TWO GREAT FESTIVALS
There are two great Japanese festivals of which we have not yet spoken, but which are of the first importance. One is the New Year Festival, the other is the Bon Matsuri, the Feast of the Dead, in the summer. The New Year Festival is the great Japanese holiday of the year. No one does any work for several days, and all devote themselves to making merry. Although this festival comes in the middle of winter, every street looks like an arbour, decorated as it is with arches of greenery before each house. On either side of each door is a pine-tree and bamboo stems. These signify a hardy old age, and they are joined by a grass rope which runs from house to house along the street. This rope is supposed to prevent evil spirits from entering the houses, and so it ensures the occupants a lucky year. Japanese flags are entwined amid the decorations, and green feathery branches and ferns are set about, until the street looks like a forest.
Japanese people are so polite to each other that even the beggars in the streets bow to each other in the most ceremonious fashion, but at this festival the bowing is redoubled. There is a special form of greeting for this occasion, and not a bow is to be missed when two acquaintances meet.
There is much feasting and a great exchange of presents. The Japanese are always making presents to each other, and there is a prescribed way for every rank of life to make presents to every other rank, and for the manner in which the presents are to be received. A present may always be known by the little gold or red or white paper kite fastened to the paper string which ties up the parcel.
Every one enters into the fun of the time, from the highest to the lowest. They call upon each other; they march in great processions; they visit the gayest and liveliest of fairs; they feast; they drink tea and saké almost without ceasing. The fairs look most striking and picturesque after darkness has fallen. Then the streets and the long rows of white booths made of newly-sawn wood and gaily decorated, are lighted up by innumerable lanterns of every colour that paper can be painted, and of every size, from six inches high to six feet. The crowd wear their gayest kimonos, and the moosmes are brilliant in flowered or striped silks and splendid sashes, and the air is full of the rattle of the shuffling clogs and the tinkling samisen played in almost every booth.
At times the crowd opens to let some procession pass through. Now it is the dragon-dancers, the dragon's head being a huge and terrifying affair made of coloured pasteboard, and carried on a pole draped with a long garment which hides the dancer. In front march two men with drum and fife to herald the dragon's approach. Next comes a batch of coolies dragging a car upon which a swarm of masqueraders present some traditional pageant, and next a number of boys perform an old dance with much spirit and shouting. On New Year's Eve a very curious market is held. It is a custom in Japan for every one to pay all that he owes to his Japanese creditors before the New Year dawns. If he does not do so, he loses his credit. So on the last day of the Old Year the Japanese who is behind in his payments looks among his belongings for something to sell, and carries it to the market in order that he may gain a few sen to settle with his creditor.
In the great city of Tokyo this fair is visited by every traveller. For a space of two miles the stalls stretch along in double rows, lighted by lanterns of oil flares, and here may be seen every imaginable thing which is to be found in poorer Japanese households. As each Japanese arrives with his worldly possessions in a couple of square boxes swinging one at each end of a bamboo pole slung across his shoulder, he takes possession of a little stall or a patch of pavement and sets out his poor wares.
He has brought mats, or cushions, or shabby kimonos, or clogs, or socks, or little ornaments and vessels in porcelain or silver or bronze. Sometimes he brings really beautiful things, the last precious possessions of a family which has come down in the world--a fine piece of embroidery, a priceless bit of lacquer, bronze and silver charms, little boxes of ivory, temples and pagodas and bell-towers in miniature, tiny but perfect in every detail and of the most exquisite workmanship. Everything comes to market on this night of the year.
The Feast of the Dead takes place in the hot summer weather, and is celebrated in different ways in various parts of Japan. Everywhere the children, in their finest clothes, march through the streets in processions, carrying fans and banners and lanterns, and chanting as they march; but most great cities have their own form of celebration.
At Nagasaki the tombs of all those who have died during the past year are illuminated with large bright lanterns on the first night of the celebrations. On the second and third nights all tombs are illuminated, and the burial-grounds are one glorious blaze of many-coloured lights. The avenues leading to the burial-grounds are turned into fair-grounds, with decorations and booths, stalls and tea-houses, each illuminated by many brilliant lanterns. Fires are lighted on the hills, rockets shoot up on every hand, and vast crowds of people gather in the cemeteries to feast and make merry and drink saké in honour of their ancestors, whose spirits they suppose to surround them and be present at the festival. At the end of the feast a very striking scene takes place: the preparations for the departure of the dead.
"But on the third vigil, suddenly, at about two o'clock in the morning, long processions of bright lanterns are seen to descend from the heights and group themselves on the shores of the bay, while the mountains gradually return to obscurity and silence. It is fated that the dead should embark and disappear before twilight. The living have plaited them thousands of little ships of straw, each provisioned with some fruit and a few pieces of money. The frail vessels are charged with all the coloured lanterns which were used for the illumination of the cemeteries; the small sails of matting are spread to the wind, and the morning breeze scatters them round the bay, where they are not long in taking fire. It is thus that the entire flotilla is consumed, tracing in all directions large trails of fire. The dead depart rapidly. Soon the last ship has foundered, the last light is extinguished, and the last soul has taken its departure again from earth."