Friday, July 13, 2012

Summer Comes to Tokyo

Mimi rabbit received two notices of summer's final arrival in tokyo's "shita-machi"(下町 - downtown). They came in the form of morning glories and Japanese lanterns. She attended two events commemorating summer's arrival.

The first is Iriya asagao matsuri (入谷朝顔まつり Valley entrance, Face of the Dawn), a big, beautiful morning glory festival held on the 6th,7th and 8th of July at Iriya near Ueno Station.

The second is Hozuki ichi (ホオズキ), a Japanese lantern or (ground cherry blossom) market held on the 9th and 10th July at the famous Senzouji temple in Asakusa. Both festivals are very popular, and are held in other areas of Tokyo too, bringing notice of summer's arrival to the neighborhoods and all of Tokyo.

The morning glory festival at Iriya is within walking distance of Ueno (上野 Upper Meadows) and Uguisudani (鶯谷 - Nightingale Valley) stations on the central ring-shaped JR Yamanote line which accesses all of Tokyo's major hubs. It can also be reached directly by taking the Tokyo metoro Hibiya line to Iriya (入谷) Station.

The festival encompasses a stretch of road about 200 meters long, which is usually a busy 4-lane thoroughfare, but is closed to vehicular traffic for the duration of the festival. Most of the visitors also stop in to pray at the nearby temple, Iriya kishimo jin ( 入谷 鬼子母 神 Troll Mother Temple).

The flowers are a vivid spray of colors - pink, blue, navy, purple - and there are subtle variations in their shades and shapes. The horde of visitors carefully chose which flowers to buy, and seemed excited by summer's flowery arrival. In Japan, the summers are hot and humid - sometimes tough conditions for Tokyo residents. Mimi's sure these lovely flowers send their minds cool refreshment.

They were so lovely, not just thin but vivid, and the crowded streets conveyed so much energy to so many. If you have a chance, it's a great place to encounter ordinary Japanese life.

Morning glories have long been prized by most Japanese, and classic poems say they originally arrived from China over a thousand years ago, for use in folk medicines. The morning glory festivals first came into vogue among the Shita-machi as decorative flowers in the early 19th century. This was the "Edo period", and servants of the Japanese Tokugawa Shogun (warlord) lived here, grooming and breeding morning glories as a hobby.

The area's soil was well suited to grooming morning glories, and they became extremely popular throughout the town of "Edo" (the old name of Tokyo, before the fall of the shogunate line). After the close of the Edo era, Iriya gardeners began to take over, transforming from flower aficionados into merchants. At the peak of their cultivation, there were over 1000 distinct varieties.

The neighborhood shrine, Iriya Kishimo jin, founded in 1659, carries the strangest of tales: it's one of three named after a minor diety from buddism, a woman named Kishimo. Legends recount that, 1500 years ago, this wicked woman was eating small children. To teach her a lesson, Buddha hid her own dearest child froim her, and she was stricken with deep anguish. Buddha then told her, "now you understand the horror of what you have done, and the great suffering you have given to so many. Kishimo repented and transformed, forever after serving as a fierce guardian and protector of mothers and their children. People believe in its miraculous powers to this day.

As for Hozuki ichi, this event is held at the ancient Sensouji temple of Asakusa and is deeply connected with Kannon, the goddess of compassion. For some 14 centuries, Japanese pilgrims have come here to pay tribute to the goddess, a means of earning spiritual merit - it's thought that, through good deeds, the rewards of the universe will be bestowed upon the faithful. And visiting the goddess on her monthly holy day, earns visitors 100 times the blessings - granting 100 days of happy life. But Kannon's most sacred day is July 10th. If you are to visit her on that day, it's said to be the same as visiting 1000 times. Since the Edo period, that number has been increased to the equivalent of 46,000 blessed days, which means with a single visit, one can expect to live happily for 126 years! This certainly made the site popular among visitors, who flock to the shrine a day early.

Hozuki - the Japanese lantern (or ground cherry blossom) also used to be a traditional medicine, and a very precious one. It flowers with bright orange balloons, which dry into elegant golden cages within which sit a bright pink berry. No longer used as medicine, the plants are still thought to bring good fortune, and are associated with the festival of Kannon.

During the hozuki ichi festival, a chorus of wind chimes gave mimi rabbit a sense of comfort and tranquility, as she drank in the bright oranges and greens against in the deep blue sky. Energetic plant sellers touted their wares to the passersby, and graciously allowed their photos to be snapped.

If you're used to imagining the Japanese as a very quiet people, you can see a whole different aspect of them here. You'll find a number of sellers in front of Sensouji temple, but those at the rear are more fun to see.

With the arrival of summer, Mimi Rabbit wishes you deep happiness and a summer full of joyful memories. May these beautiful flowers restore a little of your energies.

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