I never got to see a hanami fireworks festival in Japan. The first year it was so hot and I wasn’t used to the heat, so standing outside in the humid hot night air getting bitten by mosquitos didn’t thrill me. Summer arrives in packs of fireworks in the shops, origami crafts for Tanabata in July, and neat stacks of summer yukata style informal kimono for sale at the Japanese equivalent of Walmart – Seiyu. The fireworks in Japan are old-school, many of them to be held in your hand, not just sparklers, lots of squibs. They are not strictly controlled, but no one misbehaves with them, not even the most mischievous of schoolboys.
Fireworks, or fire-flowers, as the Japanese named them, were imported to Japan by a British merchant and a Chinese trader, introduced to the fearsome Ieyasu, the first Shogun leader of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled from 1603 until the Meiji period of 1868. The Sumida fireworks are a longstanding tradition, they are launched over the Sumida River in Tokyo, near the huge shrine in Asakusa.
I never seemed to make it to Hanami, I was sick, I was busy, I was working, I had little kids…I had larger kids. Then finally when the children were old enough, and it was time to hit Asakusa and watch the fireworks blossom over the Sumida, I was simply not allowed to go by a husband who had taken it upon himself to control my every move. I would hear the noise in the distance, stand on the balcony with the kids, straining to see a flash of fire in the sky. It was hopeless, any displays were simply too far away to see.
Listening to the men outside, banging together batons on their occasional community fire patrols – the Yomawari, yelling as they went, shouting beware of fire, as they weave through the streets, an excuse to gather and drink later, having done a good job, I suspect, listening to the call of the man selling baked sweet potatoes from his cart, the fireworks and the dog next door, who seemed to bark in Japanese – this dog actually said WAN WAN, not ruff ruff, I used to get an uneasy sense of being a traveler in a totally alien land which never really went away.
These were not the ambient sounds and smells of my youth, of cities in Western countries, Tokyo with the sweet caramel burnt of the purple sweet potatoes, the crackle of eel on charcoal grills with the thick salty sweet sauce waiting for customers on charcoal skewers, the streets with the cats sitting on cushions and the twang of koto music or enka coming from small shops selling everything from geta to barrels of sweet roasted soy bean flour and hard boiled candies. I get a strange deep longing to return. I can’t separate this longing from a longing for both my children and a time when they were young. I can’t separate this longing from memories making Tanabata folded paper streamers and lanterns with two small children, fingers sticky with glue, carefully cutting slits in origami sheets, and decorating them with glitter. We cut out strips of paper to hang on a bamboo tree with wishes written on them. My daughter had written “I wish we could leave Japan and all be safe together.” My little son had written “inu” which means dog. I didn’t manage to get the dog, I tried to get them out safely with me. Their father didn’t tell them the stories of Japan that other children were told by their families, so I told them instead.
“Once upon a time there was a Princess, her name was Orihime, she was a seamstress and a weaver and wove beautiful clothes on the banks of the Heavenly River, which is the place we now call the Milky Way. Her father was a Kami, a God, and when he heard her crying because she feared she would never find love because she was always weaving and sewing. Because he loved her very much, he introduced her to Hikoboshi, the Celestial Cow Herder. They fell so deeply in love that Orihime didn’t weave, and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to wander the heavens.
Orihime’s father became so angry at their laziness he forbade them married couple to be together. Orihime became despondant so her father allowed the star crossed lovers to meet on the seventh day of the seventh month every year. This day is Tanabata. On the first day they were allowed to meet, they could not get across the Celestial River, it was too hard to cross, so magpies came and made them a bridge so they could meet. If it rains on Tanabata, the magpies won’t come and the lovers have to wait another year for the chance to meet.”
They sat there with their lanterns in their hands, to light Hikoboshi’s way, the paper streamers and the little magpie origami we had tried to make, and listened to the story. Girl sat up straight and told me she would have refused. How could he! Meanie! Boy shook his head, and stuffed another piece of candied rice into his mouth. “Sometimes you have to do what your parent’s say, sometimes it is for the best, sweetheart. We know the dangers better than you do.” She pouted. She never did listen to me.
Sometimes we would go buy a pack of squibs and take them to the park, throwing them on the floor to go POP like we were ninja in a castle. Sometimes we would walk to a big park or take the train there, and eat onigiri rice balls under a tree, burning hot in the humid summer heat, legs pocked with mosquito bites. We would buy frozen bottles of salty lychee drink and hold them against our necks. I had two kites, they were shaped like birds of pray. We would take them out if there was a breeze and let them fly high in the Tokyo air, then run back to the air-conditioning, close the curtains to shut out the bright sun, and try and not pass out from heat. Ok, so it was just me that would have to try and not faint in the midsummer heat. I have never been able to take that much heat. I would stand on the crossing and shut my eyes and imagine I was in a snow storm somewhere cold, holding two little hands. I loved them both so dearly.
Summer is on the way. There will be no Tanabata in San Francisco, instead it is dodge the violent racists who want to hit my son for being Asian. There will be no fireworks this year, except the ones the street people and the thugs hurl at each other in anger. There will be no frozen bottles of lychee drink, no Girl. There will be no stories. No roasted soy bean flour to dip water cakes into. I love San Francisco, I couldn’t survive in Japan. I love this place with it’s hills and it’s diversity and it’s spirit of the beat poets, and its bookshops and baseball teams and fog. Dear San Francisco, could you please be a little more gentle with us? Ill make some Tanabata streamers in July to write our wishes for the future on, and we can hang them from a bamboo tree. You might find that if you embrace your Asian citizens and their families again, there is some beauty to be found in the healing.