For all of Japan’s reputation for being a nation of hard workers, it’s also fair to remember that there seems to be a national dedication to the phrase “work hard, play hard.” There are hundreds of festivals ranging from small street fairs to huge multi-day affairs. Matsuri, the term for Japanese festivals, happen year-round, but one of the best times for experiencing them is in the summer.
Study abroad in the summer might be the best way for someone to quickly get a crash-course in Japanese festival culture. From May to August, there are dozens of small festivals and several major ones. Possibly most notable of the festivals over the summer is Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival. Tanabata, meaning “Evening of the Seventh,” takes place on July 7th.
The festival celebrates the story of Orihime and Hikoboshi, two deities who are lovers separated by a river that can only meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. Despite the specific date, the actual festival lasts longer, with festivities extending through the month of July. One of the popular traditions is celebrating the holiday by writing wishes on small pieces of paper and tying them to bamboo trees.
Another prominent festival is Mitama Matsuri, one of the largest Obon festivals in Tokyo. Obon is a Buddhist tradition to honor the spirits of ancestors. In more practical terms, this means the festivals are times for people to return to important ancestral places. This particular one takes places at the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. I was fortunate enough to go and visit on a day when they were also holding a lanter-floating event in the nearby park, which borders the Imperial Palace East Gardens. Even before the sun went down, the riverbank was crowded with tourists and locals sporting yukatas, a casual summer version of the traditional kimono, which is common dress for festivals.
With the semester ending soon, I was fortunate to be able to go out with a bang, so to speak. The last weekend in July is a popular time for festivals, and I managed to go to both the Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri and the Sumida River Fireworks festival.
Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri, held in in one of the biggest commercial centers in Tokyo, is a musical festival where huge areas of the street are blocked off for dancers, drummers, and performers. The festival originally comes from Okinawa and is renowned for its flamboyant, costumed performers and the energy of the taiko drummers.
The same day is the Sumida River Fireworks festival, one of the largest of the summer fireworks festivals in Japan. The riverfront around Asakusa becomes jam-packed with tourists and spectators for the event, some coming for the fireworks and others coming for the festival at Sensoji, a nearby Buddhist temple. Since the streets were too packed to really get a good look at the fireworks, we opted to go to the temple, but even there, among food stalls and festival-goers, it was possible to see the amazing display.
Japan is known for it’s festivals, and I’m delighted to have been able to experience a number of them even in the short time I am here.