I meet my friend Eriko and her six-year-old daughter, Amy, to go to the Higashi-Zushi Tanabata festival. There are large Tanabata festivals in other Japanese cities, but this will be a modest neighborhood event.

Amy is excited to show off her patterned pink yukata (festival kimono) with a bright yellow obi tied in a big bow in the back. Instead of the traditional geta (wooden clogs), she is wearing a pair of hot pink Crocs.

It’s dusk and the air has started to cool down after a very muggy day. We walk down the hill to a small fairground area, a dusty patch of worn grass. There’s a large crowd for the size of the area, mostly families with children, many of the young girls wearing pink yukata. Boys are screeching and smashing each other in the head with plastic blow-up swords. I feel a wave of claustrophobia at the high-pitched squeal-chatter of so many children. I breathe and relax into the chaos.

We’re here to celebrate Tanabata, an ancient festival imported from China to Japan. It used to be tied to the lunar calendar, but now is celebrated on July 7 and the weekend before. The story: Weaving Princess Star (Orihime, or Vega) and Pulling Cows Star (Hikoboshi, or Altair) are a celestial husband and wife who neglected their duties (i.e., weaving, minding cows) after they were married. As a punishment, they were separated and put on either side of the River of Heaven (Milky Way) by Orihime’s father, the Sky God. If they work hard during the year and get their work done, they are allowed to meet once a year, ferried across the river by a celestial boatman or, in other versions of the story, some magpies. Apparently, if it rains, the couple can’t cross the river and has to wait another year.

The air at the little festival smells sweet with an undertone of grilled chicken. Festival tents line two sides of the area. The food tents sell yakitori (three sticks for 200 yen, one each of chicken thigh, chicken meatballs, and chicken skin), yakisoba, cotton candy, mizuame (flavored gooey sugar on sticks), grilled corn (with a sauce of mirin, soy sauce, and sugar), and grilled squid heads impaled on a stick, the top of the head maintaining a suggestive flared shape. A pizza van with a built-in wood-fired oven offers tiny gourmet pizzas, which we find out later are quite delicious.

Other tents offer games like scooping up live goldfish or small rubber balls floating in water, gambling with giant styrofoam dice, and fishing with a bamboo rod, a string line, and a paperclip hook for prizes. One tent sells live two-inch-long Japanese rhinoceros beetles in clear plastic boxes padded with sawdust. Eriko tells me young boys enjoy organizing beetle battles.

Eriko’s friends arrive with their daughters—classmates of Amy—and the three girls together are animated, chatting with their faces close together.

Our group makes one circuit of the offerings. We buy some drinks and yakitori, and find seats at some tables set up in front of a stage. For now there is no performer. The sound system is playing Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Eriko catches the smile on my face and laughs.

The small stage is decorated on either side with two very large bamboo branches with green leaves. Hanging from the branches are fluttering slips of paper (green, purple, pink, orange, blue, red, yellow, and white) with handwritten wishes on them. The wishes are children’s hopes for the future: “I want to become a model,” “I want to become a good dancer,” “I want to play the piano well.” I turn to Amy and one of her friends, “What do you wish?” They agree: they both want to become princesses.

The next song is “Theme from the Godfather.” I sit watching the Japanese girls in pink. I notice an old man in jimbei, a Japanese man’s traditional summer outfit with shorts and a wrap-around top. No other man at the festival is wearing traditional Japanese dress, and we women agree that it’s a shame. A tall teenaged girl in a blue yukata walks by very elegantly. Her hair is tied up with ribbons and her neck is long and very smooth.

Three high school boys set up at the mikes on stage. One has a guitar and they are all three dressed in faux-gangsta boy-band style. They tell the crowd that they have been singing together since elementary school. The crowd in front of the stage already knows this, in fact knows them well, and cheers wildly. They begin to sing to a music track, but the vocals are live—high-level karaoke. The first song is a pop song I don’t recognize, and the chorus repeats in English: “Summer party, summer party, summer party.”

Eriko, her friends, and the little girls head off to play some of the games. I stay to listen to the band and save our seats. The boys sing a ballad. The night air is cool and I have a strong feeling of nostalgia, a memory of being back in the U.S. at the county fair in summer. I can smell the hay and dust and fried dough and sugar. The teenage fans of the band remind me of being in a group, shuffling around the fair, feeling a mixture of excitement at being out at night and disappointment with the scene. We longed to be noticed.

The third song is a slightly punk-inspired number that gets the audience very excited. The band’s friends laugh and applaud certain lines of the lyrics. I have no idea what they are singing. Next to the stage two older men with lined faces grin with detachment at the scene as they sit smoking; one has a small white towel draped around his neck.

The last song is another pop number. The chorus is unintentionally funny: “We wish you a happy rife.” I try to be mature about it, but I crack up.

In the night air, with the applause of the crowd and the colorful wishes fluttering in the breeze, somehow this line makes perfect sense. I feel rife with—what I don’t know—but it’s copious.

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