Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wishing Upon a Star

Creating my last post on Tanabata made me think about Super Mario RPG. The entire premise of the game is the interesting concept that when people make wishes, they're carried by stars to a special place by means of a special conduit called "Star Road," that this "road" has been shattered, and that unless it's repaired, "people's wishes won't come true."

Mario listening to Mallow's wish.

That people's wishes are actually heard and granted is interesting in and of itself, let alone the idea that this divine process can actually be blocked in some way.

I'm also reminded of a song from an anime series called "Cowboy Bebop." In the song "Flying Teapot," the lyrics seem to echo these same ideas, that stars carry our wishes to a special place, and that anyone could actually block this process.

Flying Teapot (From Cowboy Bebop)
Sometimes I think
Oh yes! I'd move to where all the shooting stars are gone
With all of our wishes
How could they bare
Oh no! To carry around the stupid human hopes
So I'm going to help
I will!
Give a key to lock the door to the secret paradise
There are so many queuing up
I won't let them in
Look at them, they are cheeky
They are never worthy to be
Sometimes I feel
Oh yes! I could do almost everything I wanted
And it makes cry
Lay your heart
Lay your soul
Upon my magic carpet
Now we are fly
To Venus just to kill some time for tea OK?
There's nothing you can do 'cause
Love's such a joke
Like a little jack in the box you know
A little jack in the box

"The Flying Teapot" can be heard below:

Give me a key to lock the door to the secret paradise...

But I suppose the idea of "wishing upon a star" isn't too foreign, as this idea has been immortalized by Disney's anthem, "When You Wish Upon a Star."

Monday, June 27, 2016

Tanabata: Japanese Star Festival

So the month of June is drawing to a close, and with it, the Japanese rainy season. It's different every year; sometimes the rainy season ends abruptly right at the end of June, but sometimes it drags on for days if not weeks. And sometimes, it rains off and on. You'll just never know.

In the middle or near the end of June, the Japanese begin to get ready to celebrate Tanabata (七夕), also known as the "star festival," which generally happens on July the 7th.

So what is "Tanabata?"
I don't know how else to describe it but as a combination of Asian Christmas and Valentine's Day which is celebrated in the summer.

For Tanabata, people in Japan decorate large bamboo fronds with various ornaments made of paper. People write their wishes on colorful strips of paper called tanzaku (短冊), and they make a variety of origami and cut-outs which they then tie onto the branches of the bamboo frond.

Preparation for the event begins a few days in advance, and culminates on the evening of July 7, when people go out at night to watch the stars. On this night, people make wishes upon the stars of Vega and Altair. Children to wish to become something when they grow up, to do well on tests or contests, or to pass their school entrance exams. It is a popular day for couples to spend a romantic night, wishing upon the stars to be together forever and ever.

This festival was actually imported from China, where it is known as "Qī Xī" in Mandarin (七夕, better pronounced as "chee shee"), or the "Night of Sevens". (The Chinese characters 七 and 夕 are "seven" and "night/evening" respectively.) This is due to the fact that the festival is held on the seventh day of the seventh month. In Japan, nowadays this refers to July 7th, but in the past, it referred to the seventh day of the seventh month in the old Chinese lunar calendar. In Korea, a similar festival exists, where it is known as "Chilseok." (The Korean pronunciation of 七夕.)

Originally, Tanabata was a festival where people would plead for skills. Thus, an alternate name for Tanabata was “Kikkoden,” or "The Festival to Plead for Skills" (乞巧奠). In China, it is still alternately known as "The Festival to Plead for Skills"(乞巧節; qĭ qiāo jié) or, "The Night of Skills" (巧夕; qiāo xī). Interestingly enough, an alternative name for Tanabata is "the festival of the weaver," and alternative Chinese characters for it are "棚機," which stand for "trellis/treadle" and "loom" respectively. The Chinese characters "七夕" should be read "shichiseki" in Japanese, but are read "Tanabata" instead.

The original custom was to write wishes for skills on special strips of paper. Girls would wish for better sewing and craft skills, while boys would wish for better handwriting. Today, the festival has evolved into an event where people wish for clear weather so that the weaver and the cowherd can meet, or just to wish for anything in general. The wishes are written down on strips of paper called tanzaku (短冊), and they are tied to bamboo fronds, along with other decorations made out of paper.

