Journey in Japan Part 50: Necks, Lights, and Video Ape

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Culture Day is held on the 3rd of November every year. An event to promote the arts, and Japanese Culture. Introduced in 1948, Culture Day is a public holiday. The people of Japan are off work, and events will take place throughout Tokyo. An interesting fact I have learnt is that it never ever rains on Culture Day; statistically, the clearest day of the year.

Outside it is raining. I head to Seven Eleven to buy a coffee. At the checkout, I am asked to place my hand in a box. I pull out a small piece of paper with a picture of a banana on it. Great! I’ve won a banana. This is quite possibly the best thing that will happen to me all day. I take my bicycle and head over to Asakusa, to Sensō-ji. Today I am here to satisfy my heron addiction. At the temple the rain has all but stopped, the crowds are slightly larger than usual, people on holiday have flocked to the temple to see the festival.

Today is the White Heron Dance festival. This one thousand-year-old tradition consists of eight women dressed as herons. They walk through Kaminarimon Gate toward the main temple. Following behind them is a small wooden cart featuring drummers, a man carrying a huge umbrella, three percussionists, and a man with a baton. There is also a woman carrying a box full of confetti.

The procession sets up just beside the temple, and a huge crowd of people form a circle, watching on. Music starts and heron dance. The women dance in an elegant fashion, slowly and precisely. Wings expand and contract, and heron heads bob. The woman with the confetti tosses it to the birds, they pretend to be fed. As the dance draws to a close, its cleansing ability purifies the souls of the deceased.

After the event, I explore a little. At the small nearby Awashi-do Temple, a monk sits chanting and hitting a drum every second. He keeps a steady practised rhythm and doesn’t appear to blink. Outside a market stall, a man is sitting in a chair waving his hands from side to side and speaking in song, “Nice to meeeet you, where are you frooooom?” I tell him England. “Aaaaah Englandooo, Englandooo!” he sings.

I wander around to see if any other Culture Day events are taking place. Sure enough, there is a small stage hidden away in one corner of the temple grounds, and a monkey.

Actually, there are two monkeys, the first is with a male and has the natural ability to dive through hoops. The second monkey is with a woman, its speciality the ability to jump really far, jump over hurdles whilst wearing stilts, and to walk on its hands. I applaud, question the cruelty of the performance, and give away my banana. Paying it forward.

I leave Asakusa and head over to Ueno Park for some light art. Today in the park there are illuminations from Ishii Motoko, the women who created the lighting for Tokyo Tower, the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba, and many other lighting projects throughout Japan.

The water fountains are lit up. The sky is filled with colours from lasers projected from a small lighting booth. The Tokyo National Museum has become a whiteboard for projected images; arts, antiques, and artifacts that are housed in the museum are displayed in full colour across one of its walls. Lanterns litter the paths. Small stalls are set up selling meat, sweets, fruits, and assorted Japanese snacks.

Like the other events today, this festival also features animals. Spread throughout the park are many of the animals from Ueno Zoo, decorated with fairy lights. A big effort has been made here, and the festival is a lot of fun. At times though, it does feel like I am at a premature Christmas market.

I learn that in the past this day was a public holiday in celebration of the birthday of the Meiji Emperor. He was the first person to eat meat in Japan back in 1872. After his death in 1912, the day ceased to be a public holiday, until it was reinstated in 1948 as Culture Day. A big part of Japanese Culture is now the devouring of animals; which might explain why every event I have visited today has some sort of animal theme.

I head back toward the water fountains, to where a stage has been erected. It’s only quarter to six, and the park is full of parents and young children. A woman is dancing on stage with a pole. Eventually, the pole dancing ends and a drum kit is set up on stage. The band is due to perform at 6 pm, but at five minutes past, there is still no sign of a performance.

Ten minutes later and fifteen minutes late, the flowers begin to light up, water fountains begin to dance once more, and a band enter the stage. The band consists of a saxophonist, a hornist, two trumpet players, and a drummer. They begin by playing a musical rendition of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’. I consider staying for their second piece but notice some tempting lights in the distance.

The wall of the National Museum of Nature and Science is also lit up. A light show depicting the story of evolution. The dazzling light show includes lights displaying the earliest eukaryotes, to the animals of today. Volcanoes erupt, monkeys become men. I stay for the whole show and applaud enthusiastically with the rest of the crowd at the end.

After the illuminations, I meet my friend and go to one of my favourite bars, Nui. At the bar, I join a group of Australians. One of the women, Claudia, grew up in Perth; the same place as my friend. Quite the coincidence, maybe. When I tell her where I am from in England, I am surprised to find that she has heard of it; most people haven’t. I am even more surprised when she takes out her passport and shows me the section that displays her birthplace. Oddly, it is my hometown. The same city. The same hospital. The same small world.

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