Gearing up for the Natsu Matsuri

By on June 2, 2017

strange wiz

Summer has probably inspired more popular songs than any other season. For anyone who has survived a hot one here in Tokyo, that ‘80s chestnut ‘Cruel Summer’ by Bananarama probably sums it up quite aptly!

As they say, it isn’t the heat, it’s the humidity. But if you’re spending part of the summer in the city, never fear—some of the best family fun of the year can be found right in your own backyard. Get ready for a traditional neighbourhood summer festival (natsu matsuri).

First thing is to find yourself a festival. The international section at the local ward or city office will be able to point you in the right direction. You’ll often come across a festival at a temple, or organized by the business association along the shopping streets near your local station. If you see people setting up food stalls in the afternoon, chances are that by dusk a matsuri will be in full swing.

You can come as you are, but it’s great fun for the kids to dress up in yukata (summer kimono). Quality yukata can be made to order at a kimono shop, but these days you can pick up cute and colourful designs for a song at any department store. Or try a kid’s recycle shop at this time of the year. Kid’s yukata are a cinch to put on—wrap the left side over the right and then tie with the colorful sash in the back. Traditionally, wooden sandals called geta are worn but these can be a bit hard on the feet for newbies. Beach sandals or flip-flops are perfectly acceptable. While most Japanese boys usually won’t don yukata much beyond the early grades of elementary school, girls continue to enjoy dressing up right through their teens. And for the toddler set, there are two-piece outfits called jinbei. Easier to put on than yukata, they also do double-duty as summer PJs!

Suitably attired, it’s time to hit the attractions, usually all for pocket money prices, or even for free if you’re lucky!

Yoyo (water balloons)—kids try to ‘fish’ little water-filled balloons out of a tub. There is something about these simple but colorful toys that attracts kids of all ages. (My 10-year-old still covets them!)

Kingyou-sukui (goldfish scoo-ping)—use a paper ‘net’ to try and catch a goldfish. Since the paper soon disintegrates, this isn’t as easy as it looks. Kids get to take their catches home in a plastic bag, but unless you already have an aquarium at home, ‘catch and release’ is the humane option. (Many a hapless goldfish will be flushed down the toilet within a week of the matsuri.) A variation is scooping for colorful little plastic balls.

O-men (masks)—a staple of the matsuri is a stall filled with colorful masks. There is a distinctly retro feel, with cartoon characters from yesteryear and stylized animal faces. You just gotta have one!

• Don’t forget the food. Popular festival fare includes yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus dumplings) and kakigori (shaved ice with flavored syrup).

Some summer festivals will also feature traditional folk-dancing, called bon odori. O-bon is a Buddhist festival to honor the spirits of the ancestors, but there is nothing remotely morbid about it! Bon odori is joyful, and it is impossible not to clap your hands and tap your feet in time with the beat of the drums. Dancers usually form a large circle as they move around a wooden platform (yagura) upon which the singers and musicians stand. Although some troops of dancers practice beforehand, there is often a chance for casual bystanders to join in the fun at some point during the evening. Definitely one for the family photo album!

Join in the simple pleasures of a natsu matsuri, and chances are, come September you won’t be echoing the sentiments of another ‘80s classic by the Style Council—‘A long hot summer just passed me by’!

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