Shimizu's Tanabata Festival & My Cultural Blunder

Tanabata Matsuri, also known as the Star Festival is a pretty big event in Japan.  After having been here for so long I surprised myself that I actually haven’t ever been to a bigger Tanabata event.  A little history taken from my best friend Wikipedia:

“Originating from the Chinese Qixi Festival.[1"> It celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively). According to legend, the Milky Way separates these lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar. The date of Tanabata varies by region of the country, but the first festivities begin on 7 July of the Gregorian calendar. The celebration is held at various days between July and August”

The festival was much bigger than I expected and we ran into a lot of other ALT (assistant language teacher) friends who hit it up every year.  During this event, usually people will write wishes on long pieces of colorful paper and tie them to trees during the time of the festival.  Some of the common ones I found were:
“I want to lose weight”
“To stay healthy”
“I want to get/find a girlfriend or boyfriend”
“To win my next sports tournament”

Most of us decided to sport our yukata for the festival, and a friend of mine actually bought a Women’s Jinbei in Shimizu and wore it after buying it.  I find it interesting that jinbei (the men’s version of yukata) are becoming more and more common for women to wear these days.  Here’s a picture of her  fashioning her new jinbei:

(Later I actually bought one for myself to wear at a work drinking party because…why not!)

In regards to the cultural blunder, I made a stupid mistake that day and put my yukata on the wrong way.  I’m left handed so after following this Uniqlo tutorial video to help put on Yukata by ourselves, I realized that it would be much easier to just put it on in reverse since everything felt awkward because you know…being left handed in a right handed dominant world is tough!  I didn’t think much of it, but boy was I wrong.  It turned out, if you wrap the yukata right over left, you’re actually dressing yourself for burial.  Whoops.  I dressed myself that way without realizing what a huge cultural blunder I was making until I was literally manhandled by a stranger on a train who yelled “DA-ME” (bad!) in my face. She then proceeded to grab my clothes and tried to rip them off of me and yelled “DA-ME” at me again before running off the train for her stop. This is one of those things that has been filed into the “really really bad experiences I’ve had while living in Japan” tab.  The same thing happened again earlier (though she luckily didn’t touch me, I backed far away) though neither told me what was wrong and I was left feeling like I was about to cry and feeling ashamed.  And there I was stuck on a train leading to more possible “DA-ME’s” or other comments at the festival.  I did a quick google search and learned of my mistake and wanted to go home. Here’s the thing about living in Japan for so long, you actually start to feel the shame creep in instead of rolling it off your shoulder thinking “Ah well, it was just a mistake, how would I have known?”.  In the end, when my friend ended up buying her jinbei a nice lady in the store noted how pretty I looked in my yukata and said it must have taken me a long time to put it on, I hung my head and told her that I knew I had put it on wrong.  Then something magical happened, she told me that most Japanese ladies make the same mistake and it soothed the hell out of me, she then offered gently to help me fix my yukata upstairs in the dressing room and even commented on the rarity of the pattern of my yukata.  Faith in humanity was restored from that point and I felt like the day’s festivities were saved.

Just an FYI, I do not like to be touched IN GENERAL, and as much as maybe old ladies, or maybe just this specific old lady didn’t realize….YOU DON’T TOUCH STRANGERS.  In her defense, maybe she didn’t think I could understand Japanese so why bother explaining to me what I did wrong. And yeah, another argument could be she thought she was helping me.  To be honest though, it just scared me and her not knowing my personal space issues and then proceeding to touch me was just really really horrible. In the end my yukata was fixed, and I really learned a lesson about prior research or just following the tutorial to a T.  Thankfully, I felt like I had recovered from the shame of cultural misunderstanding and started to enjoy the festival from then on.

Item I learned that day:


And never again will I make that mistake…I hope haha.

Moving on, some of the things trending at the festival I noticed this year were these drinks put in plastic light bulbs with an added flashing light bulb key chain!  I bought one of course because I’m a sucker for those things.  It’s interesting how things can actually trend at festivals in Japan.

 We also found some Pickachu shaped “castellas”—>I’m not sure if they actually are spelled like this or if this is even a thing but it said “KA SU TE RA” in Japanese…so meh? They were really just little sweet freshly baked breads in Pikachu form.  Yum!

Another highlight was when my friend and I also got our hair done while we watched a DJ throw some EDM beats while his supporters swayed and jumped in an empty parking lot.  Basically, a local hair salon was showcasing their talent by offering to do yukata hairstyles for free (in this lot) so we waited in line and I got this awesome poofy side ponytail look while my friend got her hair braided like a princess.

Overall, the festival was a blast in the end.  I went home happy and felt comfortable in my yukata and new hair style.  Cultural mistakes happen when living and visiting in Japan, what’s important learning from those mistakes and moving on from them, just like any other mistake.  Cultural mistakes  just hit a bit harder.

Note: This event actually happened at the end of July 2017. I’ve just been really really slow posting these days. Apologies!

Michele Tanabe