The Weaver and the Cowherd
Trip Start Jun 03, 2011
15Trip End Aug 21, 2011
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What I did
Originally, I wanted to go to the Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri, as it was known as one of the two biggest Tanabata celebrations in Japan, and Hiratsuka is only about an hour south of Tokyo
I didn't want to change my plans based on one internet post, but after a bit of searching in Japanese, I finally found a link that wasn't a blog entry or forum post (from Yahoo Japan) stating that the parade and nightly "Lite-Up" of the decorations were cancelled. Since those were the two features I was most interested in, I decided I'd come up with new Tanabata plans.
Interestingly, it looked from blog posts like city leaders originally wanted to cancel the whole thing after the earthquake due to the Japanese tradition of refraining from being joyful when others are in mourning. However, there was an election at the end of March in which the people of Hiratsuka expressed their support for holding the festival as usual. It's too bad they decided to scale back, though.
Anyway, while searching for confirmation the Hiratsuka parade was canceled, I found out that the Shitaya area of Tokyo (near Ueno Station) was having Tanabata activities this weekend. There was a parade of traditional Japanese dance scheduled and it was a lot closer anyway, so I didn't see any reason not to go for my Tanabata fix.
I didn't have much information about the festival, but I knew the times and that it was in the area of Kappabashi Dori. That street ran between Ueno and Asakusa stations and was renowned for the large number of restaurant supplies stores lining it. I went to the street at the appointed time, and before I could start looking for where the parade would run, a large group of dancers crossed the street in front of me and began warming up.
The dancers soon went down the length of the street, which was lined with tables the store owners had setup on the sidewalk. I think it was unrelated to the festival, but there was also a small flea market running in a plaza near the Ueno end of the street. Oddly enough, I had been wondering if Japanese people ever had garage sales, and this setup seemed to be their equivalent.
I didn't stop to browse, though. Instead I continued to follow the dancers down the street. They wore traditional outfits with huge straw hats for the ladies, which must have been very helpful for keeping the sun off as it was hot in Tokyo today. The women danced in thick-soled wooden sandals that sloped forward at the front and must have taken some super calf strength and balance to dance in
As the dancers continued on down the road, I began to hear faint Middle-Eastern music in the distance. I followed it to it's source and discovered a group of Japanese women giving a belly dancing performance. For a second, I thought (hoped?) the two groups might have a Bollywood-style dance-off, but no such luck as the traditional Japanese dancers next performance stop was another few blocks down.
The belly dancing was just wrapping up when I got there, but I did finally manage to get a quick look at a festival schedule. I spotted a taiko (Japanese drum) performance on the list going on at the end of the street, so I hurried on down the street, passing the parade of dancers. I reached the drums in time to see the second half of the performance. The parading dancers arrived at the spot just as the drums were finishing. It was also the final parade performance location, and the dancers invited the crowd to join them in the final dance. I hadn't quite gotten the steps down myself, so I declined.
With the final dance breaking-up, I took a better look at the festival schedule posted nearby
The festival wasn't quite done with me, though. I happened to arrive at the correct spot just in time to see the beginning of a Kamishibai (紙芝居) performance. I was unduly excited about that. Kamishibai was a traditional Japanese performance where a narrator told a story while displaying cards painted with illustrations. I had read about it in one of my Japanese books, but when I looked around on the internet for a place to see a show, I found out that the art had mostly disappeared with the advent of TV. I was excited to just stumble across a toy vendor doing a Kamishibai performance to drum up some business.
The performance was interesting if underwhelming, as you would probably expect from the description. All of the kids nearby gathered 'round when the show started, though. I didn't really follow the plot, but it was definitely a modern story with pictures of flying robot-looking superheros battling giant monsters
Leaving the festival, I made one quick stop on my way back to my room. Along the same subway line as the festival was Jokanji (上閑寺) Temple. The temple was colloquially known as Nagekomidera (投込寺) or "Thrown Into Temple". The temple was mentioned at the Edo Tokyo Museum. During the Edo period, prostitutes who worked in a nearby "pleasure quarter" were dumped at the gates of the temple when they died. A particularly large number of prostitutes' bodies were left at the temple following a great earthquake and fire in 1855. An inscription at the temple implied the children of the prostitutes were also interred there. A monument to the deceased was erected in later years, and a poem written in the Senryu style, similar to Haiku, was also created. I would (loosely and poorly) translate it as: "At birth, a world of suffering (a synonym for life of prostitution). At death, Jokanji Temple."
So with that melancholy history, I was surprised to discover modern Jokanji was relatively bright and cheery, as cemeteries go. It was still in use as a final resting place for members of local families, and there were many new and well-kept grave sites. The relatively simple memorial to the prostitutes was located behind the temple. There was also a long poem written by Kafu Nagai (永井荷風), who was known for writing about the lives of prostitutes and those with similar professions, inscribed in a memorial wall.