After a three-hour drive through the mountains, singing all the way, I arrived in Ōgawara to visit my friend Joyce. On a dispiritingly grey street in the oppressive humidity, we met with her friend John, and together ascended the hill of Funaoka Castle Ruins Park. At its peak a twenty-four-metre tall Peace Kannon statue cradled a bird to her breast and smiled benevolently at the town below. On our descent, the enchanting luminations of the town began to burn against the blue twilight.
The following morning our trio headed into Sendai, the capital of Miyagi prefecture, for the annual Tanabata festival. At the time I was completely ignorant of the fact that Sendai is the largest city to the north of Tokyo, and so was astonished by its thriving cosmopolitan streets.
The centre of the city, it appeared to me, was dominated by a never-ending shopping arcade, which included a colossal haberdashery and craft store. I was elated to have found it, but crushed to know that I had neither the money nor the requisite sewing machine to stock up on fabrics and associated sundry.
The entire shopping arcade and every part of the city we visited was decorated with large and colourful fukinagashi streamers. Fukinagashi (吹き流し) can, at a push, be translated as ‘blow flow.’ The distinct Tanabata fukinagashi have an almost jelly fish silhouette, with a large sphere supporting a cascading tube of long paper strips which billow handsomely in the wind. Based on that model, there are infinite design possibilities, and each display was a unique and vibrant creation.
Tanabata (七夕) means Evening of the 7th, and falls on the seventh day of the seventh month. The legend upon which the festival is based originated in China, but like all customs it became amalgamated with established native practices, so the history of the celebration is a little complicated and regionally varied. One version of the folklore, at least, goes like this:
Tentei, the king of the universe/sky/heaven, had a daughter who weaved so much and so well that she became known as Orihime, the Weaving Princess. She made incredible cloth which her father praised and, being a pious child, she worked diligently. However, she was a bit bummed out that her life of constant weaving doomed her to spinsterhood (literally). Her dad took pity on the sad singleton and so played wingman in a meeting with Hikoboshi, the heavenly cowherd, who looked after celestial cattle on the other side of the Milky Way. Falling, as it were, arse-over-tit for each other, they got married worryingly quickly, and were so in love that Orihime neglected her weaving gig and sky cows were charging about all over the universe. Tentei was unimpressed. He put them in separate naughty corners and stuck the impenetrable Milky Way between them again. Orihime was inconsolable, and Tentei decided that a compromise would be to allow the sweethearts to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, provided that Orihime work particularly hard making cloth the other three-hundred-and-sixty-four. Even with this special dispensation, there were logistical issues which apparently Tentei didn’t care to address. The Milky Way (the river of heaven) had no bridge, and so the couple remained separated. Orihime wept relentlessly until some magpies constructed an ergonomically questionable bridge using their wings, and the lovers were reunited. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies are unable to assume the bridge formation, and therefore Orihime and Hikoboshi forfeit their annual date. It seems pretty harsh, but as they’re immortal it probably isn’t that bad.
Tanabata is a time for people to make wishes, and to shop. To the dismay of my bank balance, I found that Tanabata was sale time in Sendai, and every shop was promoting seasonal bargains. Unable to resist, I bought a handy small bag which can transform into a bumbag (don’t judge me) and a beautiful silver ring indented with sakura petals. It transpires, though, that monetary funds were not required in order to walk away from the festival with an arm-full of goodies.
Free gifts were being handed out at practically regular intervals. I received the usual tissue packets and, to my slight but not unpleasant surprise, sanitary products. There were a number of stalls outside the long mall complex promoting their wares, and we were each handed a free water bottle by someone who, once we accepted, steered us toward a stall all about boats. I was worried that we were about to endure an awkward pitch from someone trying to sell us some form of sea vessel, but it turned out to be a sort of video game. We each picked a colour of boat and then cheered for our respective schooners with increasing enthusiasm as they raced in a computer-simulated competition. My green skiff came last, Joyce’s blue clipper finished second, while John’s black yacht won; out of a total of about seven colours. John’s victory was rewarded with a bottle holder which unzips into a towel of which I was most jealous. Joyce and I won some consolation boat stickers.
As we navigated the swarming crowds, John was accidentally knocked by a large and bright pink dolphin balloon. Even as an adult, sexually-active, homosexual man, he said that it was the gayest thing that had ever happened to him.
Along the mall’s parade was a stage at which a puppet show took place. We stood and watched the performance, which starred a discontented child in festival clothes, a skeleton, an aubergine with legs and a yellow hat, and two female ghouls. Try as I might, I could not follow the plot, and the only thing that has remained steadfastly in my memory is all the cartoonish marionettes breaking into a dance (to the extent that the rather inarticulate dolls could dance) and one of the female characters twerking very energetically.
At some of the road crossings which interrupted the stretch of shops, a version of street preacher was positioned at the lights, and their messages inflicted upon everyone forced to stop and wait for the green signal. Street preachers were something I was consciously grateful to not encounter since moving to Japan. In my hometown, the shrill megaphone ramblings of deluded narcissists frequently ring clear above the crowds. I once passed a homophobic old prick of a sermoniser who claimed that homosexuals needed to repent, and although I loudly rebuffed him, the powerful sound system he was using to spread his hatred smothered my protests, and a couple of his cronies began squaring up to me.
The street preachers in Sendai, however much they made my spine tighten and my teeth clench, were not really evangelists at all. It was unclear whether the people propped up at the crossings even believed the writing on the placards they were holding or the messages which emanated tinnily from large speakers at their feet. They stood looking indifferent, and one was even listening to headphones.
John had recently started dating someone who liked Pokemon, and so was keen to obtain the company’s promotional festival code. At the Pokemon stall we were given two fans made of card; one with bells tied to it and the other with a map. We were told to find the right fukinagashi and place stickers on the map fan in the correct order. Being a children’s activity, it was not particularly challenging and, having completed our mission, we headed to the Pokemon shop to collect our prize, which turned out to be an A5 plastic folder with an image of a Pokemon specifically designed for Tanabata.
On the streets outside, a temporary stage had been constructed on which we saw a chipper young woman encouraging the audience to clap their bell-adorned fans in time while two people in the unwieldy costumes of Orihime-Pikachu and Hikoboshi-Pikachu waddled about either side of her.
After dinner at an Italian pizza place, during which John taught me an Osakan chant for “Shut the fuck up and drink,” I made my way (soberly) back home through the winding mountain roads.