Odori, a video by Kurt EasterwoodI finished the video below a few days before the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and has caused so much destruction and loss of life. It didn’t seem appropriate at the time to mention it.

As I’ve written about before in these pages, there is “something ethereal, something dreamlike” about the Japanese Bon Odori festival which takes place typically in August every year. No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite capture its essence in any other form than my own mental wanderings. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to try and try again.

That chronicler of so many things Japanese at the turn of the century, Lafcadio Hearn (known to those in Japan as Koizumi Yakumo), wrote a beautiful essay about the Bon Odori that perhaps comes closest to capturing how this festival makes me feel (you can find it in the collection, Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan, or here):

Under the wheeling moon, in the midst of the round, I feel as one within the circle of a charm. And verily this is enchantment; I am bewitched, bewitched by the ghostly weaving of hands, by the rhythmic gliding of feet, above all by the flitting of the marvellous sleeves– apparitional, soundless, velvety as a flitting of great tropical bats. No; nothing I ever dreamed of could be likened to this.

Even Hearn’s essay, through the voice of Akira, a young Buddhist acolyte accompanying Hearn, acknowledges that “you will see the Bon-odori danced here as it is never danced in cities–the Bon-odori of ancient days….[I]n the cities all is changed.”, and undoubtedly our local Bon Odori is even more removed from that which Hearn wrote about. It is as tacky and provincial as the cotton candy and tilt-a-whirls of my American childhood. But its charms are a part of the Japan I live in, a part of the Japan I never want to leave.

How to split the watermelon, cleanly, brightly, ちゃんと

The other night we and a couple of other families were doing fireworks in the park, something of an annual summer ritual, especially for Japanese young folk. (As an aside, it was something of a tradition for me and my brother as well, growing up in Hawaii, to set off fireworks and sparklers at New Years and on the 4th of July, but I believe one can no longer do that anymore — those Chinese firecrackers were pretty dangerous, come to think of it). Do some fireworks with the kids and you’re guaranteed to hear at least one Japanese adult say 懐かしい匂い (natsukashii nioi, or “this smell brings back memories”) as fireworks smoke wafts past.

Anyway, after a while of the kids doing short-lived sparklers, a group of about seven young women showed up at the park near to where we were situated, and proceeded to enact another Japanese summertime ritual, one I had never seen before, called スイカ割り(suika-wari, lit. splitting a watermelon).

Young women doing suika-wari

As you can see from the photos, it’s similar to the Mexican tradition of the piñata that children try to crack open with a stick while blindfolded and which eventually yields a rainfall of candy when opened. (Coincidentally, another tradition that featured in my brother and I’s upbringing). I gather, from various internet postings, that usually this watermelon game is done at the beach, but these girls were improvising. Anyway, it was quite humorous to watch none of them come very close at all to splitting the watermelon, and I wandered over to take some photos, only to then be invited to participate.

After some prodding from Naoko and others I eventually joined in the fun, and was surprised to see how dizzy one can get from just spinning around the requisite three times (mind you, I had had a couple of beers as well up to this point achat cialis pas cher). I felt a bit like a madman with this stick and the blindfold, and I think I look something like one in the photo below that Naoko took. In the end, as the girls guided me with verbal “this way, no that way”‘s, I came within a few inches of the watermelon but alas, no cigar.

Looking like a madman, in search of a watermelon

Eventually another of our party successfully nailed the watermelon and split it in two. I thought this would deflate the girls but they couldn’t have been happier that one of the invited guests, as it were, had struck the watermelon. They proceeded to break it up into small pieces with the help of Kaika and the other kids (truth be told, Kaika was a bit wary of the whole thing, I mean, all those young women were a bit daunting for him) and everyone pigged out and enjoyed being a pig as well (see the rest of the photos here).

The scene of the crime

After the watermelon feast had run its course and lots of cellphone pics of kawaii kids and peace signs, the girls brought out some fireworks and proceeded to do those with the kids (sparklers only), and even did some limbo with the watermelon stick, and a bit later had a bit of fun with a variation of a water balloon fight. These girls clearly knew how to have some good clean fun.

I honestly couldn’t tell if these girls were junior high school or high school kids, or in college (except for the youngest, who was 9, I heard her say), but later someone told me they were high school kids. But what struck me was how, hmmn, what’s the right word for it….how mature they were, or how responsible. No, that makes them sound a bit cheerless, which they were anything but. Maybe “upstanding” or “decent” fits better. In Japanese, ちゃんとしている (chanto shiteiru). I wasn’t the only one who noticed this, others in our group commented about this as well, and one of the Japanese in our group suspected they were part of the same high school club or sports team from the way they acted.

