Yesterday was the seventh day of the seventh month, which is the day when the Tanabata festival takes place. The legend tells of two lovers, Orihime (represented by Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair), who have to live all year separated by the Milky Way, and are only allowed to meet for one single night – on the seventh day of the seventh month. A very touching story indeed… The date of course refers to the lunar calender, and in some places (Sendai for example), it is still celebrated then. It seems to be a very local festival, with varying types of celebrations, often even depending on the participating shrine. A fixed part of the festivities everywhere is to write a wish onto a piece of paper and tie it to one of the bamboo trees that are set up at shrines, and pray to the gods for the fulfillment of the wishes. Never short of things I want, I went to Shiramine shrine, because the ceremony there has an extra feature…
It was an especially nice ceremony indeed. It was performed by three Shinto priests of different ranks, with incantations in front of the shrine in the beginning. Then, at the raised platform in the center of the precincts, a quartet of musicians (one koto and three types of wind instruments I couldn’t quite make out) began to play a tune that can be described as … odd, at least to Western ears. They accompanied a group of four shrine maidens, elaborately dressed, with fans and headgear, who performed a dance in honour of the deity. I am quite sure every single movement had a specific meaning, but of course, it was completely lost on me.
After the dance, the ceremony continued and once again, a small number of (most certainly paying) participants could take part in the ritual offering of paper and green branches to the deity. Some more chanting concluded the ceremony.
The interesting bit here was a person with a microphone telling the spectators – and also the participants – what would happen next, when they had to stand, bow, and were allowed to sit again. It reminded me very much of the priests in our churches who, at weddings, funerals and the like, have to guide their hapless sheep in a quite similar manner…
Anyway, at the end of the ceremony, the fun feature began. Shiramine is the shrine where people go to pray for luck – in various ball games, especially soccer. Usually, a shrine receives offerings for the gods to grant a wish and when they have done so. And here, there are many footballs of all sizes offered, often with a note or signature written on them, and they are displayed. It gives the shrine an appearance very different from all the others with their large stacks of sake barrels!
So, the fun feature at Shiramine shrine every year at the Tanabata festival is the playing of the ball game called Kemari, where eight players, men and women, wonderfully dressed in old court costumes and black leather shoes, play kick up with a white ball made from deer skin, which had just been blessed in the preceding ceremony. It was very hot and humid yesterday, and the players’ clothing with its several layers and endless sleeves and hakama must have been incredibly hot indeed, but the obvious and genuine fun the players had in the game made it extra fun to watch too. When the game was over, some of the spectators were invited to try kick ups as well, which I thought was a very nice move.
I went home then, bought some sweet bread and a chocolate milk and took a break on a shadowy bench at the river. It was a wonderful day.