Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Festivals in Miyagi

Tanabata decorations in Sendai Station
 August is festival season in Japan, and especially here in Tohoku. Last weekend were two of Tohoku's biggest festivals: Tanabata in Sendai and Aomori's Nebuta. I attended Tanabata and also went out to the coastal town of Matsushima for their Obon Lantern Festival.

Why must you have so many trees, Sendai?!
 Tanabata lasts three days and always begins with a big fireworks show in downtown Sendai over the Hirose River. I attempted to go see the fireworks with a big group of friends, but just like last year, the combination of crowds, buildings and trees made it extremely difficult to actually see the fireworks. The next day we wandered through the shopping arcade and saw the big paper decorations. They're quite a bit smaller this year, thanks to the earthquake leaving little time for preparation, but they were still very bright and festive. There were also a lot of nice messages this year written in support of Tohoku and in remembrance of the tsunami victims.

Matsushima's Godaido Temple, lit up during the Lantern Festival
Zuiganji, one of Matsushima's oldest temples
 On Sunday, I went to Matsushima's Obon Lantern Festival. Obon is a Buddhist holiday which takes place in August and is similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead. The idea is that the spirits of your loved ones come to your home, and so families leave food and other gifts by the small shrine inside their home. It's also common to visit your family grave and pray for your ancestors. At the end of Obon, the spirits are sent back to the other world, generally by way of floating a candle (or in the old days, a horse carved out of a vegetable) down a river. These are called toronagashi festivals in Japanese.

Monks reciting sutras during a Buddhist Obon service
The festival in Matsushima was the former part of Obon, in which prayers are said for ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. The town of Matsushima, already very scenic, is decorated with paper lanterns as well as votive candles inside cut bamboo which line the streets. Last year, there was a procession of dancers and musicians leading up to Zuiganji, a very old temple. This year however, the festival was much more solemn. There was just a very simple service held in front of the temple in which a group of Buddhist monks read sutras and said prayers for the dead, including some special prayers for the victims of the tsunami.

Lighting candles for those who have passed away

There was also a very pretty light-up at the garden by the temple. We went to check it out, and were lucky enough to discover an Incense Ceremony happening inside the tea house. Incense Ceremonies are similar to the Japanese tradition of Tea Ceremonies. They're both a very old tradition, dating back to the Heian Period (Medieval). However, Incense Ceremonies, called Koudou, have become extremely rare and can be very expensive to participate in now.

My fellow participants at the Incense Ceremony
We were actually able to participate in a very short Koudou. In my opinion, it's a lot more interesting than a Tea Ceremony because Koudou is more like a game. The practitioner of Koudou chooses a certain number of scented incense. We used three. These are passed around the group and each person very carefully smells the incense three times before passing it on. Last, a "problem" scent is passed around. The game is to identify which of the three scents the problem is. But there's also the possibility that it's none of them, but rather an entirely new scent. After smelling all of them, you write your guess on a folded piece of paper.

Our ceremony master was the 21st in a long lineage of father to son Koudou masters
This was actually my second time participating in Koudou. The first was at a special lecture about it held at Portland State University in Oregon. I didn't win that time, but I did correctly guess the scent this time in Matsushima. I guess all those years living in the country have not permanently destroyed my sense of smell after all...

This is my last post before I head out to Tokyo for my summer vacation. You can expect a new post about my travels in a week or two from now. My plans this year are to check out some of the districts of Tokyo I haven't seen yet, visit some friends, and best of all, climb Mt. Fuji.


  1. Yay I've totally heard of Obon before! It must been more grim then usual because of the earthquake. Even though I don't believe in that kind of thing it sounds really nice to honor those people in this respect.

  2. Yeah, normally I don't find Obon Festivals very solemn or anything, but this year was a special situation. The service was really nice; regardless of whether or not you're Buddhist/spiritual, I think it was still nice to see the memory of the victims commemorated in this way.