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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

The Unique Japanese Komusō Monks

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  • September 18, 2014

The komusō  (虚無僧)  were a popular group of monks who relied mainly on charity or begging to survive during the Edo period (1603–1868). They were from the Fuke school of Zen Buddhism.  Fuke Zen arrived in Japan in the 13th century and was derived from the teachings of Linji Yixuan, a Zen preacher from China during the 9th century.  However, Fuke was a name for one of Linji Yixuang’s peers, Puhua, who co-founded the sect.

komuso1What made the komusō monks stand out among others was how they wore a straw basket (a reed hood called a tengai or sedge) on their heads so that their faces were not visible.  The tengai is usually woven from bamboo, rattan, reed, or grass.  The unique hat resembles a basket and has a headband secured with a string that allows the hat to move freely as the wearer moves while he plays the shakuhachi.

 Daikokuji-Sasayama Komusō with shakuhachi. | 松岡明芳

Komusō monks were also known for playing solo original musical pieces (honkyoku) on a type of traditional Japanese bamboo flute (shakuhachi).  Honkyoku renditions were typically played during meditative practices known as suizen. The practice is intended to be a healing modality for the monks, a method to attain enlightenment as well as gather alms from passersby. The komusō belief is that the tengai basket that completely covers the head of a monk suppresses the ego and helps people to listen to the music being played on the shakuhachi rather than be concerned about looks or identity of the person. It is also said that the tengai hides the unique technique of how the monks play the shakuhachi.

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The Komusō monks were given the rare privilege of being allowed to cross borders freely during Japan’s feudal era.  This enabled them to reach other far-off temples, which led to the development of other regional musical pieces. The komusou Kurosawa Kinko I (1710–1771) is the first known piece that incorporated styles from all around Japan. After the Edo period, the Japanese government  introduced reforms that led to the abolishment of the Fuke sect, though records of the musical repertoire survived and are being revived today. The Komusō monks and their original musical pieces remain an indelible part of Japan’s  culture and history.

Komusō monks. | National Museum of Denmark

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Japan’s Historical Sannai-Maruyama Site

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  • September 11, 2014

In 1992, Aomori Prefecture began surveying a site for a possible location for a baseball stadium. Unbeknownst to the people involved, they were to discover the ancient remains of a settlement dating back to Japan’s Neolithic period. The site is now known as the Sannai-Maruyama site.

house1The Sannai-Maruyama site (三内丸山遺跡) is located southwest of Aomori City. The historical ruins can be traced to the Jōmon period (about 12,000 BCE) when Japan was inhabited by a nomadic culture that later evolved into a degree of sedentism and cultural complexity.  Further excavations on the Sannai-Maruyama site revealed ruins of a large village that existed over 1,500 years ago. This gave archeologists further clues on understanding the transition of ancient Jōmon people, from nomadism to sedentism. Uncovered at the site were long houses, storage pits, and above-ground storage areas. They were perfect examples that showed the various stages in the structural change of the architecture, organizational behaviors of the inhabitants, and the community.

At the site. | 小池 隆

house2The first settlers of Sannai Maruyama are thought to have lived in pit houses sometime around 3,900 BCE. Over 500 pit dwellings were found at the site, each typically about three to four meters in diameter. Underground pits were used to store food. This allowed wandering settlers  to keep their food safe when they left the site.  Evidence in the ruins indicated the change in how these ancient people began to evolve into a more sedentary lifestyle in how they lived and stored their food above ground in buildings and long-house dwellings. Also excavated in the site were long-houses, oval-shaped and larger than pit dwellings. One of the more prominent structures uncovered in the Sannai Maruyama site was a large six-pillared building built sometime near 2,600 BCE. It was believed to have held platforms that functioned as a watchtower or a monument.

 Site structures. | Perezoso

house3Several buildings have been restored in the Sannai Maruyama site, providing a glimpse of the advanced construction techniques of the Jōmon people.  There is also an exhibit that showcases other items discovered at the site such as earthenware, flat clay figures, knitted baskets, and other personal ornaments. The Sannai Maruyama site was designated a Special National Historical Site of Japan in 2000.

