Beginner’s Guide to Japanese festivals

The peak of summer is approaching with big steps and you know what this means: Festival season is coming to Japan.

If you are an avid fan of Japanese anime, dramas or other types of entertainment chances are high you know what I am talking about. Japanese people are known for their love for small and big festivals (“Matsuri”) held during summer. The big number of different matsuri is due to the fact that almost every shrine, even small local ones, has its own festival. Of course, there are also big nationwide celebrations like Bon Festival which is held each August.

This article is a guide to your common local summer festival that you might stumble upon on a stroll through the city. Japanese love their seasons and Japanese summer is inevitably associated with fireworks, food stalls and Co. Enjoy!


Yukata

Let us begin with the clothes that one might wear for summer festivals. When many foreigners think of Japan they picture beautiful Asian women wearing Kimonos all day long. This is far from the truth. However, at Japanese festivals you can get a glimpse of traditional Japanese fashion.

The clothes worn by both young and old, men and women during festivals are not Kimono, but so-called Yukata. You can imagine them as simpler versions of Kimono that do not require as much time or money to acquire. They are especially popular in the hot summer months since these casual garments are made of light fabric.

Yukata can be observed during festivals, firework displays but also inside bathhouses. Be careful if you decide to wear one yourself – a common mistake made by foreigners is wrapping the right side over the left since this is a practice reserved for the dead. Keep the left side on top and you are ready to enjoy your summer festival.

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Food stalls

Festivals just wouldn’t be the same without the smell of Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki and Co. lingering in the air. It is no secret that Japanese people love to eat and are especially proud of their own cuisine. Nowhere else can this love be observed better than at a local festival.

Festival food tends to be unhealthy but delicious and not seldom will you see people enjoying cold beer with their grilled meals. Food stalls are usually decorated in vibrant colors and you can hear the owners welcoming possible customers already from far away. How about some Yakitori, grilled chicken pierced on wooden sticks? Or maybe you would prefer some Okonomiyaki, savory pancakes drenched in sauce and mayonnaise, or the octopus filled balls known as Takoyaki?

Now matter what you choose you won’t go home hungry that night. Festival food is delicious and part of every festival experience.

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Processions

As I mentioned before, festivals are usually if not always associated with shrines. These celebrations are meant to praise the deities of the shrine and bring good luck and fortune to the community.

The main event of many shrine-based festivals is a big procession. The local god, or kami, is carried on a beautifully decorated palanquin called mikoshi through the streets. Most often, this is the only time the kami leaves the shrine so locals are eager to gather around it and watch the cheerful procession. The young men carrying the gods are not alone; processions usually consist of dancers leading the way and musicians playing melodies on traditional Japanese instruments.

If you have been witness to one of those processions you will never claim again that Japanese people are shy or quiet. During processions each street comes to life and people celebrate the deities and the community around it.

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Entertainment

You are wearing a Yukata, your stomach is filled with delicious food and the procession already passed by you. What do you do next?

Getting bored at a festival is almost impossible. Next to all the highlights mentioned above, you will also find a lot of carnival-like game stalls at most festivals. Popular games include Goldfish scooping where you have to catch a live goldfish only with the help of a scoop covered with a thin sheet of paper. It might look easy at first, but be aware, the fish are fast and the paper rips more easily than you might expect. However, if you manage to catch a goldfish, you can take it home and keep it as your own little pet.

Games like these are common for Japanese festivals but may vary for each location. Other forms of entertainment include Karaoke competitions, traditional dances and music, Sumo or similar performances and – most importantly – a romantic firework display at the end of the evening.

 

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There is a saying that no matter where you are in Japan, somewhere there is always a festival going on. Festivals and firework displays can most commonly be observed during the hot summer months since most of them started as celebrations of a good harvest. However, you can find them throughout the whole year. The reason for that is the fact that Japanese people love to celebrate, not only their unique culture but also the current season or simply the joys of life. Festivals are as much part of their culture as Sushi and Sumo. There is no better way to relax and take a break from your busy work schedule than putting on a Yukata, eating some delicious food and watching fireworks brighten up the night sky.

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