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att. Culture - Calendar - Japan Now
att. Culture - Calendar - Japan Now
att.JAPAN Issue 23, July 2005

Calendar - Japan Now - July & August

Sunfloweres Shortly after the Japanese rainy season departs, mid-summer arrives with its bright sunshine and huge columns of white shining cloud. At this time Asia's easternmost archipelago is full of festivals and fireworks as the population enjoy outdoor sports and leisure activities like at no other time during the year.

 Official Start of Mountain Climbing and Swimming
Mountain ClimbingThe official season for mountain climbing and swimming in Japan starts from either the beginning of June or the beginning of July. A long time ago, most of the nation's famous mountains were worshiped and people were not allowed to scale these peaks except during a given period in summer; the origin behind the official opening of mountains nowadays. Rituals such as purification ceremonies are often held at the start of these periods and in late July and August, the most popular season to climb higher mountains, Mount Fuji, the Japan Alps being among the best, the mountains are crowded with climbers and hikers.
The official swimming season also starts in summer and opening ceremonies are held around the country as umino-ie (seasonal rest houses) stand at beaches to attract holidaymakers. Popular beaches around Tokyo including Shonan and Enoshima to the south of the capital are usually packed.

 Summer Vacation
In general, there are three terms a year in Japanese schools. The first term starts from April and ends in July with the month of August a time for the summer vacation. Most working persons take holidays ranging in length from a few days to a week and known as the Bon holidays. Swimming, surfing, diving, other water sports, hiking, mountain climbing, camping, and other outdoor sports are all popular during summertime and attract millions of participants.

 The Star Festival
July 7th is the day of the Star Festival and is based on a romantic legend in which two lovers, the Weaver Star (Vega) and the Cowherd Star (Altair); separated by the Milky Way, meet once a year. Actually, however, as is often the case, the heavens open and it rains on July 7th - an indication that the rainy season is still well and truly with us. Nevertheless, people decorate bamboo branches with strips of paper on which they write their wishes and in some areas the festivals are held on the "old" July 7th as it would have fallen on the lunar calendar (early August nowadays). One of the most famous of the many many Star Festivals in Japan, the Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai is held from August 6th to 8th, with approximately 3000 pieces of bamboo decorating the town.

 Summer Festivals
Festivals in Japan have strong connections to the lives of the Japanese themselves and their annual routines. Most festivals in spring are held in the hope of a good harvest while the majority of the summer festivals, such as Gion Matsuri, are held to protect the harvest from evils. Many festivals are often held around the 15th day of the month as this was the time of the full moon on the lunar calendar although the eve of the festival is also important, as the gods were said to arrive in preparation the day before the festivities.
The Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival (Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture, July 1st-15th) culminates in an oiyamakasa held in the early morning of July 15th. Yamakasa (floats); each containing 6 men are carried by 26 other men and then followed by several dozen further men, and go hurtling through Hakata town center at full speed.
Indications that summer is on the way also brings out feelings of excitement in the ancient capital as the music of the Gion Matsuri (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture, July 1st - 31st) reverberates around Kyoto. Yoiyama, held on the 16th and Yamahoko Junko, held on the 17th are the climaxes of the festival in which Yamahoko (floats), themselves referred to as "moving museums," parade through Kyoto's Gion district in a dignified manner.
The Tenjin Matsuri (Osaka City, Osaka Prefecture, July 24th - 25th) is a festival at which merchants pray for prosperity in their business ventures. The Okawa River is crowded with approximately one hundred boats and as the lanterns of the boats bob up and down, bonfires on the riverbanks combine with the flames of kagaribibune (bonfire boats) to light up the dark at ground level as around 3000 fireworks illuminate the sky above.
Nebuta Matsuri Summer in the Tohoku district (the northern part of the Japanese main island of Honshu) comes to a climax with Nebuta Matsuri (Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture, August 2nd - 7th) when huge nebuta (lanterns on floats) painted with grand pictures parade throughout the city of Aomori. Haneto (dancers) perform frantically with their ringing bells and are accompanied by the sounds of flutes and drums
Supporting a 50kg kanto (bamboo framework holding lanterns on its "branches"), on his hand, forehead, shoulder or hips, as if nothing were more natural, the performers in Kanto Matsuri (Akita City, Akita Prefecture, August 3rd - 6th) focus on pride and a sense of fun as the real thrills of the festival. 200 kanto, representing illuminated ears of rice in the sky bending under their own weight form the backbone of the sights to see in this simple but entertaining festival of northern Japan. The Nebuta Matsuri, the Akita Kanto Matsuri and the Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai are famous as the three major festivals of Tohoku.

Bon, a Buddhist festival in honor of the spirits of the dead, is held from August 13th to 16th in general, but these dates do depend on the region and the sect of Buddhism to which people belong. Believers light the way for the returning souls of the dead in order to welcome back the spirits of their ancestors, often holding memorial services when they arrive before again lighting a bonfire to help guide the spirits on their way back to the other world. Relatives gather and those who are away from their hometowns return home for these few days. For that reason alone there are frequently heavy traffic jams on Japan's roads and sights comparable to the year-end rush seen in December are not unusual.
The Gozan Okuribi, held in Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture, on August 16th, is a large bonfire related festivity aimed at speeding the spirits on their way. A Japanese kanji character representing "big," is ignited at 8 pm and this dynamic show continues for about an hour and can be seen from miles around.
Awa Odori Bon-odori dancing was originally a dance to help the spirits on their journey back to the other side but loses its religious meaning little-by-little, year-by-year and is now more of a pastime than a cause for religious celebrations. Gujo Odori (Gifu Prefecture), Awa Odori (Tokushima Prefecture), Owara Kaze no Bon (Toyama Prefecture) are all long famous for their festival dancing.
Unknown to many, firework displays were also once used to soothe departing spirits and the Sumidagawa Hanabi, a huge event since the Edo period, still has 20 thousand fireworks set off annually at the end of July, although without much of the religious fervor of years gone by.

 Life in a Japanese mid-Summer
Firework Summer is quite hot and humid and actually feels worse than the thermometer indicates it should be due to the high humidity. In contrast, trains and buildings are more often than not oases of cool with their air-conditioning, although even the "cool" can be too cold at times.
Local and imported beer is particularly tasty on the hottest of the midsummer days and oftentimes beer halls and beer gardens are full of people trying to cool down. Fine wheat noodles and other light and tasty food is popular in small portions as most people lose their appetite due to the heat; eel being worthy of special mention as it is consumed in large amounts during summer to win over the seasonal temperatures.
Most summer bargain sales start in July although recently some have been starting as early as June.

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