Because they happen at around the same time*, Tanabata and the Obon festival are closely tied together. Obon is a Japanese festival where people remember and worship their ancestors. As it is believed that the spirits of ancestors come back from the land of the dead to visit during Obon every year, Obon and Tanabata share the common thread of "meeting but once a year." Some traditions from these holidays resemble each other. For example, the bamboo branches on which wishes are tied are set afloat on a river, or they’re burned after the festival. This is similar to the way floating lanterns are set afloat on the river for Obon. But that's a post for another day.

*Obon and Tanabata are both supposed to take place in the “seventh month” according to the lunar calendar. The lunar calendar and the solar calendar do not match up exactly, resulting in the establishment of different dates. Please read on.


The Tanabata star festival centers on the stars Vega and Altair which, in Asian culture, represent a weaving maiden and a cowherd. Many stories surround these stars, but the main gist of the festival is that they are cursed lovers that are allowed to meet but once a year.

In Japan, the legend says that Vega was a weaving princess (織姫, Orihime), daughter of the King of the Universe (天帝, Tentei). She was a skilled weaver, and the cloth she would work hard to create was so beautiful it pleased her father very much. The princess would work diligently to make her cloth, but she longed for a lover.

And so it came to pass that she fell in love with the cowherd ( 彦星, Hikoboshi, AKA: Altair) who would tend to cows not very far from where she worked on her loom. The cowherd also fell in love with the princess, and so the two began to wander off together.

The cowherd's cows, unattended, began to stray all over skies, and the princess stopped weaving her cloth. Upon discovering this disarray, the King of the Universe was angered so much so that he separated the lovers by creating the River of Heaven (天の川, Ama no Gawa, AKA: The Milky Way) between them.

As time passed, the weaving princess grew ever despondent at the thought of not being able to see the cowherd. She pleaded with her father to let them meet again. Moved by his daughter's tears, the King of Heaven promised the weaving princess that if she worked diligently to finish her weaving, he would allow her and the cowherd to meet on the 7th night of the 7th month every year.

 The "River of Heaven" at night...

And so it goes, that the princess perches at the edge of the river, sadly weaving on her loom, while the cowherd looks on from afar, tending to his cows. On the 7th night of the 7th month, the River of Heaven ebbs low enough for the weaver and the cowherd to meet. It is said that if Tanabata falls on a rainy day, the river swells and so the lovers can’t meet and they must wait until the next year to meet again.

In another variation of this story, the River of Heaven ebbs low enough for the two lovers to see each other, but not low enough for them to actually meet. The lovers call out to each other and they are heard by a passing flock of magpies. Feeling pity for the couple, the magpies call to all the magpies of the world, and they form a bridge with their wings so that the weaver and the cowherd can meet.

Learning of the couple's plight, the birds promise to come every year to form the bridge. If it rains on Tanabata, however, the magpies cannot come and the lovers must wait another year. For this reason, Tanabata is also known as the Magpie Festival in China.

 The Cowherd and the Weaver meeting over a bridge of magpies over the River of Heaven.

Different Dates for Tanabata
When Tanabata is celebrated actually varies, due to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, Tanabata happens on “the seventh day of the seventh month,” however this was in reference to the older lunar calendar, which can lag behind the Gregorian calendar by about a month. Most people celebrate Tanabata on the 7th of July, as July is the seventh month of the Gregorian calendar, but others celebrate it on the 7th of of August, in order to bring the celebration closer to the lunar date. Still, others keep track of the older lunar calendar, and celebrate Tanabata accordingly. For this reason, Tanabata is celebrated on different days by different people.

 The city of Sendai is particularly famous for their Tanabata festivities.

Japanese Tanabata Song
Children in Japan learn this song in school. It can be heard in grocery stores and shopping centers as Tanabata approaches.

ささのは さらさら
のきばに ゆれる
お星さま きらきら
きんぎん すなご
ごしきの たんざく
わたしが かいた
お星さま きらきら
空から  見てる

Sasa no ha sara-sara
Nokiba ni yureru
Ohoshi-sama kira-kira
Kingin sunago
Goshiki no tanzaku
watashi ga kaita
Ohoshi-sama kirakira
sora kara miteru

Oh Great Tanabata

Bamboo leaves rustle
Waving high up in the eaves
The majestic stars shimmer
Like gold and silver grains of sand
On five-color paper strips
I have written
The majestic stars shimmer
Looking on from heaven above

This song can be heard in Japanese below:

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Tsuyu Series: A Tribute to Frogs in Video Games

I can't believe how many posts I've done on the rainy season in Japan! I started off with just a post on the rainy season and how the Japanese deal with it, which led to Japanese symbolism for the rainy season, which led to Japanese symbolism in video games. We segwayed into the realm of hydrangeas, and now were back again with video games.

