Asakusa

Tanabata: The Mid-Summer Festival



You walk out into the garden in the early morning of an uncomfortably hot summer day. The air is heavy and humid, and although the sun is still low in the sky, the heat is already enough to make you sweat through the light cotton kimono you are wearing. Today is the seventh day of the seventh month - the middle of summer and the date that citizens of Edo generally celebrate as "Tanabata", the start of the summer festival season. Most of the leading bakufu (government) officials have left the city and gone to country estates in the mountains to escape the heat. Those who are still in the city are spending their days in the garden, trying to keep out of the sun and stay cool. In the garden of the Matsudaira estate, a few of the young women are strolling lazily through the garden, hoping to catch a bit of a morning breeze.

Matsudaira-dono is relaxing in the garden and chatting with some other samurai who have come to call. He sees you come out of the main house and calls you over. "Well, well. You're up early today. I should have told the chief steward to let you sleep late. There are no errands and no messages to deliver today. Everyone in the whole city is too hot to work. Once you have finished helping with the morning meal, you can go spend the rest of the day enjoying the Tanabata festival at Asakusa temple." You are very excited, and thank Matsudaira-dono sincerely! You were hoping to be able to visit the festival after all your messages were delivered, but you never expected to be able to spend the whole day. What a treat!

Asakusa is one of the main temple districts in Edo, and by far the oldest center of religion in this area. You have been there many times, since it is the most important temple in Edo, and many of the most powerful Buddhist leaders in the city live there. According to legend, the Asakusa Kannon Temple (Sensoji) was founded in the year 628, when three brothers, who were fishing in the shallow bay, discovered a wooden statue of the goddess of mercy, Kannon. Nobody knows who carved the statue, or how it had been washed into the waters of Edo Bay, but everyone considered the discovery of the statue a miraculous and amazing event. News was sent to the capital of Japan, which was in Nara, a city to the south of Kyoto. The Empress at the time was named Suiko, and she was a very devout Buddhist. In fact, she is credited with establishing many of the oldest temples and monasteries in Nara. When she heard the story of the three fishermen and the statue of Kannon, Empress Suiko ordered that a temple be built to house the statue.

Back then, Edo was nothing more than a small fishing village, and the waters of Edo Bay reached all the way to where Asakusa is today. The Asakusa Kannon temple was built on a small hill that looked out over the waters of the bay. It was one of the first buildings of any size in the area, and it remained a center of religion and local commerce for close to a thousand years. Before long, many craftsmen and shopkeepers set up businesses in the mon-zen machi (literally, the "town in front of the temple gate"). These small "towns" were very important areas of commerce in ancient Japan. Throughout the early history of Japan, and right up until the start of the Edo period, local warlords were constantly fighting with one another to try to extend their territory. Although they rarely attacked peasants or villagers, they often did set fires to the towns to drive out their enemies, and even if they didnt burn the buildings, they would force the peasants and townspeople to give them money and rice.

However, most of the larger temples were independent, and had their own leaders and "governments" who had official control over the area surrounding the temple buildings. Warlords were usually religious enough, or at least superstitious enough, not to attack temples. Moreover, since the temples were independent, they didnt have to pay taxes to the local warlord. The temples usually did expect people living in the mon-zen machi to make contributions to the temple upkeep, and to help build and repair new temple buildings. Still, for many small merchants this sort of life was more appealing than the uncertainties and pressures of life in one of the castle towns. For that reason, most of the major temples around the country became the centers of large communities filled with craftsmen and small shopkeepers.

The mon-zen machi in front of Asakusa Kannon temple never became a really big town, like other, more famous mon-zen machi that surrounded large temples elsewhere in the country. Nevertheless, it became fairly well known even in distant places like Kyoto. The fishermen in the area became famous for making a type of dried seaweed known as nori. The seaweed that was harvested in the area where the Sumida river flowed into Edo Bay was especially delicious, and for this reason, Asakusa-nori became famous throughout the entire country.

By the time Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to Edo in the late 1500s, the landscape had changed considerably. The local warlord Ota Dokan had built his small fortress on the current site of Edo Castle. Over the years the silt had built up at the mouth of the Sumida River, so that the shoreline extended well out into what used to be Edo Bay. Asakusa was no longer on the seacoast, but rather, about 10 kilometers upriver. The main roads through the area were rather far away, and as a result, Asakusa Kannon temple had become a very run-down and almost deserted place. However, Ieyasu realised that it would be important to establish a major religious center to serve his new city. Therefore, his men began reclaiming the swampy land around Asakusa and restoring the temple to its former beauty.