For starters, they were organized. When the fireworks were produced, I saw one of them tell the nine-year-old (her sister, perhaps?) to get water, and this young girl grabbed the bottom half of a two-liter plastic water bottle — prepared just for the occasion? — from her bicycle basket and filled it up at a drink faucet, so there would be a receptacle to douse the sparklers in after they finished sparkling. (I had to smart a little at that one, considering our group had just been putting them on the ground in a central area). When they left a couple of hours later, there was no trace of their presence, everything — the watermelon, the sparklers — had been cleaned up and disposed of.

They were responsible, in fact. And they really looked after the kids. They seemed to me to take selfless pains to make sure each of the kids (there were three, including Kaika) got to try the sparklers and that no one was feeling neglected and that it was all being done safely so no one would get accidentally harmed. Any of them would be an ideal babysitter.

Later, a few minutes after we had said goodbye to them and thanked them for including us and our kids in their fun, they came up to us as a group and bowed en masse with a chorus of こちらこそ!’s (kochira koso, or “No, thank YOU,” or more formally, “The pleasure is mine.”). Very touching. Maybe these were the squarest kids in Japan (I kind of doubt it, of course), but there was something quite heartwarming about a bunch of high school girls, hanging out in a Tokyo city park at 9, 10 o’clock at night, doing nothing more untoward than smashing open a watermelon and lighting sparklers for kids.

One needs these little “makes you glad to live where you live” moments once in a while….

Shooting Fireworks

Hanabi close-up composite, August 5, 2006

(Above posted with a debt to Antipixel, whose composite from 4 years ago gave me the idea).

We make it an annual occurrence to go to the Toda – Itabashi Fireworks Festival which is held on the Arakawa River that forms the border between Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture, where we live. (We’ve only missed one, the year Kaika was born.) The last two years, thanks to our friends on the Tokyo side of the river who do the hard work of staking out a good viewing spot a week in advance, we’ve viewed it from Itabashi. (As ostensibly this fireworks festival is a “tournament” I suppose that means we’ve actually been turning our backs on our home side (Toda) these last couple of years.)

Anyway, this year I decided I would actually take photos of the fireworks, with the digital SLR and a battery of lenses in tow, along with the indispensible tripod. I even googled a few websites to figure out how it’s done, having never seriously attempted to shoot fireworks before. Not sure this time can really qualify as “serious” though, given the cans of beer and snacks that were being consumed, not to mention kids who just wouldn’t sit still (go figure!). In fact, I was so serious about the enterprise that I didn’t even noticed I had knocked the lens out of focus at one point and took about a hundred worthless photos that way.

Nevertheless, there was something nice and unhurried about the process of pressing the shutter (via a cable release) and then letting go a couple of seconds later (or one second later, acheter kamagra, or perhaps three — I wasn’t counting really), trying to capture the bursts of the various fireworks. I gave up fiddling with lenses after a while, settling on the 24mm (40mm on the digital), and barely paid attention to the LCD display except to check positioning. The fireworks in Japan go on so long (this particular festival lasted just over 90 minutes) that one is bound to capture something nice to look at over the course of a given night.

Should you find yourself at a fireworks festival this summer and would like to take some photos, here’s a recap of the advice I gleaned from various sites and my actual experience on the night:

    *Bring a tripod. There’s no way around this one, really. Keep the lens focused at infinity. (Put the lens in M-manual mode, but periodically check it to make sure you didn’t accidently knock it off its infinity setting, like ahem yours truly.)
    *Shoot at 100 ASA, on “bulb” setting, with your aperture somewhere between f/8 and f/16. (Looking at my exif data, it seems I was on f/13 most of the night.)
    *Using your cable release (another necessary item), begin your shot at the moment the given firework starts to burst, and keep it open anywhere between 1 and 3 seconds. Don’t sweat it too much. (Surprisingly the Canon Digital Rebel XT exif data notes the shutter speed on “bulb”-setting shots, but only rounded off to the second, eg. “1 sec”. At any rate, it seems most of mine were taken around the 2 second mark. On the other hand, a few that were shot at 5 seconds look great too.)
    *Use your “levels” adjustment in your photo-editing software to darken the shadows (making the dark night background even darker and making the digital noise — like grain in film — less noticeable), and lighten the highlights (making the actual burst pop out a bit more). Use “trial and error” here, and don’t overdo it.

Click the above composite to see the photos. Also, I turned the composite horizontally and made a desktop wallpaper out of it should you be so inclined:

Hanabi Wallpaper 1024 x 768 (.jpg, 272K)
Hanabi Wallpaper 1280 x 1024 (.jpg, 415K)