There are weekends where I can almost forget I live in Japan. I have my American friends, my American food, my American TV channels. I can nest here on base and the wider world of Tokyo stays out of sight.
Last weekend was not one of those weekends.
First, Friday afternoon, I spent several hours at my son’s international school for a Yukata Day and Summer Festival. The school was festooned with paper lanterns and the kids had so much fun playing simple carnival-style games. All of the children, including Liam, were dressed in either a jinbei or yukata, traditional pajama-like clothes that kids here wear in the summer. He and his classmates performed a couple bonadori, festival dances, for the parents. He looked so focused for the dances, swinging his arms exuberantly and traipsing around in a big circle. It was wonderful to see him participating right alongside his Japanese classmates. It was exactly the kind of experience I hoped he would get to have while we live in Japan.
Friday evening, Wil, Liam and I walked into Fussa for the Tanabata Festival. Last summer, I wrote about attending the festival. It was only a few weeks after we arrived in Japan and I was still in a daze, overwhelmed by how foreign my new home felt. This year, the evening was less hazy, less intense. We walked under the lanterns, pushed through the crowds, sampled the street food, watched the dancers and heard the Japanese melodies pumping from the loudspeakers. My enthusiasm and appreciation for the beauty on display has not dampened but I have acclimated to it.
I think the festival fun may have been a little too much for our over-tired little guy:
On Saturday, we took the 20-minute train ride to nearby Hachioji for the city’s summer festival. Liam insisted on wearing his jinbei again. I think he enjoyed being dressed like many of the other children. That, and the lightweight cotton probably felt nice in the 95+ degree weather we’ve been sweating through daily. We easily passed seven hours at the festival, which is much, much bigger than our little Fussa festival.
There were drums. Lots and lots of drums.
Liam got to try one:
Taiko troupes set up in the street and we could walk from one to the next. The thumping of one group would just barely begin to fade before the rhythms of the next filled the air. The drummers are athlete-musician-dancers who play with vigor and make a mighty sound. They were intense. Just look at the faces.
One of the groups performing was comprised of people from the base, including my friend J. Like most of the Americans in the group, she’d never played taiko before moving to Japan. I think it’s fantastic that she’s worked so hard to develop a new skill.
Like every festival, there were lots of dancers:
OK. The ladies above weren’t exactly the kind of festival dancers I was expecting to see. But they were doing a lovely job bopping to pop music from their little boom box. The more demure ladies below formed a proper parade.
What I loved most about the Hachioji festival was the floats.
Throughout the day, they were parked at the festival, with musicians and performers performing on their tiny stages. They are particularly kid-friendly. Most performed a lion dance, a shishi-mai, where the puppet lion would reach down from the stage and “bite” children’s hands or heads for good luck. There were also benevolent looking men and girls in masks and a rather scary ghost-like figure with wild, white hair who also appeared, danced, and gave out handshakes. I loved watching how happy the parents and kids were who came forward for good luck. The surrounding crowds looked on indulgently. The good will was palpable.
While a little nervous at first, Liam soon made a habit of joining the other children for up-close visits.
The floats were beautiful in the daylight, but even more so as the evening progressed.
I liked seeing the floats on the move, with volunteers standing proudly on their roofs while the musicians below beat out lively tunes.
By the time we left to catch our train, the sun had set. The air was cooler, the music louder and the crowds thicker, but it was time to take our tired selves home. We returned to our mini-America without a doubt in our minds that — despite our enclave — we do live solidly, joyfully, beautifully, in Japan.
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