Tanabata: Legend of the Stars

Long, long ago, there lived a princess named Orihime. She was the daughter of a god of the heavens, and lived by a vast river of stars known to us as the Milky Way. She diligently wove cloth to make clothes for the people in her kingdom.

One day, her father realised Orihime was no longer a little girl, but a young woman who longed to be in love. Wishing to see his daughter happy, he set out to find her a suitable partner.

After searching high and low, he came across a boy tending his cow by the bank of the river. His name was Hikoboshi. He was a noble, hard-working young man. It was inevitable that as soon as he and Orihime met, they would fall in love. Before long, they were married and enjoying life to its fullest.

However, the couple were having so much fun together that they neglected to do their work. Without Orihime, the people’s clothes became ragged. Without Hikoboshi, his cow became weak and sick. The celestial god became very angry at the pair for their recklessness. He decided the best solution would be to have them live apart, on opposite sides of the river. Hikoboshi was sent to the east side, and Orihime was sent to the west. The separation devastated them.

Seeing Orihime so sad was hard for her father. So, the god made one final decision. Once a year, on the night of the 7th day of the 7th month, Orihime was permitted to see her beloved husband. Over the years, Orihime worked tirelessly on her loom and Hikoboshi took great care of his animals. Their love stayed strong and they worked hard knowing they had this one special day to look forward to.

***

This tale of Orihime (Vega star) and Hikoboshi (Altair star) was originally adapted from a Chinese legend. Today, it is celebrated as a traditional festival known as Tanabata.

At Zojo Temple in Tokyo, a special display made up of hundreds of candle-lit paper lanterns was set up last week on July 7th. These lanterns represented the Milky Way ‘river’. It was beautiful with Tokyo Tower in the background! As well as the river, hundreds of lanterns decorated by elementary school children were also displayed. Their drawings depicted what they want to be in the future – bakers, dressmakers, teachers, train drivers, Anpanman! Many of the children came to the temple with their parents. It was so touching seeing them earnestly search for and find their creations!

As a custom of Tanabata, people write their wishes and prayers on colourful strips of paper and tie them to bamboo tree branches. Ceremonies are conducted at many shrines and temples, like Kanda-Myojin Shrine, where musicians play traditional instruments, girls perform a traditional dance, and priests pray for all of our wishes to come true.

Tochigi’s Mystical Hydrangea Shrine

For the Weekly Photo Challenge, Brie has got us thinking about what is our muse. Without a doubt, my biggest muse is nature itself. I am always inspired by flowers in particular and can spend hours walking around a garden taking photos!

Yesterday, I visited a shrine called Ohirasan Jinja which sits on top of a mountain. To get to the shrine, you walk through a forest and up a path that consists of 1000 stone steps! By the first 100 steps I would say the sweat was already starting to pour out! But I felt like reaching the top was an achievement, and the view over Tochigi city was beautiful.

Not only is the view nice, but the hike up is also part of the attraction. The stairs are lined with thousands of hydrangeas which burst open in the rainy season. I spent about 1.5 hours in total meandering my way up and back, stopping every 2 metres to admire this spectacular little corner of the world. I’ve taken a million photos of hydrangeas before, but I never get tired of them. I’ve also been experimenting with water drops recently, and have been trying to take macro reflection photos (without much luck yet). There’s so much hidden beauty in nature. It’s fun to try and capture things from a different point of view!

Azalea Heaven in Nezu

First it was the plum blossoms, then the cherry blossoms, then the tulips, and now the azaleas are stealing the show!

I can’t believe it’s been two weeks since the sakura departed. I’ve been up to my neck in work and other things lately, and the blossoms already seem like a distant memory. The sakura trees are now full of lush green leaves, and although the weather has been pretty terrible lately, the warmth is slowly returning. The cold seems to last for so long, and there’s nothing worse than being cooped up indoors all the time. Every spring, I’m like “I can’t wait for summer!”. I dream of being able to sit outside on my balcony on balmy evenings, and hang out with friends at rooftop beer gardens and local summer festivals… But then summer hits, always so abruptly, and you suddenly feel like it’s too hot and humid to do anything. In the end, I probably I find myself saying “I can’t wait for autumn!” more than anything else!

Regardless of the temperature, there is one constant that I love and appreciate: flowers! There is always some bright and cheerful flower in bloom somewhere. In an abstract kind of way, the different varieties taking it in turns to spring to life, is like nature’s dance. And we are lucky enough to witness it.

The other day I grabbed a friend and headed for Nezu Shrine to check out their annual azalea festival. We were a tad early for the peak but it was still a beautiful sight to see. It’s not a big garden, but it’s spread across a bank so you can stand at the bottom and look up or vice versa. The dome shaped shrubs were so compact and cute, and we loved the very cool striped pink flowers. The shrine has a row of torii gates like Fushimi Inari in Kyoto and on weekends, food stalls are set up selling things like delicious sake manju (steamed buns with red bean paste).

Shichi-Go-San

In Japanese, shichi is seven, go is five, and san is three. Shichi-go-san is a rite of passage for children who turn 7, 5, and 3 years old. It’s been celebrated in Japan for about 700-800 years! The festival is officially on November 15, but families visit the shrine to pay their respects on the weekends before and after. The children get dressed up in exquisite, colourful kimono, complete with beautiful hairstyles and other accessories. They really look like living dolls – both the boys and girls. Not only do the kids dress up, but the parents and grandparents do too. You could be forgiven for thinking they were all going to a wedding!

