here. Some might think of the decorations as kitsch. And of course they are –these decorations exist to be different from the ordinary and the mundane, so they need to be colorful and loud and festive. And remember: the things you see in these pictures are made by normal people, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, children and grandchildren to express the celebration the way they feel it. It’s their celebration which means it’s beyond good and bad taste.