A festival in Japan is not the festival you know. The music here isn’t on some distant stage by that-band-on-an-ill-advised-comeback, but by local drummers on a mobile float. The muddy fields are replaced by the urban streets, and the only suspicious smoke you will see curling from tents is the delicious smells rising from the food stalls. Or a very real fire. Ladies and gents, I give you The Festival, Japanese style (or ‘matsuri’, 祭り).
And you can’t go to Japan and not experience a festival. I don’t mean that it’s an experience that you must savour here (though it definitely is). I mean you literally can’t miss them. Festivals are everywhere. Especially in the summer, and you’d have to put effort in to avoid them. Cities, towns, villages…even individual schools and shops have their own festivals.
They come in all shapes and sizes: at the small end, you get the quaint, pleasant little town festivals that fit onto a single street, everyone seems to know everyone, and you might get a single feature like a traditional dance. On the other end of the scale are the massive festivals that draw onlookers from all over the country, that take over the entire city as huge teams of people parade dashi or mikoshi (festival floats) through the crowds. One such festival is the Kumagaya Uchiwa Matsuri and is one of the biggest festivals in the Kanto region. And they have the full range of features, with the night culminating in an all-out dubstep rave. Maybe.
One of the big features of festivals are the stalls: they line the closed off streets with their colourful awnings and proclaim their superior wares to the passers-by. However, one of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of variety and samey-ness of these stalls: you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve gotten turned around and passed the same stall five times. At any given major festival, you’re guaranteed to see the following stalls: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, choco-banana, karaage, yakisoba, ramen, a character mask stall and, oddest of all, live goldfish, where kids can scoop them out of the shallow tank and into plastic bags. These are repeated over and over again, and any original stalls are few and far between. I often picture the owners of these stalls packing up and hustling off to the next festival on the circuit. Fest roadies. There’s nothing wrong with this per se (festival food is usually reasonably priced and always tasty), but I’m always looking for the unique stalls – and they are coming: doner-kebab stalls are the latest hot ticket.
But the main event is always the floats: great colourful behemoths that are either pulled by ropes or shouldered by huge teams of alcohol-fortified people. There are two main kinds: mikoshi (神輿), the smaller kind which are carried on the shoulders. These are basically portable shinto shrines, which gives the local gods a chance to get out and about the town. The other are dashi (山車): the size of small buildings, manned by groups bashing away at drums and cymbals. Each dashi represents an area of the city, the name of which blazes from the many lanterns adorning the dashi, and when two rival dashi meet on the street, anything could happen: from a musical stand-off, to a dance-battle, to a good old-fashioned punch-up.
Another unavoidable feature of these street festivals is the crowds. You can take it as a given that anything of even mild interest in Japan will be crowded, but at a festival, particularly surrounding the floats and other key features (such as the acrobatic firemen at the Kawagoe Matsuri, I kid you not), you will be locked in by a sea of people on all sides. But this is all part of the fun at a boisterous festival, and thanks to the calm and submissive nature of the Japanese, it never gets out of hand or dangerous. Unless of course you’re at one of the fire festivals (most famously the Abare Matsuri on the Noto Peninsula, literally the “Violence” festival), where danger is what makes it.
I may be sounding a bit indifferent to festivals. But I really, truly love a good festival. Yes, the crowds can be stressful at times, and three-quarters of festivals come from the same cookie cutter, but the real fun of a festival comes from being with friends and relishing the chaos. Eat, drink, be merry, bump into an unlikely old friend and wind up at an after-party in a backstreet bar or slumped in a pile of strangers on the train home. It’s huge fun, and I can’t wait for the festival season to start again.