Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Asagaya Tanabata Festival - Part 1

Asagaya JR station during the tanabata festival. As always, click on the smaller image here for a bigger one in which you can see better detail.

If you follow any other Japan blogs, you'll see that summer is the time for festivals of all flavors and types. It's the time when all the little sub-sections of all the little sub-cities that make up Tokyo concoct their own unique take on festivals in order to drum up business for local merchants. That's not meant to sound cynical. It's simply meant to be a realistic assessment of why any "town" would run a week-long "festival" which consists mainly of merchants lining the front of their shops with seasonal food and goods.

In our local neighborhood, Asagaya, the big annual event is "tanabata". Tanabata is a strange (non-National) holiday in Japan because it seems to have no localized time frame. Any area can celebrate any time it wants between July and September. In Asagaya, this is always August and generally starts from the first weekend. The "festival" runs for an entire week.

The story behind Tanabata is well-told in the Wikipedia entry I linked to in the previous paragraph but the short version is that it's a story of star-crossed lovers. Every culture seems to embrace their own flavor of these types of stories. The details are different but the overall story is the same. Two people fall in love but their families for one reason or another forbid their love and their story ends in sadness or tragedy. The end of the story in Japan is that the lovers get to meet once a year when two stars meet in the sky. The star aspect is just about the only element of the story behind Tanabata which actually gets incorporated into the festivals. It's relatively common to see stars used as decorative elements. Other than that, you rarely encounter anything related to the lore during the festival.

Kids (and sometimes adults) write wishes on scraps of paper and attach them to bamboo branches as part of the holiday. You see these branches everywhere at this time of year and they aren't always incorporated into a festival. I used to see them at Nishi-Shinjuku station when my office was located there. Most of the time, the wishes are just on slips of paper but the ones around Asagaya station are written on colorful star-shaped papers.

The funny thing to me is that the idea of wishing upon a star, like the star-crossed lover story, is something that occurs across cultures. It really does make you wonder if Jung's theory of the collective unconscious was right or if we all have underlying mental mechanisms which lead us all down similar mental pathways, but that's a post for another time.

The Asagaya festival is held along an absolutely huge (and impressive) shopping street. The map I scanned in above (which definitely is better if you look at it in full size by clicking on the small version above) shows the names of the shops along the street. The street is so jam-packed with stores that the map had to be cut in half to fit on the flyer. The top and bottom have to be placed end-to-end in order to truly see how many shops are along this stretch. I can say without hesitation that I believe this is one of the best local shopping streets in Tokyo because of the variety and convenience.

I'm not that well-versed in Japanese anime and mascot characters so I don't know what that white bird is but I think the little fellow on the yellow blob in the center may be a Dragon Ball Z cartoon character.

Local merchants spend weeks preparing for the festival by making large wire-frame, papier mache figures which they suspend in front of their shops. If you come home from work in the evening from JR Asagaya station and travel along the street to get home pre-festival, you often see these figures lying on the ground being worked on after the shops have closed. Back when I was still taking JR (and working full-time), I used to look at the progress of these bits of artwork and try and figure out as early as possible what they were going to be in the end. It was like a game where you started with the barest hint as a clue and got better clues as time went by.

The festival is huge and allows one a chance to see Japanese summer merrymaking in a way which is enlightening about the culture and endearing. It's an interesting reflection of traditional and modern tastes and behaviors that you cannot look at and start pointing fingers at the oppressive influence of western culture upon Japan. Most of the foods and items that are sold are chosen by average people running little local shops who are hoping to profit by appealing to the appetites of their average customers, not monolithic chains like McDonald's or Starbucks cramming western tastes into Japanese souls. In essence, this is a slice of the "real" modern Japan.

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