Yuichi Shiraishi

 

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Traditional Japanese Pottery: Kasama Ware

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  • September 8, 2014

Kasama (笠間市 ) City in Ibaraki Prefecture was variously known as a post-station town, a castle town during the Edo Period from 1600 to 1868, then a shrine town of the Kasama Inari Shrine during the Meiji Period (1868–1912.) Kasama literally means “within the straw hat.” The city is surrounded by mountains and is said to resemble an upside down straw hat. The center of Kasama is also connected to many smaller towns, like the center point of a straw hat that is supported by its brim, hence the city name.  Kasama is also known for stone quarrying, producing one of Japan’s most popular pottery pieces, Kasama Ware, or kasama-yaki (笠間焼き). Kasama Ware has a distinctive reddish-brown color with a black glaze and is only made by very few kilns nowadays.

kasama3Kasama Ware can be traced back to the Anei Period (1772–1281) when a man from Hakoda named Kuno Hanemon built a climbing kiln with another potter named Choemon, from Shigaraki. Hanemon’s son-in-law continued his legacy by producing tableware. Pottery was an alternative source for income aside from agriculture, which was heavily dependent on the weather. Kasama Ware’s style during the Edo period was heavily influenced by Shigaraki pottery. The Meiji Era saw many state-owned kilns turn into privately owned kilns, as well as the spread of demand all over Japan.

Display at the Kasama market.

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Kasama Ware is made with different types of clay with granite fragments as its main ingredient. They contain high amounts of iron, are rich in plasticity, and after firing, they turn brown. Kasama produced a wide range of pottery for general household use and after the Meiji restoration, Kasama Ware became popular for its kitchen containers. The end of World War II brought about the advent of the more practical and modern plastic containers which made Kasama Ware almost obsolete. The craft was later revived by the locals of Kasama City. Kasama Ware not only comes in common household items but also as beautiful decorative art works. Each piece is carefully crafted by a master potter and the more modern versions of Kasama ware are made in various styles and color. Kasama ware was designated as a traditional craft in 1992, and is known for its exceptional  style and quality that remains a proud artistic heritage of Japan.

Kasama-no-Ohtsubo, giant vase in Kasama. | On-chan

Video clip of Kasama Ware by Japan Pottery Net:

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Click image or here: http://youtu.be/Bli2Tc8jPZs

 

For more posts about Japanese pottery, visit:

Timeless Bizen Ware: One of Japan’s Popular Forms of Pottery

Kutani Ware: Japanese Ceramic Style

 

 

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“Ishin no Sanketsu” of the Meiji Restoration

  • Posted by:
  • September 5, 2014

The Tokugawa shogunate, also known as the Tokugawa or Edo bafuku, was the last feudal Japanese military government that ruled over Japan from 1603 to 1868.  During this time, the heads of the Japanese government were called shoguns and each one came from the Tokugawa clan. The Tokugawa bafuku came to an end due to many causes. One was that the Japanese were behind the rest of the world because their ports were not open to trade.  This realization brought about the next era in Japanese history, the Meiji Restoration. Meiji means “enlightened rule.” Its leaders’ goal was to restore imperial rule to strengthen Japan against colonial powers during that time by combining “western advances” with traditional “eastern” values.

Three great Japanese nobles played an important role in the Meiji Restoration. They came to be known as Ishin no Sanketsu (維新の三傑 , Three outstanding heroes in the restoration).

Ōkubo Toshimichi Toshimichi_Ōkubo (1830 – 1878) – a samurai of Satsuma and a statesman, he appointed young dynamic leaders in the government and promoted industrial development such as building roads, bridges, and ports. As Finance Minister, he enacted a Land Tax reform (Haitōrei Edict) that prohibited samurai from carrying their swords in public, and ended official discrimination of the burakumin, an outcast group at the bottom of the Japanese social order.

Ōkubo Toshimichi.

