Sure, county fairs are fun but how many Americans pay respects to their ancestors, become immersed in the arts of their heritage and learn some cool mythology while taking out plastic ducks in the shooting gallery or wolfing down pink popcorn?
Though my childhood friends and I liked rickety Ferris wheels and fried dough as much as the next guy, the most highly-anticipated fête in our neighborhood each summer did not involve carousels, cotton candy, Tilt-A-Whirls or fireworks. No, it was a far more esoteric roster of attractions that had us counting down the days right about this time every year: things like fierce taiko drumming, mesmerizing, fan-waving, kimono-clad dancers, scrumptious yakitori skewers, sweet azuki bean candy and games such as scooping up a floating dragon out of a wooden tub of water before your rice paper ladle dissolved.
It was the Obon Festival, a wonderfully convivial, bustling weekend abundant with traditional Japanese music, dancing, games, martial arts and cultural activities held every August on the grounds of the Buddhist Temple where my best friend Donna Ujita and her family were active members.
Being raised in a completely non-spiritual, ethnically myopic household by socially circumspect and, to be frank, desperately unexotic British people, I soaked up every element of the Obon Festival like the WASP sponge that I was.
From the glowing lanterns, ancient fencing demonstrations and solemn tea ceremonies to ikebana flower arranging workshops, judo bouts and bonsai displays — patiently nurtured by expert sages as diminutive and sinewy as their centenarian creations — the Obon was the grand finale of summer and it was only when I moved away that I realized how lucky I'd been to have such rich experiences so early on.
This exposure to the spectacular breadth and beauty of Japanese culture was what led me to Japan years later and it was there that I learned of its many other festivals or "matsuri", as they're called, and the specific occasions, traditions or people they celebrate.
While the Obon seeks to soothe spirits of the dead, who are said to be visiting during that time, there's also Kyoto's Gion Matsuri, which originally sought to appease the gods of fire, earthquake and pestilence, the Shogatsu Matsuri commemorating the New Year, the Hina Matsuri honoring women and girls.
Thanks to two visionary Windham County residents, we have the opportunity to experience a matsuri first-hand at the Asian Cultural Center of Vermont, this Sunday from 1pm to 4pm.
Less than a year after opening the center, Executive Director, Adam Silver and his wife, Artistic Director, Cai Xi Silver, are holding their first annual Tanabata Festival in the Center's fine arts gallery at 814 Western Avenue in Brattleboro.
Also known as The Star Festival, the Tanabata originated with a 2,000-year old Chinese story about two celestial beings, Orihime, a weaver princess and a cow herder prince, Hikoboshi, who spent so much time frolicking about and shirking their duties that the king punished them both by putting them on opposite sides of the Amanogawa River (aka Milky Way). These stars, known to us as Vega and Altair, were allowed to meet only once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, which by our calendar is this weekend, and the festival celebrates their annual togetherness.
The Tanabata, which seeks to promote the improvement of skills, will feature vibrant streamers, songs and foods and Japanese experts will offer lessons in origami folding and calligraphy, using rice paper, ink and brushes, as well as a haiku poetry workshop and reading.
The tale of the Tanabata will also be told, incorporating the tradition of writing down one's wishes for the coming year in the form of poetry on small pieces of paper called "tanzaku" and hanging them from tree branches in the garden behind the gallery.
Concurrently with the Festival, a rare exhibit of extraordinarily moving and meticulously crafted "paintings" will be on display, made in 1945 by children who miraculously survived when the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima.
After the blast, a teacher from the Hiroshima Girls High School, Ataki-san, found that only about 50 of his 250 former students were still alive and he established a makeshift school in a tent in order to restore some semblance of normalcy for them.
"He looked for ways to help these young women somehow resume their lives as they recuperated", said Executive Director, Silver, during a recent conversation. "Some couldn't use their arms at first but over months and years the paintings were developed using a traditional method called "kir-i", which involves laying down tiny strips of fabric with rice glue and creating these small, exquisite paintings."
The source of their medium is as poignant as the girls' tenacity itself: they pulled these small fragments of material from the ashes and rubble of Hiroshima.
"Ataki-san told the girls to create a picture that reminded them of the beauty of where they come from", Silver explained. "Some did portraits of women they'd known but the majority are pictures of places they remembered."
The journey of these paintings to New England is compelling as well. Northampton resident, Phyllis Rodin, a renowned peace-activist now in her 90's, was a psychiatric nurse in Hiroshima during the 1960's and helped many of the young women who'd been students of Ataki-san with the post-traumatic stress that still affected them decades after the devastation.
According to Silver, Rodin remembers that some of her patients had been maimed and they told her the story of how the paintings allowed them to begin healing emotionally. In thanks for her work with many of the 150,000 "hibakusha" — explosion-affected people — Ataki-san and fellow citizens of Hiroshima presented Rodin with 19 of these remarkable artistic expressions of post-war anguish and hope, and the Asian Cultural Center will have them on display through the end of the month.
Rodin herself will also be present at tomorrow's reception, which goes from 4:30p.m. to 8:30p.m., so it's a great opportunity to meet someone who was directly involved in Hiroshima's process of recovery and to see the fruits of her patients' mettle as they turned tragedy into beauty. The gallery is also open daily from Noon to 6pm and by appointment by calling 579.9088.
During the reception, Japanese bamboo flute master, Elizabeth Reian Bennett — the first woman to be certified in Japan as a Shakuhachi master — will perform at 7pm. One of the pieces she'll be performing is called Nesting Cranes, a fitting composition based on the symbol of post-atom bomb healing.
We're very fortunate to have our own Asian Cultural Center here in southern Vermont, so do try to stop in for any or all of these events, which are free and open to all ages, and consider becoming a Friend of the Center by making a donation as well. Domo arigato!