Saturday, 7 July 2012

When Orihime meets Hikoboshi at Kitano Tenmangu

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?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Prologue: the first three months

When I first arrived in Kyoto on 26 Mar 2012, I wanted to start a blog as soon as possible to share my adventures and observations. But I didn't.

It was because it took me longer than expected to set my life in order in this foreign land.

I didn't speak  much Japanese; I had to look for an apartment; I had to furnish my apartment; I didn't have internet; I didn't have a mobile phone and I knew no one. It was winter then. I remember feeling rather gloomy because of the cold and loneliness. 


The semester started on 2 Apr. A flurry of orientation activities followed. There were the Japanese class placement tests to grapple with at that time, amidst questions on whether and how to get myself a bed, internet and maybe some friends, for a start.  I was kept busy.

By the end of the first month, I was plagued by a different set of concerns.  I couldn't articulate my thoughts in class. My proficiency level was too low. I thought the class placement was a mistake but I was not allowed to rectify it.  I couldn't keep up with everyone's pace.  My classmates are young, in their early 20s. I was too slow for my age. By trying to keep up, I spent most of my time in my apartment studying.

It was fortunate that the sakura trees were in bloom at that time. The transience of the beautiful flowers reminded me of my mortality. I felt blessed to be able to undertake this journey on my own, and in good health. More importantly, I found strength and optimism.


With the passing of the sakura,  the Golden Week - a series of public holidays in the first week of May - brought me my parents and my friends from Singapore. Their short stays with me dispelled my loneliness for a while.
But by the end of May, I started to feel disconnected from society. Every day, when I went to class, it felt unreal.  It didn't help that I live somewhere else while most of the people I would have loved to hang out with stay in the school dorm. I was hardly included in the social activities of people I know in school. 

I felt a desperate need to fill the emptiness that surrounded me after class. I needed to interact with people.  I wanted to contribute to society again. I started job hunting but couldn't make any headway with my low Japanese proficiency. I thought of getting a television but it didn't seem right to replace people with a box.

And so, I started to look beyond the school campus for activities targeted at working adults. I was afterall a shakai-jin (社会人).


Life becomes meaningful knowing you are able to help others. I eventually found a non-profit organisation with a mission I could identify with, where I volunteer my skills.

It is an organisation that promotes international exchange between Japanese children and children in other parts of the world. The founders of the organisation escaped death because of a postponed meeting that made them cancel the ill-fated flight on 11 Sep 2001. They felt that they had to do something for the chaotic world and set up the NPO.  These are people who dared to make the difference.  I was deeply inspired.

I also started searching for cultural activities that I am interested in. For two Saturdays per month, I am now learning Japanese traditional dance.  At the class, I met people who share my interests, understand my difficulties, and are willing to listen and advise. 

Not too long ago, a classmate who is returning to America generously gave me her bicycle.  The bicycle, in its orange splendour, seems to have a message for me. Every time I look at it, I hear the words, Do More, Feel Better, Live Longer!

It looks like life in Kyoto has just begun.