Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bon-Odori - Paper Lantern Festival

This weekend in Kamakura they celebrated the Buddhist All-Souls Festival when the ancestors return to the earth for a few days. Nagoshi Festival on the 7th, Risshu-sai Festival on the 8th, and Sanetomo Festival on the 9th make up Hachiman-gu Shrine’s biggest event of summer. During this major festival, 400 lanterns (bonbori ) are lit in order to guide the spirits to earth. These lanterns with pictures and calligraphic works written by prominent scholars, actors, novelists and other cultural professionals in Kamakura are lit throughout the shrine grounds. This event was quite stunning and I’m glad the kids and I decided to venture out without our resident tour guide and managed to get to and from Kamakura by train without a hitch. Here’s our take on the Risshu-sai Festival, which is the night we were there – if you plan to visit us at this time we’ll be taking you there, because I can’t wait to go back.

Semi-shigure Shower of Cicadas

Did I mention it’s Cicada season here? I’m not sure but they sure seem louder here than what I remember in Maryland – as we got off the train and passed by the little store that has the Manekineko - Happy Cats (see picture) those darn Cicada’s were ear deafening, I guess we were experiencing a Cicada shower. I found the Haiku by Basho and thought it was perfect – no matter what century it was written in!

So with the Cicada’s humming their rather loud tune in the background we hit Dankazura Street which is a lovely cherry tree-lined promenade that leads to the entrance of Tsurugaoka-hachiman-gu Shrine. As we neared the entrance it became more crowded and Walker and Mitchell made it through the pedestrian crossing but Wrenn and I did not – by the time we crossed and caught up with them Walker had already been engaged by 4 Japanese young ladies who were busy asking him questions and writing down his answers. Mitchell with all the brotherly support he could offer had bolted from the scene. So the girls finished up asking their questions and then asked to take our picture with them – clearly it was some sort of school assignment – but we didn’t mind. I’d been warned - this happens frequently to Gaijin. Anyways, once arigato’s were out of the way we proceeded to the main area where the lanterns were and we could hear the rhythmic beat of the Taiko drums in the distance. The drums had a powerful rhythmic beat that drew you in – I could feel my feet moving a little quicker, I just had to see these artists performing this powerful compelling music. Sadly for me just when we arrived in front of the performance area they stopped – but they will be high on my list to see next year.


The middle day, Saturday, of the Bon-Odori festival in Kamakura is the celebration of the beginning of Fall. But with the heat index of 90 and the Cicadas permeating the rocks to paraphrase Basho, Fall seems more like wishful thinking to me.

While we waited for night to fall we wandered around Kamakura and visited several shops. One was a shop specializing in Kamakura-bori carving. This is a 700-year-old craft in which designs are chisled in wood and then lacquered in a special process. See the link for more info we also stopped in a little shop that specialized in Furokshiki – this is the art of folding and wrapping cloth into different uses, for wrapping gifts, storing or carrying items – see and of course to cool us off we had to go back to our ice cream shop where I got my fix on Baked Sweet Potato ice cream.

So with the window-shopping over and the ice cream cooling us down we headed back to the Festival area where it was now dusk and the lanterns were starting to be lit. It was absolutely lovely, the different colors of the illustrations glowing with the candle light. Many of the women were dressed in traditional Yukata – which is the cotton summer weight Kimono. While we meandered around we could see a crowd gathering and discovered that at 7 pm there would be another performance. Six women dressed in traditional Japanese Kimono danced a beautiful dance in perfect synchronization discretely clicking together vermillion colored blocks of wood that made it sound like they were snapping their fingers to a distinct beat. On their heads they had on a large circular headdress. Their bodies moved slowly and gracefully in perfect unison to the beat as their heads remained nearly still. In the background an unseen male sung a fluid and mournful Japanese tune that I have read is used to tell stories. It was absolutely mesmerizing. At the end of their performance it was nearing time for our train ride back and so we left for the station making one more circuit amongst the crowds to look at some of our favorite lanterns.

This will be high on my list to do again next year and I would recommend anyone planning a visit to this area in August to put it on their itinerary. Till next week – sayonara.

Recommended Reading

I just finished Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama. It was a nice read, great background on the life of a Sumo Wrestler and again I learned a lot about how the everyday Japanese living in an area of Tokyo were affected during WWII. It is written by an American but worth the read if you’re planning to come visit. I’m awaiting my 10 books of Japanese fiction to arrive from Barnes and Noble and hope to keep the recommended reading going for all of my bookgroup groupies out there.

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