But this time I'm going to keep it simple.

For this post I'm going pay a tribute to frogs in video games.

I hope you like it! :-)

 In Super Mario RPG, Mallow the cloud *thinks* he's a frog.

 When he is told by his adoptive father, Frogfucius, that he is not a frog, he cries.
And when he cries, it rains. Coincidence?

 In Mario 3, Mario wears a frog suit. That counts, right?

In Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, you encounter many frogs.
One frog in particular swallows you whole, and you have to fight to get out.

Yoshi and Baby Mario vs. Prince Froggy's uvula.

The frogs from Super Mario 2: Yoshi's Island have a cameo in
Tetris Attack, a Yoshi's Island-themed puzzle game.

 In Zelda: A Link to the Past, Link helps a frog,
who turns out to be a sword-smith.

In Zelda: Link's Awakening, Mamu the frog, teaches link the Song of Life.

 In Zelda: Ocarina of Time, link helps the Fabulous Five Froggish Tenors.

 Frog from Chrono Trigger.

 One of the first enemies Megaman encounters in Bubbleman's stage (Megaman 2)
is a mechanical frog.

One of the main bosses in Megaman 4 is Toad Man.

 Jason and his frog, from Blaster Master.

In Ironsword: Wizards and Warriors 2, one of the quests
is to find a golden fly for a gi-normous frog prince.

Kirby helps a momma frog find her baby.

 Nohoho is a character from the Puyo Puyo puzzle game series.
He uses technique where he stacks Puyos to one side.

In Samurai Shodown 2, Genjuro has an amphibian admirer.

In Samurai Shodown 3, Kyoshiro sends his frog after you.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Tsuyu Series: The Wonder of Hydrangeas

Now as I've mentioned before, hydrangeas are a symbol of the rainy season. The Japanese word for hydrangea is "ajisai." The kanji, or Chinese characters are "purple," "sun," and "flower." (紫陽花)

When I first learned that the Japanese associated hydrangeas with the rainy season, I had no idea how deep their fondness for them went.

It seems the Japanese are fond of flowers in general, but I think more so than that, they appreciate them as part of the season.

If the year is a clock, then, in Japan, the flowers mark each hour.

And how!

My experience of flowers in Japan has been that, you hardly ever see them. But once the season of the year for a particular flower arrives, suddenly, there they are!

All year long, hydrangeas lie dormant. But once the rainy season begins, they seem to just pop up out of nowhere!

The same is true for almost any other flower the Japanese appreciate.

Cherry blossoms. Dogwoods. Hydrangeas. Morning glories. Cosmos. Plum. You name it.

It seems trees and plants are strategically placed in Japan, so that at any one time, a particular flower is blooming, letting you know what time of the year it is.

When you see plum blossoms, you must be at the beginning of the year when spring begins.

Cherry blossoms tell you you're in April, and they usually accompany the beginning of the school year. (In Japan, school begins in April and ends in March.)

Then the hydrangeas bloom, accompanied by gray skies and rainy days.

Morning glories bloom, ushering in the sounds of summer.

Fields of cosmos flowers bid farewell to the summer and to the sun.

Plum blossoms herald the arrival of spring.

Cherry blossoms bloom once again and the Japanese get the feeling that yet another year has passed, and a new one is just beginning.

April seems to mark various new beginnings in Japan.

But we'll get to that later.

The rain continues to sing to me at night, and I have decided that I wanted to post pictures of hydrangeas that I took around my neighborhood.

I knew what hydrangeas were before I came to Japan, but for one, I had no idea the were called hydrangeas. I only knew the Spanish name for them, which is "hortencia."

Next, I thought hydrangeas were like, only one species of flower.


It turns out there is a myriad of varieties of the plant, and the Japanese appreciate them all.

And did you know that the bunches of flowers in which hydrangeas grow are called "panicles?" You learn something new every day! :-D

Here are the pictures I took this rainy season.