Throughout the year, taking place all across the country are matsuri, the Japanese name for “festivals.” Alongside temples and shrines, these festivals are a staple to traditional Japanese culture. With time, they have changed and mixed with local customs to a point where they are unrecognizable compared to their debuts years ago. Local festivals largely go unbeknownst to those outside of their respective prefectures, so it is likely at any one point in time a festival is happening in Japan.
Some notable festivals that occur in the summer here include the Gion Festival in Kyoto, the Kanda Festival in Tokyo, and the Kanto Festival in Akita. The type of summer festival I went to was the Obon festival in Musashi Kosugi, right by the station. This is a Japanese Buddhist tradition meant to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. The festival lasts for three days, and there’s a dance that everyone can take part in called the Bon-Odori. There were food stands offering festival food like yakitori (grilled chicken), as well as fans and shaved ice to help cool yourself down.
I think everyone visiting Japan should go to at least one summer festival and, if they are feeling brave, wear a yukata when you go. Most of the people at the festival did not wear one. I, myself borrowed one from a friend,and watched instructions on YouTube how to put it on. If you’re a man, you normally wear underwear underneath it. If you want, you can also were a t-shirt, but it was so humid I left out the t-shirt. Everything was going great until it came to the obi, which is the belt that goes around the garment and holds everything tightly in place. My friend couldn’t figure it out either, but thankfully her cousin was able to help us. It was a windy day, and as we walked to the station, my hands were completely full between holding a fan and trying to hold my yukata together. I felt like that famous picture of Marilyn Monroe in the white dress.
As I arrived to the festival, I noticed two things–the first being that we were the only foreigners there. The other observation was that we were the only ones wearing yukatas. Both of these things would change as the festival went on, but my friends and I attracted enough attention that we even got interviewed by a local news station that was covering the festival. In the Bon-Odori, the participants form a circle around this small stage decorated with lanterns and raised up so the drum players can be seen and heard over the crowd. Each song has its own accompanying dance, and the dance itself can depend on the local tradition. My eyes were glued on my friend’s cousin, trying to emulate his dance moves. He was wearing what looked like a very expensive and stiff yukata, yet when the music started, his body movements were like water. At first I felt like I was doing a crappy version of the macarena, but after a few times hearing each song,I picked up the basics. People with and without yukatas joined in the dance, but we remained as the only foreigners who participated. Personally, I felt it was a shame that more of them didn’t participate in the dancing. I noticed that some young Japanese people, and a few who were older, did not know the dances and were doing exactly what I was doing. That brought some relief.
I still know the tunes of some of the songs and wish I went to more summer festivals while I was in Japan. I think this wish is partly because I want to find more excuses to wear a yukata–it’s surprisingly comfortable and roomy, like your favorite pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt. It was easily some of the most fun I had while being here, and I can’t wait to discover what else traditional Japan culture has to offer.