It’s been a while since my last post and my sorry excuse is summer. Tokyo summers are hot, sticky and frankly, disgusting. The mercury rarely rises above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), but with humidity averaging 70%, even sitting still in the shade will leave you drenched in sweat. In Australia, we can’t wait for summer because it means days at the beach, barbecues, t-shirts and thongs (flip-flops for our North American readers). In Japan, I can’t wait for summer to end.
However, there’s one thing I love about Japanese summers that almost makes all of the horribleness worth it — natsu matsuri (summer festivals). There are a hundreds, if not thousands, of festivals that take place across the country between June and September. Some are large-scale events that hold a permanent fixture on the nation’s calendar; others are small local affairs run by neighborhood retirees.
My first summer festival was Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. Every year, thousands of people from all over Japan travel to the northern tip of Honshu (Japan’s main island) to experience this summer spectacle. For the public, the main drawcard is the giant handmade lanterns that are pulled through the city on heavy wooden floats. For the locals, it’s the sheer exhilaration of jumping up and down for 2 hours in extreme heat to chants of “Ra-se-ra! Ra-se-ra!” and the beat of huge taiko drums. Aomori Nebuta Matsuri is a beautiful and impressive festival; definitely worth the journey if you happen to find yourself in Japan at the beginning of August.
My favorite Tokyo summer festival is the Koenji Awaodori Matsuri, which takes place in the inner-city suburb of Koenji in late August. I adore everything about this festival from its unusual dance styles to its fierce taiko drummers, from its brightly colored costumes to its spirited energy. I also love that it’s held in Koenji, an area known for its alternative culture, and the diverse crowd it draws as a result.
These festivals remind me of the Japan I fell in love with — a place where ancient and modern are one; a culture that places a high value on aesthetics; and a people that are strong, passionate and proud.
So, if you find yourself stuck in Japan during the summer months, seek out a natsu matsuri. From my limited experience, Aomori Nebuta Matsuri and Koenji Awaodori Matsuri are my top picks, but there are plenty to choose from (a good starting point is this list by the Japan National Tourism Organization).
To experience your festival like a true local, don a yukata and consume as much kaki gouri (shaved ice), yaki soba (fried soba noodles) and choco banana (chocolate-covered banana) as you can. A couple of cups of cold nama beeru (draught beer) wouldn’t hurt either :)