Following the mid-August Bon holidays - Japan’s All Soul’s Day during which all Japanese celebrate the annual return of their deceased ancestors by having a priest come to pray at the family altar, or by making the trip to their ancestral village - Kyoto holds its Jizo-Bon festival on the following weekend. These are neighborhood block parties cum children’s festival whose purpose is to pray for the health of children, and are held nowhere else in Japan.
The festival officially begins when a Buddhist priest prays for the neighborhood Ojizo-san, a mini-Buddha placed in altars found throughout Kyoto. However, prior to that adults come together early in the morning to set up a temporary altar, hang up paper lanterns that are strung between telephone poles, set out tables full of sweets and drinks, and close off the block to traffic. In my neighborhood, in western Kyoto, following the pre-festival preparations all then made an offering at the altar.
At that point, the festival is a tightly scheduled series of events spread out over two days. Children eagerly await the signal - a gong that 2-3 children carry around and ring out at appointed times - for the next event. At 10 am, for example, the children receive sweets, at 10:30 there is a drawing for toys. At noon a lunch of chirashi-sushi is served to all.
After lunch, perhaps the most religious event takes place: “juzo-mawashi.” The children sit in a large circle, and pass around a long string of prayer beads to the beat of a religious gong. At three sweets are once again distributed. The first day ends with a small display of fireworks. Adults sit out in the street, drinking and gossiping while children play until late, wandering from block to block to see school friends and take part in many Jizo-Bon festivals.
The fireworks are small enough and safe enough to do on the street, and they end with “senko hanabi,” the small, lovely handheld firework that burn slowly in patterns that bring to mind flowers or a much larger fireworks display.
Day two starts with the ringing of the gong to call the children for a final package of sweets. At 11 there is one more drawing for toys and games. Following a communal lunch—and a lot of drinking—Jizo-Bon comes to an end and the adults disassemble the altar, take down the lanterns, and store everything until the following August.
Buy the traditional summer toy of Japan: taketombo (bamboo dragonfly whirlygigs)
Sunday, August 20, 2006