obon for children!

song by misora hibari

the last big festival of the summer in japan is jizo-bon, obon for children. jizo are stone buddha statues that are said to protect children. they’re mostly very old, with the faces partly worn away. you can see them all over japan, often just sitting by the side of the road, in little altars. it’s said that in kyoto alone there are more than five thousand jizo statues. you don’t need to go to temples to see them, you see them everywhere. they’re part of our daily life.

during jizo-bon, jizo statues are washed and decorated with red bibs and red hats. we serve meals to thank them for protecting children. jizo-bon is traditionally held for two days (aug 23- 24). everyone gathers in a community hall to prepare for it. i would get to wear my yukata (summer kimono). kids receive a lantern with their name on and also halloween-style snack packs. there are games and entertainment and “bon-odori” dancing.

bon-odori is a group dance. everyone does the same dance, moving in a circle around a float where taiko (japanese drum) is played. we don’t take any formal lessons but everybody knows the dance — you learn by watching the person in front of you. i like this type of group dancing. everybody moves the same way and goes around and around and around.


the singer, misora hibari was the most famous and most important singer in japan. she started performing as a singer at the age of 7. she became very popular around the end of the war, when japan was still in the middle of reconstruction. her pure voice gave hope to many japanese. she was the queen of enka. she became very ill when she was 50. despite the overwhelming pain, she returned to the stage (tokyo dome) two years later and sang 39 songs. it was aired live on tv. i ran home from school to watch her. she was very strong. her voice was beautiful. her strong love to sing permeated through the screen. she never showed any sign of pain on her face. she assured the audience there was no need to worry. but it was obvious that she was still very ill. at the same time, she was so alive. she died the next year.

my mom has a misora hibari collection, which includes all her songs on 3 CDs. i borrowed them one time and kept them for so long that my mom had to call and ask me to return them :D i love misora hibari’s style very much, especially her oldest songs. my mom happily wonders why i like enka so much, since many young people don’t listen to enka. well, i don’t know. i just like enka. so does paul.

*** tanabata ***

today is a special day. it’s the tanabata festival. once a year, two stars, ori-hime (vega) and hiko-boshi (altair), are allowed to meet in the milky way.

on this day in japan, people write their wishes on colourful paper and hang them on bamboo trees. some people will put on their yukata (summer kimonos) to take part in the festival. the rustling of bamboo leaves brings a cool atmosphere to the hot summer night.

paul and i were lucky enough to see the tanabata festival in sendai while we were hitchhiking south from sapporo, hokkaido back in 2003. in fact, we made it to all three major summer festivals in tohoku that year: the nebuta festival (aomori) , the kanto festival (akita), and the sendai tanabata festival (miyagi).

we walked through hundreds of streamers in the shopping arcade. everyone ducked and walked through them full of joy. many stores in the arcade were having sidewalk sales. it was a very lively and romantic night.

today i made “tanabata” jello with a star. the star and the base of the jello are made of an’nin tofu (almond flavored tofu). the jello is plain gelatin with one single drop of blue food colouring in it. that’s why it’s so pale, instead of bright neon blue like gatorade or something.

i remember having jello with a star as a dessert for kyushoku (elementary school lunch). i always kept the star for the last bite :)

if you see the milky way tonight, close your eyes, make a wish, and count to three…