It was just past eight o’clock, and night had fallen in Tokyo. Groups of people aged everywhere from high school to mid-fifties and sixties were lounged carelessly in the shadows of meandering side streets, sipping drinks and swapping stories. Muted laughter and footsteps reverberated through the humid, midsummer air. In the dimly-lit gray of twilight, each step forward revealed a much more intimate side of Japan, normally so carefully concealed beneath crisply-pressed suits of starch-white shirts and onyx-black blazers during the day.
â–º SEMI Finalist 2012 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
I, as part of a group of 29 other high school students traveling to Japan for the American Youth Leadership Program, had been anxiously awaiting this opportunity to experience such a lively and meaningful aspect of Japanese traditional culture. We approached the entrance to Yasukuni Shrine, home to one of Tokyo’s most famous summer festivals, Mitama Matsuri. Held annually every July since 1947, this festival serves as a three-day celebration for Obon, a traditional Japanese festival honoring the departed. Progressing tentatively onward, the road ahead brightened, illuminated by a subtly yellow-tinged glow. Rows upon rows of hanging lanterns cast an ethereal sheen upon the scene before me.
To my right, painstakingly intricate paper-chain decorations marking the main entrance to the shrine rustled gently in the evening breeze, while beneath, tired festival-goers sprawled out to rest and fan themselves on the front steps. To my left, as far as the eye could see, throngs of people dressed in both casual Western clothing and traditional Japanese attire explored lines of booths offering food, drinks, games, and even a haunted house. Carried in the current of the crowd, it was all I could do not to drown among the waves of chattering people.
Young children crouched down grasping small rice-paper nets, scooping up goldfish to take home, while young ladies in elegant yukatas (light cotton kimonos designed for summer wear) walked hand-in-hand with boyfriends and savored miniature candied apples. Fragrant meat and vegetable okonomiyaki, savory octopus-stuffed takoyaki, and other popular festival foods produced an array of aromas that permeated the air in a puzzling yet pleasant combination.
Meanwhile, a group of women passed by me. They donned identical black and white yukatas, accented by lime green underclothes and matching fans, tucked within sky blue ebi belts. They proceeded in unison to mount a circular yagura stage, commencing with the local rendition of the Bon-Odori, a style of dancing performed at Obon. Within minutes, members of the audience young and old alike circled the stage to join in the familiar dance with perfect precision. As I watched, I was struck by the complete sense of unity and comfort with which these complete strangers gathered together. While I momentarily considered joining in, I somehow felt that even if I had known the motions, I would simply be out of place.
In this moment, I realized the true bond between everyone here. Deeper than even a shared nationality or homeland, the true source to the sense of unity among those at the festival was the same as that which lies at the very essence of any culture in the world. While as an American, I come from a uniquely heterogeneous culture, through my experience at Mitama Matsuri I have begun to understand the force that serves to create such an innate sense of cultural identity. Rather than its textbook definition as “an offer of homage to the departed”, I’ve come to form the opinion that Obon is an occasion to celebrate life, providing opportunity to reconnect with one’s family, friends, and culture, through that which remains constant throughout time: Tradition.
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