Japanese summers are usually introduced by a warm, sunny spring season, but this year, the temperatures and conditions have been wildly erratic. However, ‘Tsuyu’ (the rainy season) has arrived on schedule as usual, bringing with it the typical heat and humidity that can be expected at this time of the year, and the realization that summer has arrived.
Summer is an exciting time, with summer festivals, fireworks, traditional customs, special sporting events and summer holidays. In Japan, the main traditional customs include ‘Chugen’ (the giving of a mid-year gift to relatives, or to a company boss or colleague), ‘Obon’ (a Buddhist event, and a time to remember one’s ancestors and honor their spirits), and ‘Suikawari’, a traditional game for children in which one child is blindfolded, and tries to cut or break a watermelon with a stick or pole. Many Japanese people will travel at this time to be with their families, and the highways can be clogged with traffic before and after ‘Obon’, which generally occurs around the middle of August.
It is a very active season, and all across Japan, those who have holidays will travel and participate in various activities to make their vacation enjoyable or memorable. Some will attempt to climb Fuji-san, a yearly pilgrimage for many Japanese people. Others will go to Koushien stadium in Osaka and watch the annual high school baseball championship. Many participate in or line up to see the famous festivals that occur during this time, with almost every town and city having their own local event. Typically, at then end of each of these events is a great fireworks show.
Some of the more famous summer ‘Matsuri’ or festivals include the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, near the top of Honshu, the Akita-Kanto Matsuri, the Narita Gion Matsuri, the Sanno Matsuri in Tokyo, the Gujo Bon Odori festival in Gifu, the spectacular Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka, the Awa Odori festival in Tokushima, and the Hakata Gion Matsuri in Fukuoka on Kyushu, but these are just to name a few of the more well known festivals.
In most local neighborhoods, one can smell the wonderful scent of burning wood as families fire up their barbecues. It is a time for eating one’s favorite foods, relaxing, and swimming. The local beaches, rivers and swimming pools are full of people looking for a cool respite from the summer heat. Nagashima Spaland in Mie Prefecture is a popular water-amusement-park in summer, as is Tokyo’s Summerland, and Hokkaido’s Super Jumbo Pool. Japan even had the world’s largest indoor beach until it closed in 2007.
Humidity levels are extremely high during summer, and many people opt to stay inside and fan themselves to stay cool. In fact, on the old Japanese calendar, July was known as ‘Fumizuki’ (literally ‘book month’), as it was a good time to stay indoors and read. Other indoor activities include calligraphy, ‘haiku’, tea ceremony, and ‘Ikebana’, the Japanese art of flower arranging. Natural clothes’ dyeing with flowers is also a popular pastime.
Last summer, my wife Mandy and I had the rare chance to learn and participate in both natural clothes’ dyeing and ‘Ikebana’! Flower-dyeing and flower arrangement is not really my thing, but I’m also not one to turn down an opportunity, so I decided to try it.
Over the years here we have eaten Japanese food, studied the language, read the history and literature, listened to (and sung) Japanese music, and even learned karate in a Japanese dojo. We have climbed Fuji-san, been to baseball games, and we even went to a live Sumo match and watched the “rikishi” (wrestlers), still wearing their hair in the samurai top knot, fight it out in the ring! We have participated in a tea ceremony, danced in the Bon Odori, and enjoyed countless summer festivals, but we still hadn’t experienced “Japanese Flower Arrangement”, and hence we were both really looking forward to it.
So Mandy and I took a train to Kuwana, in Mie, to meet our Japanese friend, Yuko, and together we had a traditional Japanese “brunch” – rice, miso soup, sushi and Japanese tea!
Then she drove us up into the mountains, where for 3 days a season, people can try their hand at natural clothes dyeing. We were the only ones there, and had the full attention of the instructing ladies! Now for me, this felt like a feminine pursuit (I’m not being sexist, but how many men do you know of, who pick flowers and do natural clothes dyeing?). However, for the sake of being able to make and take home something nice for my mother at Christmas, I decided to not just watch my wife, but to get in and get my hands dirty, so to speak. I was dyeing in there! I wanted to dye!
So we chose flowers (marigold, for the yellow dye), and some leaves of purple-looking plants (for Indigo dye), to make the dye. They were simply put in a pot and boiled, until the color came out, and then the flowers were removed. As we waited for the water to cool, we chose our cloth. Mandy and I both chose silk handkerchiefs for our mothers.
We folded them and tied them in a certain way, so as to create a pattern on the cloth when the dye soaks in. Then we put on gloves, and soaked our chosen cloth. After five minutes of squeezing and soaking the cloth, we pulled it out and rinsed it in water, before dunking it into a solution which makes the dye set permanently. Five minutes later, they were rinsed, and put into a mini-washing machine. When the spin-dry function was completed, we ironed them, and put them into a bag to take home. Luckily, the patterns we chose worked out perfectly! So did Yuko’s, who had done this before, of course.
Anyway, we now had traditional, Japanese hand-made cloths to present to our mothers at Christmas that year! Mandy’s cloth was marigold, and mine was Indigo/blue. The pattern on both our cloths was like rays of the sun emanating from one corner of the silk handkerchief! We thought that this was rather appropriate considering that they were made in the land of the rising sun.
