Fussa, Japan: Tanabata Matsuri

The shudder of a thousand plastic ribbons blowing in the breeze resonated throughout the streets. It was the Tanabata Matsuri, a large summer festival celebrated all through Japan. Behind me were the sounds of trumpets emitting from the main stage and in the distance was a sweltering plume of smoke. As I walked through the paved streets, long streamers hung from the tops of arched bamboo branches to create a veil of ribbons that encompassed the main street. As I passed through the hanging decorations, a smoldering plume of smoke descended on me.


From across the street were wooden stalls set up with traditional food. A crowd gathered in the aisle of food stalls with lines lengthening out onto the curb. In the midst of the sweltering humidity and the smoke from the searing grills were women wearing Yukata, their obi tied into a knot in the back that looked like butterfly wings. There were hundreds of different variations of Yukata; the demure cotton worn by older women to the vibrant colors and sprouting petticoats of young children. Clipped to their glossy hair were blossoming silk flowers.

 

Every once in a while I would spot an American visibly towering over the crowds. In an effort to embrace the culture, some wore the cotton kimonos, but either the hemlines fell short on their tall legs and long arms or their geta were too small for them to walk properly. These were the pitfalls of buying an off the rack kimono; there was always a risk of even the largest size not fitting properly.  I commend their want to take part in a different culture, yet in doing so they inadvertently made fools of themselves. To avoid looking comical in a pre-sized Yukata, I dressed normally.

On every corner were small bamboo stalls handing out lengths of colored paper for which to write down wishes. Everywhere I looked there was an abundance of food and sake and laughter. There were children running through the crowds in plastic masks, dodging through the tall legs of adults. They raised their hands to the streamers to catch them in the wind. Music came from every corner, from the main stage to the corners of the street, and the grassy hills. Some were J-pop tunes emitting from the stall radios and others were from teenage artisans plucking on their guitar strings. In the fingers of passers-by were iced pickles meant to cool the body down against the suffocating heat.

 

As I walked through the streets I could not help but notice that I received surreptitious glances in my direction. The reason became clear after I realized that, though conservative in many senses, my neckline showed a large amount of bare skin. It is curious that, although many young women will wear very short skirts, exposing any part of the chest–especially cleavage–is outside of normal modesty. Every woman wearing contemporary clothing wore high collared shirts and short shorts. So, I spent the rest of the time walking around with a fan held against my chest to cover myself lest more confused looks came my way.  At times it seemed that the entire town was at the festival, every nook was so packed with people that I imagined there would soon be no more room left to house them all. I took myself back through the main street, back through the tails of streamers, and to the main stage where a band of trombones played together in a clean symphony.

August 13, 2011