Asakusa Kannon temple became the official family temple of the Tokugawa family, and the shogun gave it a new name -- Sensoji. This name uses the same Chinese characters as "Asakusa Temple", but pronounced in a different way. The priests at the temple say prayers every day for the shogun, perform family religious ceremonies, and tend the family grave sites, both in Edo and in Nikko. In return for their cooperation and their prayers for his family, Ieyasu allowed the temples of Asakusa to maintain a certain degree of independence and control over their own management. Most other temples in Japan lost their independence when Ieyasu became shogun, but Asakusa Kannon temple continued to have its own political leaders. By the reign of the fifth shogun, these political leaders were given the title of jisha bugyo (literally, "mayor of the temples and shrines"). They were responsible for overseeing the management of all temples and shrines in Edo.

The first step in extending the city limits of Edo was to reclaim the waste land that had long separated Asakusa from the settlements in the downtown area. Asakusa Kannon temple was built on a low hill. Originally, it had been right on the shore of Edo Bay, but over the years, silt from the Sumida river filled in the bay. Although the hill and the temple remained pretty much the same as before, the area around it became a low, flat marshy area filled with tall reeds and grass. During the rainy season, there were times when the river would rise high enough to turn Asakusa into an island, completely surrounded by flooded marshland on one side and the river itself on the other.

The area around the temple was completely reclaimed and turned into a thriving neighborhood, inhabited mainly by labourers, small craftsmen and merchants. The shogun's men started by digging a deep channel through the marshes to carry the water away, and filling in the areas that remained low and swampy. They also built up the riverbank to the north and south of the hill where the temple sat. That way, even when the river flooded, the water would not flood into the area that used to be marshland. The drainage channels direct water from this marshy area into the Kanda River, and a bridge known as Asakusa-bashi was built across the main canal to connect Edo and Asakusa. The main road to northern Japan -- the Oshu Kaido,-- was also redirected, so that now it crossses Asakusa-bashi, and runs along the Sumida river, passing the temple, and then leading north to the main ferry across the Sumida river.

As you cross Asakusa-bashi, you enter an area of long row houses, very similar to the blue-collar neighborhoods of Nihonbashi and Furukawa. Together, these three neighborhoods make up the shitamachi area of Edo. Like other blue-collar districts, Asakusa is crowded and bustling with people. However, Asakusa is slightly more lively, gaudy and upbeat than other shitamachi (downtown) districts, because it is also one of the main entertainment centers in Edo. Many of the small shopkeepers who operated in the mon-zen machi area set up tea stalls along the broad avenue that leads up to the temple itself. Visitors to the temple would stop to refresh themselves at the tea stalls, sometimes spending hours in conversation with other pilgrims, travelers or local townspeople. Once the shogun made Edo his capitol, the number of visitors to Asakusa Kannon temple increased dramatically, and the owners of the tea shops became quite wealthy. Over time, as the different tea shops began to compete with one another for customers, many of the more prosperous shops started to offer a variety of entertainment to attract more people.

Since you are not in much of a hurry, and you have heard a great deal about the tea shops of Asakusa, you decide to stop in to have a cup of tea and a look around. As you enter the shop you duck underneath the noren -- a cloth banner that most restaurants and shops hang over the entrance. It serves the double purpose of shading the inside of the shop and serving as a "billboard" to attract people to the shop. Most noren are brightly colored and have pictures or words telling the store name and indicating what kind of goods are sold inside.

As you walk into the shop, a pretty girl welcomes you and leads you to a table. One of the main ways that tea shop owners use to attract customers (particularly men) is to hire beautiful women as "hostesses" to serve the tea. Although the tea shops show a bit more decorum than the brothels in Yoshiwara and Shinagawa, for the right price, the young women who work in these shops can be persuaded to provide other forms of "entertainment". The tea shops in Asakusa are loud, gay places, unlike the more sedate establishments that you are used to visiting in other parts of the city. Many of the patrons sing songs, and dance with the hostesses, while others play i go, or gamble at the tables.

The hostess flirts with you as she pours the tea, and then starts to giggle when she sees you blushing. You hand her a copper coin and take the tea. She chats with you for a minute or two, but she can see that you are embarassed, and since there are so many other customers waiting to be served, she soon excuses herself and goes to another table. Small bowls of snacks are arranged on each table, and you can eat as much as you like once you pay for the tea. Although the snacks are not particularly nutritious, many workers frequent the tea shops at noon in order to get a fairly inexpensive meal. After you finish sipping your tea and eating your fill of the rice crackers, you thank the hostess and continue your journey.

