7 July was the Tanabata (七夕）Festival in Japan. Originating from China, the festival was adopted by Japan during the Heian period (794 - 1185) when Chinese influence on Japanese culture was very strong.
The story behind the Japanese festival is similar to the common Chinese story in which a weaver girl (known as Orihime in Japanese) fell in love with a herdsman (Hikoboshi) but were eventually torn apart from each other. They were only allowed to meet once every year, on the 7th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar.
|Bamboo leaves with tanzaku paper outside my favourite supermarket.|
Interestingly, many areas in Japan do not follow the lunar calendar, celebrating this festival on a date based on the Gregorian calendar. Also, unlike the Chinese who celebrate the festival like Valentine's Day, the Japanese write their wishes on colourful tanzaku paper and hang them on bamboo branches. The bamboo branches, often decorated with colourful papers, are placed outside houses or buildings.
After a few days of rain, the fine weather that Saturday was a surprise. I was glad as it meant the star-crossed lovers could meet afterall. It was widely believed that Orihime and Hikoboshi would not be able to see each other if it rained, and would have to wait for another year to meet.
The Tanabata Festival celebrations seemed rather low-key in Kyoto. I supposed Kyoto was too busy preparing for one of its signature festivals of the year, the Gion Matsuri, to do much about the Tanabata. As I heard that the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine was holding special performances as part of the Tanabata celebrations, I decided to check it out.
Kitano Tenmangu is one of my favourite shrines. It creates an impression in a quiet way. No bright red torii, only dignified gray.
Majestic stone torii gates, stone lion statues and stone lanterns line the path to the main hall of the shrine. I love the quiet atmosphere which seems to overshadow the chatter of the visitors.
The shrine is especially popular among students. Visitors can pay about 500 Yen to write their wishes on a wooden plaque known as 'ema' (絵馬). It is common to see 'ema' being scribbled with wishes related to scholastic achievements, such as wishes for successful university entrance exams.
On Tanabata, tanzaku paper hung on bamboo leaves flanked the entrance to the main prayer hall of the shrine.
As I read through the tanzaku, I was amused by an unusual wish from a primary school child.
'I wish to be able to strike lottery,' he wrote, while his school mates wrote about becoming a sportsman or entering university one day.
And then, as I walked through the grounds of the shrine, I heard children singing. So the special performances actually featured children! Japanese children from various kindergartens in the neighbourhood were singing, dancing and playing a variety of musical instruments at the festival.
There were children who realised the significance of what they were doing and like celebrities, waved from the stage excitedly at their proud parents and grandparents. And there were those who lost focus, and yet never lost too much of it to disrupt the singing and dancing.
It amazed me to see how children are so full of potential. They can achieve so much if you would just give them the opportunity.
Before I left the shrine, I met my neighbour by chance. He shared that he didn't expect the performances to be of such a 'small' scale. I had to admit that like him, I was expecting a massive cultural event with a larger crowd.
I missed the point then but I think I might have grasped the wisdom of it now.
How else can we best celebrate and preserve traditions if we do not get the kids involved?