Finally the holidays are here! Classes are drawing to a close, you have more free time than you can wave a stick at and the humidity has finally reached a level where you begin to wonder if jumping into the school pool would actually make any difference. It also means it’s summer festival season, so dust off those yukata, crack out the geta sandals and let’s get into it.
Japan is a country that loves a good festival, aka matsuri, and there’s one for everything. From the massive nationwide events like Obon, to city specialties like Daimonji Gozan Okuribi in Kyoto on the 16th of August (seriously, they set a mountain on fire), to the little local town festivals that pop up every other weekend during the holidays. Festivals are everywhere and they are a wonderful opportunity for you to get in and have a wonderfully authentic Japanese cultural experience.
Generally speaking, summer matsuri are remarkably similar to the local town fairs of our respective homelands. Often, there are local cultural performances like taiko drums, traditional dance troupes, Japanese folk singers and traditional Japanese orchestras, as well as some of the more interesting displays like salsa dancers, hawk hunting and hip hop artists. There are rows of street stalls selling all kinds of interesting cuisine like karaage, cotton candy, sausages, ice cream, chicken cartilage, taiyaki, yakisoba and many other unique treats. You can also find various side show games if you wish to try your hand at catching gold fish, lucky dips and numerous other skill tester games.
The festivals are a chance for everyone to wear their yukata and spend time with friends or family. The areas will be teeming with people meandering from stall to stall: gaggles of school girls in coordinated outfits giggling over any and every thing, old men chatting over beer, couples on dates making puppy eyes, families introducing their young ones to the delights of their culture and packs of grandmothers commandeering space with militaristic precision in order to catch up on the weekly gossip.
You don’t have to worry if you don’t have a yukata either. They aren’t a requirement for attendance but they are fun to wear. If you want to buy your own, you can easily purchase one for around 6000 yen in a local department store or cheaper still at the likes of second hand or bargain shops like Don Quixote. Personally, I bought mine from www.kimono-yukata-market.com as I’m on the taller and rubenesque side of things. You can also get one custom made at a yukata shop but it will definitely cost you a pretty penny depending on the fabric and fit.
A festival is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to simply enjoy being in Japan and soak up the culture, people and day to day life. They are a chance to indulge, socialize and connect with a part of Japan that is often hidden away from the main tourist traps. So if you hear word of a festival nearby, be it from your co-workers, fellow JETs or advertisements, I highly recommend you go. I can guarantee the experience is one you will treasure.
Photos courtesy of Alan Lau