Saigō Takamori464px-Saigo_Takamori (1828 – 1877) – dubbed the “the last true samurai,” he was also a poet who wrote under the pseudonym Saigō Nanshū.  He played a key role in the abolition of the han system (warrior estates) which was replaced by the system of prefectures. He was also essential in the establishment of a conscript army.

Saigō Takamori.

Kido TakayoshiTakayoshi_Kido  (1833 – 1877) –  an imperial advisor who helped draft the “Five Charter Oath” that outlined the objectives and the course of action to be followed during Emperor Meiji’s reign.  He was especially interested in western educational systems and politics and advocated the establishment of a constitutional government.

Kido Takayoshi.

The three Japanese nobles, Ōkubo, Saigō, and Kido, are remembered for their legacy in forming a provisional government that paved the way for Japan to become one of the world’s greatest countries.

 

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Japanese Anime Favorites to Watch

  • Posted by:
  • September 2, 2014

Japanese anime is known for fantastic themes, colorful characters, and stellar graphics. It is considered a diverse art form that uses distinct methods and techniques in the production process that continues to evolve with new technologies. The anime industry in Japan is composed of more than 400 production studios in the country alone, and it has continued to gain significant international success over the years.

A recent survey by website Mynavi Woman asked Japanese anime fans what anime was their favorite that they can watch over and over again without getting bored. The top anime favorites included:

My Neighbor Totoro11057623395_c4d1a1ecfe_z (となりのトトロ Tonari no Totoro) –  a 1988 fantasy produced by Studio Ghibli, written and directed by Hayao Mizayaki. The anime is a tale set in post-war rural Japan,  about two young daughters of a professor and how they interact with friendly wood spirits.

My Neighbor Totoro. | jennifer Broun Conor 

Crayon Shin-chan (クレヨンしんちゃん Kureyon Shin-chan) originally a manga series written and illustrated by Yoshito Usui and later adapted into anime series that began airing on TV Asahi in 1992. It follows the adventures of a five-year old boy named Shin Nohara and his parents, baby sitter, dog, friends, and neighbors in Kasukabe city.

YuYu Hakusho ( (幽☆遊☆白書) “Ghost Files” or “Poltergeist Report,” originally a manga series written and illustrated by Yoshihiro Togashi initially serialized in  Shueisha Inc.’s Weekly  Shōnen Jump (a weekly shōnen manga magazine), from December 1990 to July 1994. It tells the story of Yusuke Urameshi, a teenage delinquent who was struck and killed in an automobile accident while he was attempting to save a child. Koenma, the son of the ruler of the afterlife, presented Yusuke with a number of tests and was subsequently revived and appointed an “Underworld Detective” where he investigates cases involving apparitions and demons in the human world.

Laputa: Castle in the Skyanimefave2 (天空の城ラピュタ Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta) –   an adventure anime written and directed yet again by Hayao Mizayaki, produced by Studio Ghibli and released in 1986. The backstory tells us that human civilization built flying cities that were destroyed by a catastrophic event. This led survivors to live on the ground except for Laputa who remained in the sky and is concealed within a powerful thunderstorm.

 Laputa: Castle in the Sky. | jennifer Broun Conor

Detective Conananimefave3 (名探偵コナン Meitantei Conan ) –  originally a Japanese detective manga series written and illustrated by Gosho Aoyama and later adapted into anime by Yomiuri Telecasting Corporation and TMS Entertainment. The story follows the adventures of the amateur detective, Jimmy Kudo, who transformed into a child while investigating the Black Organization (primary antagonists of the series).

Detective Conan. | Vandread Alpha

 

 

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Celebrate August Festivals in Japan

  • Posted by:
  • August 20, 2014

Many spectacular Japanese festivals or matsuri (祭) usher in the month of August. Here are August exciting festivals to celebrate:

Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuriaugfest1 (August 5–7) in Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture, is a relatively new festival, first celebrated in 1964. It attracts over a million spectators each year and is one of the major festivals of the Tohoku area (Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Yamagata, and Akita prefectures). Traditional taiko drummers, elaborately decorated floats, and over 10,000 dancers in traditional Japanese costumes parade through the streets of Yamagata city.

Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri. | f_a_r_e_w_e_l_l

Gujo Odori Dance Festival in Gujo City, Gifu Prefecture, is one of the three most celebrated dance festivals in Japan. The Japanese government has designated it a Significant Intangible Cultural Folk Asset.  The Gujo Odori Dance Festival dates back 400 years and became widely popular during the Edo period as a way to promote harmonious ties between rival classes—farmers, artisans, tradesmen, and warriors. Tetsuya Odori (August 13–16) is the highlight of the festivities. It runs for four nights and people dance all night long from evening until morning.

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri augfest2 in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture, is held each year on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year depending on either the solar or lunar calendar and the area in Japan. In some places the festival is celebrated in July; in others, August.  It is one of the largest, most famous celebrations in Japan.

Sendai Tanabata Matsuri. | Yuichi Shiraishi

Yamaga Toro Matsuri in Yamaga City, Kumamoto Prefecture, is held at Omiya-Shrine and is one of the greatest fire festivals in Japan. Kumamoto is also known as the “Land of Fire.” Other fire festivals are also celebrated in August in Kumamoto, such as the Kikusui-machi Kofun Matsuri (Kikusui-machi Burial Mounds Festival) in early August and  Hi-no-Kuni Matsuri (Land of Fire Festival) in mid-August. The origin of the festivals goes back to the ancient Japanese legend where the Emperor and his entourage could not travel any farther because of a thick fog. He was received by the villagers who held pine torches to light his path. Sennin Toro Odori is a re-enactment of the old legend and is truly a sight to behold.

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The Story of Tada Kasuke and His Curse

  • Posted by:
  • July 31, 2014

Japan has its full share of eventful moments and memorable people who have formed the country’s history.  One such person is well remembered in old Japanese stories and lives on in the tale of the curse of Tada Kasuke.

Tada Kasukekasuke3 (多田加助) led an appeal from all the farmers of Azumidaira, part of the Matsumoto Domain, from the magistrate’s office in Matsumoto during the Jōkyō era. His actions, along with other Japanese farmers, eventually led to the rebellion known as the Jōkyō or Kasuke Uprising.

As the story goes, Tada Kasuke was born in the late 1630s to a wealthy farmer’s family, as signified by the moats and mounds surrounding the Tada estate (signs of prominence and power in a Japanese clan). It is Japanese tradition that the head of the family inherits the title of headman of Nakagaya village.  When Tada Kasuke’s father retired, he took over the responsibility.  He was a well-educated man who strongly believed in the Wang Yangming school of Neo-Confusianism. (His school championed an interpretation of Mencius, a Classical Confucian who became the focus of later interpretation that unified knowledge with action.) Tada Kasuke was married to Otami, and he had two sons and three daughters. He also had an unmarried younger brother named Hikonojō.  In 1680, Tada Kasuke was stripped of his title as village head, because he was thought to be too lenient on the peasant farmers.

Tada Kasuke’s gravestone. | Koma5103

kasuke2Six years after Tada Kasuke was removed as the headman of Nakagaya village, the domain government of Matsumoto raised taxes exorbitantly. Azumidaira was still trying to get through the wave of crop failure that had hit their area, and the farmers were unable to meet tax payments.  In the fall of that year, Tada Kasuke and some farmer leaders met at Kumano Jinja in a series of gatherings. They decided to appeal to the magistrate’s office outside Matsumono Castle. The appeal consisted of five articles requesting to lower their taxes. Tada Kasuke and the farmers knew their lives would be at risk with their actions, but they hoped to resolve the matter peacefully and still opted to deliver the appeal on 4 October, 1686. When word got out that Tada Kasuke was going to deliver the appeal, thousands of peasants gathered at Matsumoto Castle, some storming into business establishments, robbing and attacking the merchants. The ensuing chaos is known today as the Jōkyō Uprising.

