For those in Japan, summer brings one major thought: festivals. Festivals bring communities together to eat, listen to music, dance, and watch fireworks. There are many large festivals throughout Japan, and they become quite crowded. But they have a particular atmosphere that you just can’t miss. Most festivals are in the summer months, though they can occur at any time of the year. I will share a small selection of festivals that can be enjoyed in the Tokyo area.
Kamakura is an ancient capital of Japan, and is the centre of ancient history in the Tokyo region. The Kamakura Festival in April celebrates the history of the city, particularly of the 12th century. Old Kamakura had a samurai culture, and this is shown through Yabusame. An ancient form of horseback archery, Yabusame is performed in front of large crowds in many places around Japan. It has to be seen to appreciate the speed at which the archers are traveling when they hit the targets.
At this festival, you can also enjoy listening to a very well-known musical performance, taiko drums. The distinctive sound can be heard all around Japan during festivals, and even between festivals. Where I live, people practice taiko at the nearby shrine every evening until the local festival. It’s very enjoyable to hear it.
Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata
In the coastal city of Hiratsuka, there’s a festival that can rival any festival in the country. The Hiratsuka Tanabata festival is the second largest of its kind in all of Japan. Centred around July 7th, this annual festival celebrates the coming together of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are separated by the Milky Way the rest of the year. These deities represent the stars Vega and Altair. To say this festival is big is an understatement. It occupies several city blocks of downtown Hiratsuka and all traffic stops for the weekend. It is crowded. Everywhere you go, you can see food stalls selling traditional festival cuisine, such as jagabata (potatoes and butter), jumbo frank sausages, fried squid, corn on the cob, yakisoba (fried soba noodles), kakigori (shaved ice), and so much more. Everyone is eating.
The events at this festival are pretty typical of festivals, including musical performances, fireworks, parades, carrying the mikoshi (a portable shrine), catching goldfish, and so much more. Many of the musical performances are done by local bands, university marching bands, and singers. The streets are decorated with very colourful streamers and ornaments. It’s very festive.
Most festivals in Japan are small, but you can find them in any city or town. In the small city of Warabi in Saitama prefecture, there’s an annual summer festival in early August that I’ve been to three times. The main street from the train station is taken over by the festival from the afternoon to evening, and you can eat, listen to music, and enjoy the company of your neighbours. Warabi has an unusually large Turkish population, so the festival also features Turkish food. The streets are colourfully decorated and the festival-goers are often dressed in yukata, a kind of summer kimono. Everything is colourful.
It doesn’t matter what time of year you go to Japan, you are likely to discover a festival somewhere, especially in summer. An afternoon at a Japanese festival is highly recommended.