where the writers are
Behind Bonbori

August 2006 (unedited version)

Behind Bonbori   

The week before, my classmates of Japanese novel writing made a plan for Bonbori Festival.   We’ll meet at 7 pm on Aug. 8th at the Kamakura station.  If it rains, we’ll meet on 9th instead.

 Our class is led by Masao Nemoto, a successful editor.  He was the editor of several literary magazines for many years.  He published many hard-cover books including “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto.  The class meets two or three times a month at the Yokohama Lumine building.  We read each other’s stories and critique, and after each class, we go to the same pub downstairs and drink beer or oolong tea, eat shumai, and chit chat. 

This chit chat is the highlight of my monthly schedule.  We also discuss online about writing, Japanese writers, what’s happening in Japan’s literary world, and of course, hot literary awards. 

Awards are like festivals.  They’re fun.  I’ve learned from this group that there are many generous literary awards in Japan, and this year, the amount of $200,000.00 (approximately) topped all the awards.  This is the largest amount ever given to an unknown writer.  I love Japan for it.

Like awards, I also love Japan for loving festivals.  Festivals appear to be casual events, and most awards seem formal to semi-formal.  I can’t help thinking in this way maybe because of my mother.  She was a tea-ceremony teacher.  She died ten years ago.  I’ll write about her some other time. 

In tea-ceremony, we have three levels of presentation.  Formal, semi-formal, and less formal: shin, gyō, sō.   

And talking of formal presentations, Q-ko calls and tells me about a flower-arrangement exhibit during Bonbori Festival.  She is an old friend of mine and a native of Kamakura.  I’ve been her close friend ever since she gave up her Beatles` ticket to me in 1966.

Q-ko has been volunteering behind Bonbori for years.  On August 8th, she says, her flower arrangement will be on display at the left structure next to the Maiden in Hachimangu. 

She has been practicing the Jodai-Koryu flower arrangement for more than 40 years.  Her mother is a Jodai-Koryu teacher, and Q-ko`s daughter practices it, too.  A few months ago, I went to see Q-ko`s flower arrangement at the Kamakura station.  The display case faces the east exit of the station and stands at the entrance of the corridor that leads to the bathrooms.  We were standing in front of the case, talking.  Passengers rush past us and the flowers. 

I asked her, “How often do you arrange your flowers for the station?”  

“Twice a year,” Q-ko said.

“Only twice?”

She nods. 

I thought she did more often than that because time to time I had heard her mother has been arranging flowers there.   That sounded to me as though they’ve been the keeper of the display.  Besides, they used to live a minute away from the station.

“You mean only two days a year?”

 “Yup, it’s very competitive to get your own turn.” 

“You mean it’s that prestigious?”

“Everyone wants to get in.”

“I see.”

I thought the city government has been paying for the flowers, but those traditional artists have been paying their own flowers and provide their own valuable vase and go out of their way to show their designs. 


Over the phone, I tell Q-ko about this English language article I’ll be working on and about my class trip to the festival. So we decide to meet on 8th and have tea between her duties of protecting the display.  And in the evening, I’ll meet my novel classmates and watch bonbori lanterns.  

“I’ll call you in the morning and let you know what time I can get out of my duty,” Q-ko says.

“Maybe we can have late lunch,” I say.  “I hope it won’t rain.”

Then the 8th comes, and it’s raining.  It’s a typhoon.   This is not good.

Q-ko calls me and says she’ll find out if it gets cancelled or not.  There seems to be a hope, I’m thinking. 

A phone rings again.

“It is cancelled,” Q-ko says. 

“Oh, no.  If it stops raining, do they bring out lanterns?” I say.

“I don’t think so.  It isn’t easy to bring 400 papered lanterns in and out.”

“Right.  Gee, I’m disappointed.”

“Miko-san have to light one lantern at a time and put them out, too.”

Miko-san can be singular or plural.  Shinto priests` assistants who wear white tops and red trouser-like bottoms come out of the shrine around 6 pm and light all the candles.  That’s too many candle lighting and blowing if they have to put them out and in.  We can’t control the weather.  We can only pray.  

Q-ko is now talking low.  Her voice goes up and down.

“Are you walking?” I say.

“Yes, I’m on my way to Hachiman-sama,” Q-ko says, “Now that Bonbori got cancelled, we have to go back and wrap them up early.”

“Oh, no.  That’s too bad.  Wrapping up without showing the display to anyone?” I say.

“Can’t help it.  I just go and dismantle the display.  That’s all,” she says as though she would be dismantling the display as soon as she reaches to Hachimangu.  Perhaps her fellow flower practitioners are already dismantling their displays as we are speaking now. The rain is hitting my window panes. 

I search for a word of encouragement but can’t find it.

“I wonder if the festival is off tomorrow, too,” I say.

 “You can call the Kamakura tourist association tomorrow and find out yourself,” she says.

Her voice has gone up a few notches.  It sounds to me as if she said, “Who cares about tomorrow?   My big day is today.”  She probably called a taxi last night, went to Hachimangu and arranged her flowers.  I picture her in a taxi, holding her flowers and tall vase, and the straps of her large Mary-Poppin bag dangling from her shoulder.  But she is now hurrying back to Hachimangu to put away her flowers without a chance to show.  What a waste.   I felt bad for Q-ko and the flowers.