On the weekend, I visited Zenkoji Shrine in Nagano city. I had no idea there would be children celebrating 7-5-3, but as soon as I saw the first couple of kids wearing kimono, I figured it out straight away. I, as well as everyone else, couldn’t help but ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at all the little ones. My favourites were one cheeky 5 year old boy with a mohawk, dressed in a kimono with a fierce tiger image on the back! (I didn’t get a photo unfortunately); a tiny boy who looked just like a doll, and was definitely younger than three!; and the sweetest little girl eating her ice-cream. But they were all so precious! I think it’s one of the sweetest customs in Japan.

Shichi-go-san
Parents become paparazzi!

If you’re in Japan, keep your eyes peeled at shrines over the next few weekends!

Autumn Mission: Nikko

The leaves have started changing in Tokyo! Finally, I can get on track with my Autumn Mission.

One place that was on my list, and I’m happy to say I’ve now checked off, is the one and only Nikko. This was my second time to the World Heritage town, and it was just as spectacular as I remembered! A couple of friends and I spent the day around the back streets, discovering beautiful colours around every corner. It was so peaceful being away from the crowds. It’s actually kind of unfortunate that most people only go to the well-known sightseeing spots. They’re missing out on so much! At night, we checked out the “light up” at the shrines and temples. I wasn’t sure how good it was going to be, but maybe that’s what made it all the more impressive! The red shinto shrines and momiji leaves against the black night sky were intense and powerful. I literally couldn’t put my camera down! Walking around the small pond in Shoyoen Garden was probably the most memorable part of the night. The reflection of the trees in the water was so picturesque… if only there hadn’t been hundreds of other people there! As usual though, there was no pushing and shoving despite the crowd sometimes having to walk in single file. And even when the line came to a halt because someone wanted to take a photo, people waited patiently. It really is a special country.

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Sanjaaaa!

ROUGH and ROWDY! Men and women yelling and chanting; musicians drumming on the taiko; wooden blocks clapping; whistles blowing; the crowd cheering; yakuza showing off their tattoos (in broad daylight!); men with no pants on… yes, that’s right, semi-naked guys. Hundreds of thousands of people took over the streets of downtown Asakusa over the weekend during the Sanja Matsuri, one of the biggest festivals in Tokyo.

This 3-day event has been going on for over 700 years, attracting people from all over the world who come to see mikoshi being jolted up and down, and backwards and forwards, through the narrow backstreets of Sensoji. The mikoshi, or portable shrines, are heaved up on the shoulders of men and women and paraded around from dawn til dusk. Of the 300+ mikoshi, there are 3 “main” ones. These guys weigh about a ton, or 1000 kg, equivalent to a small car… or an elephant! Sitting on four massive beams, they are carried by about 50 people at a time! Every now and then, the leaders force the mikoshi to suddenly change direction or go backwards, and the 30+ people carrying it at the back are caught off guard and start tripping over each other! The look on their faces, especially the women who are frantically trying not to get trampled, says it all… TERROR. The first-timers in the crowd gasp and hold their breath just waiting for the whole thing to topple over… but the veteran onlookers who’ve seen it a dozen times before just shout “危ない!” (watch out!), or  “頑張れ!” (you can do it!). Within a few seconds, the mikoshi regains stability, and the show goes on!

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the festival. I’d seen photos online and it looked pretty cool, but so do the million other festivals that happen every year in Japan! Well, I guess that’s the good thing about having low or no expectations, the actual experience can only be better! As soon as I came out of Asakusa Station, BAM! I walked straight into a sea of people. I’ve been to crowded festivals before, like the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, but for some reason it just felt like there was A LOT of people there. The traffic in the whole area was cut off, so people were free to roam the streets. Hundreds and hundreds of people were crowded around one mikoshi about to enter the shrine gates. Young and old were cheering and getting into it! And despite the amount of people, in typical Japanese style, there was no pushing and shoving. Leaving the main shrine area, it seemed like every corner I turned, there was a mikoshi with a crowd of followers, or some ritual event going on.  Also, it was bizarre and awesome at the same time, to see all the yakuza with their massive tattoos and weird hairstyles ‘getting amongst it’, when usually they are feared by the whole country!

All in all, it was a thoroughly entertaining festival!!

Dude, where’s my pants?!
Dude, where’s my pants?!
The musicians corner
The musicians corner

Sanja Matsuri

Sanja Matsuri

Mikoshi entering the shrine gate
Mikoshi entering the shrine gate
Nakamise Street leading up to Sensoji
Nakamise Street leading up to Sensoji
Senbei crackers on Nakamise Street. Yumm!
Senbei crackers on Nakamise Street. Yumm!
Food stalls around Sensoji
Food stalls around Sensoji
Just love the hair
Just love the hair
Great view for some lucky people!
Great view for some lucky people!
Shide (paper streamers) to purify the mikoshi
Shide (paper streamers) to purify the mikoshi
Little cuties drumming away!
Little cuties drumming away!
This photo is totally ‘Tokyo’ = Skytree, the Golden Poo, a festival!
This photo is totally ‘Tokyo’ = Skytree, the Golden Poo, a festival!
Musicians waiting for the main mikoshi to arrive
Musicians waiting for the main mikoshi to arrive
Waiting, waiting…
Waiting, waiting…
Shinto folk demon
Shinto folk demon
Special drum for mikoshi
Special drum for mikoshi
Here it comes!
Here it comes!
Poor ladies getting squashed!
Poor ladies getting squashed!

A short video I took:

Off it goes, into the night.
Off it goes, into the night.