Matsumoto Castle. | Cyril Bèle

Mizuno Tadanao, the domain lord, was away in Edo, so the executives of the domain government had to deal with the restless farmers.  To pacify the people, on 18 October, five executives signed documents promising the farmers that taxes would be lowered. The farmers of Azumidaira thought that they had achieved their goal, but a month later, Tada Kasuke and others who had led and participated in the Jōkyō Uprising were arrested and executed, including Kasuke’s two young sons who were not even part of the uprising. The documents the executives signed were confiscated as well. All in all, 28 people were executed on 22 November 1686. Tada Kasuke’s final words before being executed was a passionate outcry to lower the taxes.

kasuke1After Tada Kasuke’s death, the Mizuno family began to experience a run of bad luck, attributed to the curse of Tada Kasuke. The ruling Mizuno clan was eventually dethroned from the Matsumoto Domain in 1725. The Toda clan took over and proclaimed Tada Kasuke Gimin (martyr, in a non-secular sense), and he was also given a kaimyō (afterlife name). The statue of Tada Kasuke that was initially erected in the castle was moved nearby where a shrine was built in honor of the Kasuke and all who died in the uprising.

Replica of Tada Kasuke’s statue. | Koma5103

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Shogi: Japanese Chess

  • Posted by:
  • July 24, 2014

Shogi (将棋), also known as the Generals’ Game, is a two-player strategy board game, probably the most popular native variant of chess in Japan. The Japanese city, Tendo, is known for producing shogi pieces since the Edo period—this is the traditional local craft in the area. The Ningen shogi or human shogi is a popular spring event when armored or kimono-clad people act as shogi pieces.

shogi1The history of shogi and how it first arrived in Japan is not entirely clear. From the Song Dynasty through the Ming Dynasty in China, there are stories that numerous trade convoys travelled along the southern islands and all around the Indian Ocean. They traded with Japan and other South Asian countries that could have influenced the development of shogi. The oldest documents that tell us of the existence of shogi is found in the seven-volume writings by Fujiwara Yukinari (972 – 1027), the Kirinshō.  The writings describe how to write the characters used for shogi pieces. Another piece of written documentation, the Shin Saru Gakuki (written sometime between 1058 to 1064 by Fujiwara Akihira), also contains passages  describing shogi. The earliest archeological evidence of shogi was excavated from Kōfuku-ji  in Nara Prefecture, where 16 wooden shogi pieces were found along with a wooden writing plaque dating back to 1058, indicating that the shogi pieces were of the same period. The pieces found also had a five-sided shape, were cut from a wooden writing plaque, and the symbols were written directly on the surface.

Shogi pieces. | Ishikawa Ken

shogi2Modern shogi (hon shogi), like the Japanese game go, was approved by the Tokugawa shogunate in a law giving endowments to shogi players and their families, iemoto (a system of familial generations in traditional Japanese arts), and giving themselves the title shogi-dokoro (places of shogi). Early known shogi playes were Kanō Sansa and Ōhashi Shūkei. During the reign of the eighth shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Yoshimune,  the castle shogi tournament was held each year on the 17th  day of Kannazuki. The corresponding day in the modern calendar would be the 17th of November and was designated as Shogi Day in Japan. During this time, the Meijin were the iemotos of shogi and were the ones responsible for the endowments. Over the course of the shogunate’s reign, the title meijin became the hereditary title of the Ōhashi family and the Itō family. Even today, the winner of the shogi competition is given this title. It is a tradition, now, for anyone who inherits the title of meijin to present a collection of shogi puzzles to the shogunate government.

Shogi game. | Alan

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Bonsai: An Elevated Art Form

  • Posted by:
  • July 21, 2014

bonsaihouse3The art form of bonsai (盆栽) has been a Japanese tradition for centuries. It originated from the Chinese tradition known as penjing (miniature landscapes of trees and rocks). The word bonsai was derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term for the art, penzai. Bon is a tray-like pot typically used for bonsai culture and sai means to plant. The art of bonsai focuses on the long-term practice of cultivating and shaping miniature trees that are grown in a container. The purpose of the art is to give the grower the opportunity to practice patience, effort, and ingenuity, and to give the viewer a chance to contemplate the artwork.