After I hung up, I wrote a message to the novel class and let the members know that Bonbori is officially off.  Then I called Q-ko back.

“I’ll go see you right now,” I say.

“You’re coming?”  Her voice bounces. 

 “You haven’t put away your flowers, have you?” I say.

 “No, not yet.”

“Good.  Please don’t put it away.  I want to see it.”

“Oh, okay,” Q-ko say, “then I wait for you here.  I can get out of my duty at 1 pm.” She hangs up.

I wonder what kind of duty she has now, but I don’t ask because I’ll find out when I get there.  I shut down my system and change my clothes.  I want to tell the classmates that I’m heading to Kamakura.  But the system is already down, and booting up XP is a slow process.   Well, that’s okay.  I can go to Kamakura again tomorrow. 

The rain subsides while I ride in a subway and JR train.  But still, I open my apricot- color umbrella outside the station.  Drizzling Kamakura is the way I like it.  Not crowded and not too hot in summer.  I stroll through the tree-lined center road to Hachimangu.   Cicadas` incessant cries tingle in my brain.  I hear nothing else.  

I feel at home.

On the farther left, a young couple is wetting their hands at the fountain.  I walk over and pick up a ladle.  Water is overflowing from a large stone tub.  It’s so good to see clear water running against old stone.  I pour some water from the ladle on my left hand, then on my right, and think that I used to drink this kind of water at shrines long ago.  I touched my lips with my fingers and returned the ladle. 

When I walk up to Hachimangu, I’m glad and surprised to look at a long wooden structure at the left corner.  Everything seems normal, and beautiful flower arrangements sat in two rows.  I look around and find Q-ko sitting on a square bench with four other middle-aged women.  We smile and bow from a distance.    She comes over. 

“Wow, your display is stunning,” I say.

“Thank you,” Q-ko says.

 “They are all gorgeous.  The flowers stand out without bonbori.  The rain helped the colors, too.  They look so fresh and vivid.”

I won’t dwell on my questions because everything seems normal and happy.   I focus on her flower arrangement called oseika.  It’s a formal design.  I love that sophisticated simplicity like a fine haiku.  I appreciate her training all these years and come to this point.  A few bushy plants stood straight up and tiny white bell-like flowers peek out from dark green leaves.  As I look at the display structure, the formal oseika flowers stood one level above, and the semi-formal arrangements sat at the bottom.  The display sends the air of autumn.  They make me feel cooler and long for autumn. 

“Q-ko, the flowers here are all native plants, aren’t they?”

She only nods her head.

She explains little. 


For some reason, I thought that all the Q-ko`s friends were dismantling their flowers while she was talking on her cell phone.  I had also thought that Q-ko`s flowers arrangement could be the only one waiting for me.  I was wrong.  The exhibit seemed normal, and of course, I was happy for that. 


Q-ko clicks her cell phone and takes pictures for me.  We meander around the Hachimangu ground.  Then we stroll back to the station to have lunch at my favorite restaurant.  We’ve been coming to this local spot for years and eat the same food.  It’s called three-color bento.  

The sky clears, and umbrellas disappear.  But the bonbori lanterns won’t light up.    I decide to take more walk before I leave, so we return together to the exhibit. 

“Q-ko, I’ll go to the cafeteria for a while and leave later,” I say. 

“I have things to do,” she says.

“Never mind about me.  I’ll write for a while, and before I leave I want to see the flowers again.”

She says nothing.

The time is after 3:30 pm.  I order a cup of coffee and begin writing.  A cafeteria worker comes and tells me she is closing.  Already?  I wonder why the workers do not tell their closing time to the customers coming in within 30 minutes of closing.  Two American women nearby are rushing themselves to eat up their food.  They came in after me.  I come out and walk to the display structure.  All the flowers are gone.  I walk over to Q-ko.

“You’re wrapping up already?  Why didn’t you tell me?” I say.

“I told you we’re wrapping up early,” she says with a surprise look. 


“I have a clean up to do now, so I can’t be with you,” Q-ko says.

“That’s fine.”

Maybe I should have asked her what she meant by early until she says actual time, 10 am or 4 pm.  I wonder why she didn’t tell me they were closing at 4 pm when she called me in the morning or when we were walking back from lunch at 3:30 pm.   

 So I took bus and return home. 

My phone rings.  It’s about 7 pm.  It’s my classmate.

“It’s too bad the festival got cancelled.  I was there today.  I just got home.”

“You might not have seen my message, but we decided to meet up anyway.”

“Oh, no.  I should have stayed on. ”

So this is my story.  I went to Bonbori Festival and didn’t see any bonbori.

But my novel classmates did see some lighted bonbori by celebrities.  One member took a few picture-perfect photos to prove it!   She said the number of lanterns shown in the picture of the stairs is close to the actual number she had seen on Aug. 8, 2006.

Because this is the last paragraph of this article, I go back to the beginning of Bonbori Festival.  A group of writers who lived in Kamakura started it in 1938. Yasunari Kawabata, a Nobel Prize winner, is one of them.  They wanted to energize the culture.  The purpose rooted, and their spirit grew.  Bonbori Festival will go on.