As you continue along the Omote Sando, leading toward Asakusa Temple, you pass the main gate that defines the boundary between the "town area" (mon-zen machi) and the precincts of the temple. The huge gate is painted a bright red, and in the rooms on each side of the gate stand fierce-looking thunder gods, who are believed to protect the entrance to the temple from evil forces. Inside the gate, dozens of flower vendors have set up stalls along the sides of the broad avenue. Vendors line this busy route at all seasons of the year, but the types of goods they sell change from season to season. During the tanabata festival, the most popular items are Morning Glory plants (asagao) and tall, leafy fronds of bamboo. Morning glories are a symbol of summer, because they generally start to bloom in early July - just after the end of the rainy season, and continue to bloom through the summer months. Over the years, gardeners and flower merchants have bred hundreds of varieties of asagao in all sorts of colors and sizes. Leading samurai are known to pay large sums of money for the most unusual varieties, but even the average workers like to buy a plant to put on their balcony or their front porch.

Although the morning glories are certainly beautiful,, the tanabata festival would not be complete without the long bamboo poles. As you look out across the city on the day of the festival, Edo seems to be transformed into a forest of bamboo, as each house in the city has attached one of the long poles to their rooftop. People write their fondest wishes on strips of bright-colored paper and tie them to the branches of the bamboo, then they raise the poles up high so that the wind can carry their wishes away. It is believed that this will make the wish come true.

According to an ancient legend, a young man and a young woman once lived on opposite sides of a broad river. Because their families were enemies, they were not allowed to meet, but they would often look across the river and see each other. In time, the two fell in love. According to the legend, the woman finally could not suppress her feelings any longer, so she secretly wrote her thoughts on a strip of paper and tied it to the top of a long strand of bamboo. The wind blew so strongly that the bamboo swayed back and forth, leaning across the river and reaching the other shore. The young man saw the note tied to the branch, read it, and discovered that the woman loved him. He wrote a message in return, telling the woman that on a certain night at midsummer, he would cross the river by boat to meet her. He tied it to the branch of the bamboo, and when the wind blew back in the other direction, the woman found his message.

Late on the night of tanabata - the seventh day of the seventh month, he crossed the river in his boat and the two lovers spent the night together. However, the next morning they were late in returning home, and their parents found out they were missing, and went out looking for them. When the two families found out about the forbidden meeting, they killed the two lovers for betraying their families. The spirits of the young man and woman were banished to the sky, where they were placed on opposite sides of the Milky Way - a river of stars running through the sky, which can only be seen on a clear, midsummer's night. Today, people believe that if the sky is clear on the night of tanabata, the young man will be able to cross the Milky Way in his boat and visit his lover.

After browsing through the flower stalls for quite a while, you decide to move on. The festival has already begun, and since there is such a big crowd, you want to find a good vantage point to watch the colorful spectacle. As is the case with most large celebrations in Japan, the highlight of the Tanabata festival is the procession of portable shrines, or o-mikoshi, to the main temple. These portable shrines house the spirit of all the small, local shrines and temples in the area. The people from each neighbourhood carry the o-mikoshi from their local temple or shrine to the main temple, and then carry it back to their local neighbourhood. It is believed that this will restore the strength of the local "gods" and ensure that the neighbourhood is prosperous for the coming year.

Actually, o-mikoshi are symbols of Japan's native religion, Shinto, rather than Buddhism. However, the relationship between Buddhism and Shinto in Japan is very complex, and often the two religions overlap. One of the first great religious philosophers in Japan, trying to reassure people that Buddhism was not a threat to Shinto, used a large golden statue of the Buddha as an example. The inside of the statue was made of wood, he explained, while the outside covering was gold. However, it was all one statue. Shinto was like the wood inside the statue; it was the core of Japanese belief, and provided the support for religious feeling in the country. Buddhism was like the gold covering; it was the visible aspect of Japanese belief, which had intricate designs and beautiful scriptures to show people how to live their lives. However, it was impossible to separate the two parts. They are merged together so completely that it is hard to say where one ends and the other begins -- both have essential roles to play in Japanese belief.

The processions go on all day, and late into the evening. Crowds of people come and go, all dressed in brightly colored kimono, shouting and cheering as they carry their o-mikoshi to and from the main temple. By the time the processions are finished, you are exhausted and hoarse from all the cheering. However, you also feel a bit refreshed, as if the magic of the Tanabata festival has broken the grip of the summer heat, and given you new energy.

As you walk home late in the evening, you look up and see that the sky has cleared. High above, you can see the river of light that forms the Milky Way. You think of the legend of the two lovers, and feel happy that the two will be reunited on this night.


Click "Next" to go to the next location, or

Go to main map of Edo