I am taken by surprise with just how many festivals and celebrations I’ve encountered in Japan, especially in Kyoto. You’re sure to find a couple a month, even sometimes a couple on the same day, and it’s not too uncommon to randomly get caught in the middle of one while walking down a street. The great part is, many of these celebrations are completely free and they make great opportunities for communities to bond, or even to just hang out with friends.
Some are put on by local communities and I’ve noticed that those tend to be affiliated with the public school system, be they musical performances or one of my highlights from last semester: my first Undoukai. This is an event for all grades (usually at an elementary school) to compete in track & field activities. Parents and family members can also participate in some sections. I use the word compete loosely though because it’s more about having everyone try their best and it’s not just about the sports events, each grade level also has its own energetic and sometimes even acrobatic performance.
Celebrations have also given me chances to bond with my host family. On the first week after moving in with them we set up a night picnic on our rooftop for Otsukimi. It’s known as the Mid-Autumn festival but it translates literally to “Moon-watching”. The truth with homestays is that you’re moving in with strangers and the family is just as nervous about accepting a stranger into their homes, but I think that it was after this night that we all started feeling a lot more comfortable with each other. Just this month we celebrated the Hina festival, which promotes the healthy growth of girls, together. Grandparents usually buy their first-born granddaughters a sort of stage that they set up with dolls and candy a few weeks before the big day. Chiho and Kaho patiently waited until March 3rd when they could finally eat their candies.
Kyoto itself has over 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, so it’s natural that most celebrations I’ve witnessed have been in some way affiliated with one or the other. I remember running around from one festival to the next in just one day last fall. The Jidai Masturi was happening at the imperial palace just across the street from Doshisha and when that was done I quickly grabbed dinner with my friends Shota and Kait before riding the packed trains up north to the Kurama fire festival. Crowds are unavoidable at festivals but I think the ones at Kurama were the worst I’ve been in so far and I distinctly remember how the police guards kept us in circulation around the temple with instructions that literally translated to “Follow the person in front of you without stopping, we are currently hamster-ing”. Yes, we hamstered around for hours and when I told my teacher about it the next day, she called us brave for going since it looked crazy enough broadcasted on T.V.
Eventually it starts to seem as if there’s a celebration for just about anything, which I’m not complaining about. At the start of February we celebrated Setsubun, which marks the beginning of spring in Japan. This one was one of more involved ones as it has you throw beans at someone dressed as a demon while yelling “Demons out, in with good luck!” You also silently eat an entire sushi roll facing that year’s lucky direction (west southwest this year) and then eat a number of beans equal to your age to ensure a healthy and happy year. Later in the month, I went to a mochi rice cake lifting competition at Daigo-ji temple on Kyoto’s southeastern side. Most failed but those who succeeded at lifting roughly 150kg of pure mochi, especially the person who held on for longest, are set to have good years ahead of them.
There are also more national celebrations that aren’t necessarily associated with any religion. There’s Seijin No Hi which is celebrated on the second Monday of January to commemorate everyone who turned 20, the age of maturity here, over the past year. It’s sort of like being 21 in the states except 20 here is the legal age for most things: drinking alcohol, voting, etc. For the Japanese New Year, Oshougatsu, you set up a tier of three mochi rice cakes and top it off with a mandarin orange. You eat these but post larger replicas near a home’s entryway as decorations for a few days. The New Year used to be celebrated on the Chinese calendar but has been celebrated on January 1st since Japan ended its self-imposed seclusion in 1873. In a similar way many western, specifically American, holidays such as Christmas and Halloween are also celebrated here and some Japanese are actually really passionate about them.
My host parent’s aren’t extraordinarily religious but they still donate to Moriyama’s community temple which just finished rebuilding its gate after raising a whopping $375,000. My parents joke around that they felt like they lost a son as my older host brother decided to major in Christianity when he enrolled in Doshisha. In the end, he switched his major to Korean though and is now teaching it at Kyushu University.
Last Sunday was the third year anniversary for who would’ve been my homestay grandfather. The Japanese Buddhist tradition is for relatives to come together in official commemoration for the first time three years afterwards, and then onwards after incrementally larger intervals of time. I participated as well, following along with the ancient chants and when it was all over we went out to eat lunch together while looking at old pictures of the life he led. The monk who led the prayers also joined us and was really excited to talk to me about Buddhist history and how it’s different in Japan because it traveled from India and was filtered through China before making its way here. To my surprise, he ordered us huge beers and we poured each other’s glasses as manners mandate. It was all fun and games until I realized he probably ordered us way too much and I guess he realized he’d had enough by then so he looked me in the eyes and with a “Mottainai!” poured me the rest of everything including his own. I was shocked and thought “This man…”, but I kid, it was overall a truly unique experience.
My biggest impression out of all of this was in talking to my homestay parents about how so much time ends up passing after a person’s death that their relatives only become fewer and fewer after each anniversary. The responsibility of celebrating it is passed on to those people’s children but because many of those people were never even able to meet the person to begin with, they end up celebrating a stranger’s anniversary. We live on after death through the memories of our loved ones but eventually they disappear as well…scary.
Semester’s ending so soon! I’ll see what I can do to make the most out of these last few weeks!