Well, all this driving in the mountains and dyeing cloth had made us hungry, and Yuko next drove us to a little pine cottage restaurant. It was so quaint, and we sat there amidst the scent of sandalwood and pine, drinking our delicious coffee, while eating Japanese style pancakes and fresh cream! We had hand-made vanilla ice cream for dessert. I joked that I had dyed and gone to heaven! (Yuko and my wife groaned in unison).
Before long, it was time to head back to the town of Kuwana and arrange some flowers! Being a regular guy from Australia, I never thought I would try arranging flowers, but in Japan, it’s not so much about arranging flowers, as it is about learning to relax and to express oneself, much in the same way as writing poetry, or painting. In fact, Yuko kindly explained, it was the samurai who sometimes did this activity to relax after a battle, and knowing that helped me deal with any doubts I had about my masculinity!
We drove back into the city of Kuwana, in Mie, where Yuko’s Ikebana Sensei lived, and on the way, Yuko told us briefly about the history of Japanese flower arrangement.
Apparently, flower arrangement really took off in the 15th and 16th centuries, with rigid rules applying to the original form of “Tatebana” (Standing Flower). This custom took place mainly in the temples, and the houses of the nobles and powerful warlords.
Impressive to look at, it was intended not only to please one’s senses or display the skill of the arranger but also to make a spiritual impact on the beholder by recreating a scene that was true to nature. Fewer flowers were used than might be expected, and balance was essential, but unnatural symmetry was to be avoided, (such as in bonsai trees).
For many hundreds of years, until the 19th century, flower arranging was a masculine art – practiced by Shinto priests, Buddhist monks, nobles and warriors. Now, of course, with modern society placing its particular demands on people, it has become a mainly a female pastime. A typical flower arrangement today will sit in the “tokonoma” (a special, central, highly visible alcove in a house, where an object is placed as a tribute to somebody or something). It also helps to create a favorable atmosphere for a tea ceremony, and is also sometimes used as decoration in a hotel lobby or foyer.
Yuko’s ‘Ikebana’ sensei was very relieved and pleased that we could speak Japanese. She was a very traditional kind of Japanese lady, who spoke no English. We quickly got underway. She explained to us about how the human element, the theme or human expression, is more important than the technique or rules of Flower Arrangement; technique comes later, she told us, when it comes time to modify and perfect one’s creations further. She, however, took care of this for us.
My particular arrangement consisted of having two foreign flowers (common Australian lillies), in between two Japanese flowers, with pampas grass reeds on either side, around which were spread Japanese Autumn flowers. My theme was ‘Mandy and I’ (the two Australian lilies) in the middle of Japan (the Japanese flowers), looking back on all the experiences (the Autumn Flowers) we’ve had here. Sensei seemed to appreciate that very much, and saw the pampas grass as a nice ‘frame’. Mandy’s didn’t have a theme so much as an image. Hers was a more European style of a clustered arrangement, which then Sensei picked apart, rearranged and perfected, destroying poor Mandy’s original idea in the process! Mandy could see Sensei’s point though, and in all fairness, it did look better.
However, Sensei was really interested in seeing what ideas and styles two foreign visitors could come up with, after seeing only Japanese students for so many years. I think she enjoyed it as much as we did, and she was very kind with her time and assistance. Yuko’s was a more typical, Japanese style arrangement, leaning over to one side and looking very Asian/Oriental in style. Mandy and I had a very good time, took many photos, and were pleased to have finally experienced the ancient art of Japan’s ‘Ikebana’.
A year has passed since then, and now it’s summer again. My wife and I live in the mountains, next to a river, so we will do the usual things, such as swimming, fishing, enjoying barbecues with friends and so on. We have already started to observe some of the usual seasonal customs. Last night we walked outside and admired all the fireflies floating effortlessly in the hot, humid air, and chatted about them with some neighbors.
Other customs are also coming to light now that summer is here, such as baseball. In August, my wife and I plan to go to Tokyo Dome with some good Japanese friends and watch the Tokyo Giants (my favorite team) battle it out against Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers (my wife’s favorite team). It will be the highlight of our summer vacation this year.
We had to laugh when we arrived home today. There was a message in our letterbox from the local council, asking people to dispose of their “summer religious ceremony” garbage in the right way. Apparently, people here put four sticks into an eggplant, so that it resembles a cow, (Matsusaka is one of those places in Japan famous for its cows and beef), and then they place this in their home’s Buddhist altar, after which they throw it away, but it has to be put in the correct recycled garbage bags. Sadly, people sometimes just throw it in the nearby river so they don’t have to go to the hassle of disposing it properly. Maybe the local council should say to those people, “Don’t have a cow, man!”
Yes sir, life is certainly different in this part of the world, but it’s never boring! Even the television programs are more interesting, with all the summer sports and extra movies. The commercials recently are featuring more beer ads, now that it’s so hot again. But when they advertise beer here, they magnify the sound of the “gulps”, and the man drinks it down as if it were cool water and he had just crawled in from the desert dying of thirst! It’s got to be down in 5 seconds or else! You wonder if he actually got to taste it.
Summer in Japan is always lively and entertaining, and all its associated customs are fascinating. Each and every year, my wife and I find something new and interesting to experience and enjoy, and I’m sure this summer will be no different.
Author: Chris Ryall
Chris Ryall is an Australian school teacher, who has lived in Japan for 14 years with his wife, Mandy. He is a novelist, poet and enjoys writing articles about Japan.