6. Summer in Japan
Traditions and the Japanese Calendar

There are a number of events that give color to the hot and humid summer in Japan.

The dates of many of these events are observed not only by the dates of the solar calendar, but by the dates set by the old Japanese calendar, the lunar calendar, used until early Meiji era about 140 years ago. The months set by the old calendar - we call it "kyu-reki", and put the prefix "kyu", meaning old, before the name of the events i.e. kyu-Tanabata, kyu-Bon - come approximately a month later than the modern calendar, the solar calendar. Hence, some events seem to be observed twice, but actually, they are observed only once a year. Which of the dates are used depends on which area one is in. In general, the Kanto area and most of the larger cities observe the events by the solar calendar, while much of the rural areas go by the lunar calendar for the traditional events.

The prelude to summer is the rainy season, "tsuyu", written in kanji, plum rain, since this is the season the plums are harvested, the average season starting somewhere around the second week of June, and lasting for about 5-6 weeks, ending in mid-July. Sometimes we get a really wet season, with the skies either overcast or raining almost everyday, sometimes soft, sometimes heavy and no sunshine for days on end. Other years, we get a relatively dry season, with more sunny days than rainy days. This year, the rainy season for the Kanto plains - the area where Tokyo is located - is not over as of this date (July 29, 2003). After the front line for the rain disappears, we are in for a hot and humid summer, the heat lasting into the first week or two of September.

Tanabata Festival at Sendai

The first prominent summer event and date is the "Tanabata" festival, the festival of stars, observed on July 7th. This is the festival where we wish to the stars, yes, true to the song, "When You Wish Upon A Star". We decorate young bamboos hung with small colorful paper lanterns and paper chains, and "tanzaku", pieces of decorative paper on which our wishes are written. The wishes that we write on them are mostly for our expertise in various skills and our schoolwork, and general well being and good home life. This is because the hero and heroine of this festival are both experts in their work.

Since this festival is observed by the solar calendar in most places these days, it is celebrated in the midst of the rainy season, which is rather unfortunate. In some places though, decorations for this festival are still put up by the lunar calendar -"kyu-Tanabata", which brings the festival to early August, when the weather is good. The reason good weather counts for this festival is because of the following story. The original legend is from China, and it goes like this. In the world of gods, there were two young hard-working people, a young woman Weaver-Vega- for the gods, and a young man, the Cowherd-Altair- of the gods' pasture. The gods decided that they were worthy of a prize for their good work, and decided to match-make them. They became so engrossed with each other that they forgot their heavenly duties, so the gods decided to separate them with the Milky Way. When that happened, they so lamented for each other that they still forgot their duties, so the gods decided to let them meet once a year, on July 7th. On that eve, the heavenly Swans form a bridge over the Milky Way so the Cowherd can cross the river to meet the Weaver. However, if the weather is bad and it rains, the Milky Way becomes too rough for the Swans so the bridge cannot be made, and the two star-crossed lovers cannot meet. Hence, the necessity for a clear and starry night.

The second prominent date is the "Bon" period. This comes around the middle of July by the present calendar, and is observed then in most of the Kanto area, whereas in most of the rural areas, it is observed by the lunar calendar, coming around the middle of August, and called "kyu-Bon". Generally, summer vacations are scheduled around this latter period, giving people a chance to be in their hometowns for the observation of kyu-Bon.

The Bon period lasts four days. This is a period of Buddhist ancestral worship, and it is believed that the spirits of our ancestors return to their family homes to spend the days with them. On the evening of the first day, a small fire is burned at the gates of the respective homes as a guide for the returning spirits. Offerings are made, and priests make the rounds of their "danka", families who are affiliated with the respective temples, to offer prayers. On the evening of the fourth day, another small fire is lighted so the sprits can go back up to heaven with the smoke.

The offerings are mostly food, vegetables and fruits in small baskets, eggplants and cucumbers with four sticks stuck into them to depict horses, so the ancestors can return to heaven riding them. Others are sugar cakes in the shapes of lotus blossoms. Special Bon lanterns are

Butsudan and Bon lanterns

lighted around the "Butsudan", the household Buddhist alter were the mortuary tablets of the deceased are kept. The scent of incense fills the homes and spills out onto the streets during this time.
Business during kyu-Bon in Tokyo and in other large cities slow down and often becomes stagnant, because it is considered the traditional summer holiday season, and many companies will close down completely, or sometimes just their factories and manufacturing centers to give their employees a collective period of days off, to go back to their hometowns and pay respects to their ancestors.
Little Manuela is holding its Summer Campaign during this period so everyone can have fun at a bargain price, so if you're in town in Tokyo don't forget to give the club a visit.

Right before the kyu-Bon, "Risshu" the first day of autumn by the lunar calendar comes around the 8th of August. "Risshu" in kanji is written, "autumn stands". The 18 days before Risshu is called "Doyo", and this period is considered the hottest time of the year. On the day of the Ox - before the solar calendar came into use, the days were called by the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac, which I will explain some time soon - of this Doyo period, the custom is to eat barbecued eels for health and stamina to get through this debilitating time of the year.

Also around the kyu-Bon period, many colorful festivals are held all over Japan. Some are big "Bon-odori", Bon dance festivals, others, colorful lantern festivals, the lanterns ranging from numerous small lanterns hung from tall bamboo poles, to large paper machete figurines of folklore heroes and heroines that are lighted form within and drawn around by cars or by people. They are all great tourist attractions for the respective towns.

Another summer scenery that should not be forgotten is the big firework displays that are put on all over Japan. Just in Tokyo, there are about 20 large displays, the number of fireworks shot up ranging from 5000 to 20,000 in one show. Many young people go out to see these shows in "Yukata"s, informal cotton summer kimonos, that in the past double as sleepwear. Well, yukatas still are passed out at Japanese hotels and inns as lounge and sleepwear, but the ones worn for social occasions are somewhat more formal, and both the yukatas and the "Obi", the sashes are very colorful, especially for the women. There are many fancy ways to tie the obi, too. The colorful yukatas, and the clunking sounds of the

Yukata and Obi @@ Geta

wooden "Geta", sandals worn with them are another color and sound of the summer.

After people come back to the cities and to work from their vacations, the typhoon season starts full scale, and we start thinking of fall and the cooler days, even though we sometimes get the hottest days near the end of August or even in early September.

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