Azalea bonsai. | Grufnik

Bonsai displays should present certain aesthetics when displayed. For example, the viewer should be able to see all the important features of the tree from the most advantageous line of sight, the focal position should emphasize the bonsai’s defined front, and the bonsai should be placed at a height that allows the viewer to picture it as a full-sized tree when seen from a distance.

bonsaihouse1Bonsai trees are a wonderful way to spruce up any indoor space. However, Japanese artist Takanori Aiba has elevated the bonsai art form to another level. He not only cultivates and trims the miniature trees, but he also carves fantastic architectural wonders that add a whole new depth and dimension. Takanori Aiba began his career in 1978 as a freelance maze illustrator . He founded his own company, Graphics and Designing, Inc., in 1981. He talks about how he loved playing with model trains while growing up and how his interests shifted to bonsai. His idea to create intricate miniature tree houses began with putting soil, moss, and a tree branch inside a beer bottle and observing it from all angles in the palm of his hand. He imagined himself looking up at the bonsai branch standing on the moss. This gave him a clear, realistic vision of what he wanted to create.

Takanori Aiba. | Screengrab from YouTube video by ZeSSIV

Aiba’s miniature village bonsai creations show the depth of his artistic imagination and experience. The Lighthouse Series displays as much detail as can be seen in the two versions of suseiki, which are  small, naturally occurring rocks that have unique shapes resembling islands, waterfalls, or mountains. They perfectly reflect nature. They are standalone pieces but were incorporated into the bonsai Lighthouse Series. Aiba’s bonsai designs play on the relationship between man and nature. His art can be seen at Tokyo’s famous ninja restaurant and at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.

bonsaihouse2

Click image or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0M-Tsxd64Mg

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The Story Behind the Tanabata Festival

  • Posted by:
  • July 18, 2014

Tanabatatanabata1 (七夕), Evening of the Seventh, also known as the star festival, is traditionally held on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year. The festival celebrates the meeting of the Japanese deities Orihime and Hikoboshi. Based on the lunar calendar, the 7th month of the year is August, while the Gregorian calendar has July as the 7th month.  Tanabata is then celebrated either on July 7 or August 7 depending on the regions of Japan.  Empress Kōken introduced Tanabata to Japan in 755. Adapted from the Festival to Plead for Skills (Qixi festival) from China, Tanabata became popular among the Japanese during the Edo period when it was incorporated into various Bon or Obon traditions and later evolved into the modern Tanabata festival.

Tanabata festival. | Jeremy Eades

Tanabata festivaltanabata2 was inspired by the Chinese folktale, “The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd.” As the story goes, there was once a princess named Orihime (Weaving Princess) who was the daughter of Tentei (Sky King). Orihime knew that her father loved the cloth she weaved which was used to make beautiful clothes for her father. She spent most of her time weaving by the banks of the Amanogawa River (Milky Way). Tentei was saddened by the amount of time Orihime spent weaving, for she could never find the time to meet anyone and fall in love. So Tentei arranged for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi  (Cow Herder) who lived on the other side of Amanogawa. When the two met, they immediately fell in love with each other and married soon after. Once married, Orihime no longer weaved cloth for her father, and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to stray all over the heavens. This angered Tentei so much that he separated the couple using the Amanogawa River and forbade them to meet. Orihime cried and begged her father to allow her to meet Hikoboshi again. Tentei softened upon seeing his daughter’s tears and he allowed the couple to meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month if she finished her weaving duties, hence the tradition of celebrating Tanabata.

Tanabata decor. | Toshihiro Oimatsu

Tanabata traditions include hanging pieces of paper and other decorations on bamboo. The bamboo decorations are usually set afloat on a river and burned after the festival.

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