Summer is an exciting time, with summer festivals, fireworks, traditional customs, special sporting events and summer holidays. In Japan, the main traditional customs include ‘Chugen’ (the giving of a mid-year gift to relatives, or to a company boss or colleague), ‘Obon’ (a Buddhist event, and a time to remember one’s ancestors and honor their spirits), and ‘Suikawari’, a traditional game for children in which one child is blindfolded, and tries to cut or break a watermelon with a stick or pole.
Many Japanese people will travel at this time to be with their families, and the highways can be clogged with traffic before and after ‘Obon’, which generally occurs around the middle of August.
It is a very active season, and all across Japan, those who have holidays will travel here and there to participate in various activities to make their vacation enjoyable or memorable. Some will attempt to climb Fuji-san, a yearly pilgrimage for many Japanese people and foreign tourists. Others will go to Koushien stadium in Osaka and watch the annual high school baseball championship. Many participate in or line up to see the famous festivals that occur during this time, with almost every town and city having their own local event. Typically, at the end of each of these events is a great fireworks show.
Some of the more famous summer ‘Matsuri’ or festivals include the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, near the top of Honshu, the Akita-Kanto Matsuri, the Narita Gion Matsuri, the Sanno Matsuri in Tokyo, the Gujo Bon Odori festival in Gifu, the spectacular Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka, the Awa Odori festival in Tokushima, and the Hakata Gion Matsuri in Fukuoka on Kyushu, but these are just to name a few of the more well known festivals.
Humidity levels are extremely high during summer, and many people opt to stay inside and fan themselves to stay cool. In fact, on the old Japanese calendar, July was known as ‘Fumizuki’ (literally ‘book month’), as it was a good time to stay indoors and read. Other indoor activities include calligraphy, ‘haiku’, tea ceremony, and ‘Ikebana’, the Japanese art of flower arranging. Natural clothes’ dyeing with flowers is also a popular pastime.
One summer, my wife Mandy and I had the rare chance to learn and participate in both natural clothes’ dyeing and ‘Ikebana’! Flower-dyeing and flower arrangement is not really my thing, but I’m also not one to turn down an opportunity, so I decided to try it.
Over the years here we have eaten Japanese food, studied the language, read the history and literature, listened to (and sung) Japanese music, and even learned karate in a Japanese dojo. We have climbed Fuji-san, been to baseball games, and we even went to a live Sumo match and watched the "rikishi" (wrestlers), with their hair styled in the samurai top knot, fight it out in the ring! We have participated in a tea ceremony, danced in the Bon Odori, and enjoyed countless summer festivals, but we still hadn't experienced "Japanese Flower Arrangement", and hence we were both really looking forward to it.
So Mandy and I took a train to Kuwana, in Mie, and had a traditional Japanese "brunch" on the way - rice, miso soup, sushi and Japanese tea!
Then we went up into the mountains, where for 3 days a season, people can try their hand at natural clothes dyeing. We were the only ones there, and had the full attention of the instructing ladies! Now for me, this felt like a feminine pursuit (I'm not being sexist, but how many men do you know of, who pick flowers and do natural clothes dyeing?). However, for the sake of being able to make and take home something nice for my mother at Christmas, I decided to not just watch my wife, but to get in and get my hands dirty, so to speak.
Luckily, the patterns we chose worked out perfectly! We now had traditional, Japanese hand-made cloths to give as presents for Christmas that year! Mandy's cloth was marigold, and mine was Indigo/blue. The pattern on both our cloths was like rays of the sun emanating from one corner of the material! We thought that this was rather appropriate considering that they were made in the land of the rising sun.
Well, all this driving in the mountains and dyeing cloth had made us hungry, and we next went to a little pine cottage restaurant. It was so quaint, and we sat there amidst the scent of sandalwood and pine, drinking our delicious coffee, while eating Japanese style pancakes and fresh cream! We had hand-made vanilla ice cream for dessert. I joked that I had dyed and gone to heaven!
Before long, it was time to head back to the town of Kuwana and arrange some flowers! Being a regular guy from Australia, I never thought I would try arranging flowers, but in Japan, it's not so much about arranging flowers, as it is about learning to relax and to express oneself, much in the same way as writing poetry, or painting. In fact, it was the samurai who sometimes did this activity to relax after a battle, and knowing that helped me deal with any doubts I had about my masculinity!
We returned to the city of Kuwana, in Mie, where the 'Ikebana' Sensei lived. She was very relieved and pleased that we could speak Japanese. She was a very traditional kind of Japanese lady, who spoke no English. We quickly got underway. She explained to us about how the human element, the theme or human expression, is more important than the technique or rules of Flower Arrangement; technique comes later, she told us.
My particular arrangement consisted of having two foreign flowers (common Australian lillies), in between two Japanese flowers, with pampas grass reeds on either side, around which were spread Japanese summer flowers. My theme was ‘Mandy and I’ (the two Australian lilies) in the middle of Japan (the Japanese flowers), looking back on all the experiences (the summer flowers) we've had here. Sensei seemed to appreciate that very much, and saw the pampas grass as a nice ‘frame’. Mandy's didn't have a theme so much as an image. Hers was a more European style of a clustered arrangement, which then Sensei picked apart, rearranged and perfected, destroying poor Mandy's original idea in the process! Mandy could see Sensei's point though, and in all fairness, it did look better.
However, Sensei was really interested in seeing what ideas and styles two foreign visitors could come up with, after having seen only Japanese students for so many years. I think she enjoyed it as much as we did, and she was very kind with her time and assistance. Mandy and I had a very good time, took many photos, and were pleased to have finally experienced the ancient art of Japan's ‘Ikebana’.
Now it’s summer once again. Currently my wife and I live in the mountains above Matsusaka, next to a river, so we will do the usual things, such as swimming, fishing, enjoying barbecues with friends and so on. Last night we walked outside and admired all the fireflies floating effortlessly in the hot, humid air, and chatted with some neighbors about them.
Another popular summer custom is baseball. In August 2010, my wife and I traveled to Tokyo Dome with some good Japanese friends and watched the Tokyo Giants (my favorite team) battle it out against Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers (my wife’s favorite team). The Tigers won. It was the highlight of our summer vacation that year.
We had to laugh when we arrived home today. There was a message in our letterbox from the local council, asking people to dispose of their "summer religious ceremony" garbage in the correct manner. Apparently, people here put four sticks into an eggplant, so that it resembles a cow, (Matsusaka is one of those places in Japan famous for its cows and beef), and then they place this in their home’s Buddhist altar, after which they throw it away, but it has to be put in special recycled garbage bags.
Yes sir, life is certainly different in this part of the world, but it's never boring! Even the television programs are more interesting, with all the summer sports and extra movies. The commercials recently are featuring more beer ads, now that it’s so hot again. But when they advertise beer here, they magnify the sound of the "gulps", and the man drinks it down as if he had just crawled in from the desert dying of thirst!
Summer in Japan is always lively and entertaining, and all its associated customs are fascinating. Each and every year, my wife and I find something new and interesting to experience and enjoy, and I’m sure this summer will be no different.
ⓒ Chris Ryall
SAKATA FIREWORKS SHOW, YAMAGATA PREFECTURE, JAPAN