Natsu Matsuri: Japanese Summer Festivals

okazaki01Originally appearing on Episode 69 of The Happy Road Ahead podcast, I talked about some of the life lessons I learned while attending Japanese summer festivals. I felt that the piece was informative and interesting enough to cross-post on my personal website, in a slightly alternate format.

The original episode can still be heard here, and you are more than welcome to do so — all Happy Road podcast episodes are free.

Summer is the season for a whole variety of festivals in Japan, and Japanese summer festivals are certainly one of the highlights of the season, and definitely recommended if you’re planning a visit. Having attended many of these festivals throughout the years of living in Japan, I’ve thought about it, and determined that I’ve learned a number of valuable life lessons along the way that I could share with my friends. I’m starting to see how many experiences I had during my time abroad have been times for growth and learning, and now looking back at them I can see things a little clearer. It occurred to me recently that many of these lessons were very applicable to life in general, and well removed from the context of the festivals.

I don’t intend to detail the festivals themselves, because this I’m sure has been covered extensively in just about every guidebook and on every travel website out there. Rather, I’m more concerned about the abstract, using the festivals as a way of looking at life in the broader sense. And in case you haven’t yet decrypted the title for this Blog post, natsu matsuri, means “summer festival” in Japanese. Natsu is summer, and matsuri is a festival or holiday.

Before I get into these life lessons though, I do need to at least give a bit of background and perspective on which festivals I’m talking about, given that many readers may not have had the experience. But first of all, I am not referring to one particular, or specific festival. Natsu matsuri is a very broad term, and can mean any number of festivals or celebrations held around the country during this season. Some of these are dance festivals, like the Gomangoku orodi in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture (which is represented by the cover photo for this article), or the Bellybutton festival in Furano, Hokkaido. And others are religious festivals, some which surround the O-bon holiday, a Buddhist belief that the spirits of dead loved ones come back and hang out for a bit. There are also fireworks festivals a-plenty, which I’m going to cover a little further on, and festivals dealing with nature, so: fire, or the moon, or flowers, or water, or wind.

The first lesson I’ve gleaned, comes from Japan’s hundreds of fireworks festivals that become almost a weekly occurrence in some place or other, anywhere in the country. In Japan, towns, cities, and regions take great pride in their fireworks festivals. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else I’ve ever been or traveled to. In North America first of all, we use fireworks to celebrate special occasions. Like midnight New Year’s Eve… Or July the 4th if you’re American, July 1st if you’re Canadian, or Guy Fawkes Day if you’re British. Well, Japan is the first place I’ve been, where people don’t seem to NEED any particular reason to have a fireworks celebration. They just are. Although they’re typically associated with summer, there are some festivals as late as October, like the Tsuchiura fireworks competition in Ibaraki, or even December, like the Chichibu night festival. And then there’s Lake Toyako in Hokkaido, who have fireworks every night from April to October. And that brings me to my first lesson I’ve learned. Which is: you don’t need a special occasion to have a celebration. Sometimes it’s fun just to celebrate for the sake of celebration. When we were young, did we need a special day to take someone out on a date? No. Of course not! Date night became a special night by the virtue of what we made it to be. That’s why we were always keen to host themed parties at our house in Japan. Part of it was that we had a rather small expat community, so we tended to stick together a bit, but it was kind of fun to host all sorts of themed parties just for fun. Quite often, we’d have cultural events – like Swedish parties, where we’d raid Ikea, and have a bash that included Swedish meatballs, lingonberries, Swedish beer, Aquavit, pickled herring, cheeses, smoked salmon, all while listening to ABBA, of course. Or a Russian party, that included copious amounts of borscht, vodka, dark rye bread, caviar, and of course, listening to the Red Army Choir. I think I even printed out some Soviet revolutionary posters to put up around the house, just for added atmosphere. Mom and dad probably would have been horrified if they had come over and seen a portrait of Lenin adorning our living room. But it was a good party. My point is, you can make any day special by deciding it’s going to be so. And if you DO need a reason or excuse? When this segment aired on Happy Road, I also added some some cool ideas for my listeners in the weekly show notes so they could plan their next celebration. Life is what you make it – there are no rules to when you should and shouldn’t celebrate. Cultures and traditions certainly give us a good starting point, but there’s no reason in the world you shouldn’t enjoy a family get-together with a nice, turkey feast with all the fixins on August 16th… There’s nothing that says you’ve got to wait till Thanksgiving or Christmas to do so. In fact, August 16th would be a good day to celebrate… That’s the day Britain granted independence to Cyprus. So enjoy some Cypriot cuisine.. And what’s cool about it is that you get to combine Greek AND Turkish delicacies.. Mmmm.. Dolomades and pilaf… And actually, Cyprus is extra cool because there’s other influences too, from Europe and the Middle East. Anyway. I digress. Now I’ll be jonesing for some Cypriot food.

One of the common traits among most Japanese festivals, are the hordes and hordes of people. Japan is a small country, with a large population. So when festivals come around, you can be guaranteed to have people everywhere. This makes transportation — getting to and from places a complete nightmare. And watching something like fireworks? Don’t think that it’ll all be good just because Japanese people are mostly shorter than you. Uh-uh. Doesn’t work that way. If there’s a hundred of them in front of you, it doesn’t much matter if you ARE taller. You won’t see a darned thing. Which brings me to my next lesson. Arrive early. But like… really early. No, I mean really, really, really early. If it’s a major fireworks festival, there will be people laying down tarps, lawn chairs, and staking their claim the night before. So if you think you’ll get there an hour or two ahead of time and still find a decent place to sit? Fuhgedaboudit! You may as well not bother at all. I learned very quickly, that a good way to get a decent place (still not perfect, mind you, but functionable), was to do a recon mission early in the morning by scooter, armed with lawn chairs and tarp… Lay down the tarp and lawn chairs into the river bed near where the fireworks would be set off, and just come back later in the day. In fact, going to watch J-league soccer games works much the same way. Many of the ultras fans (I discussed Ultras culture in June, 2014 as part of one of my World Cup special episodes of Happy Road), start standing in line the night before. And at first glance, it seems pretty extreme… Or even kind of stupid… But in fact, it’s not. It’s quite smart, really. Arriving that early allows folks (whether it’s football fans or fireworks show spectators) a couple of really nice privileges and even luxuries. First, they have the top choice of seating. First come first served, and they’re the ones with the million dollar views. Always. Guaranteed. Second, they avoid the rush of people. Hordes of people suck. Hordes of people all moving in the same direction at the same time, at an extremely slow rate of speed – even more so. Avoiding all of that mess because you’re already in place? Awesome! Which is closely related to… Stress. You’ve got so much less stress when you’re someplace early. No huffing and puffing and arriving breathless in a frothy sweat at the last second. And lastly, it ties back to the idea of having something to celebrate. In the west, we do this too, but in a more specific, delimited context. The idea of a tailgate party is akin to arriving early at a Japanese soccer match or fireworks festival. You get to sit around with friends, lounge, drink cold beers, have a picnic or BBQ, play some music, and make a day of it. I mean, what a perfect outing! Just relaxing with friends, beers, food, music, and entertainment to follow. What could be better? So even in my day-to-day, I like to arrive early whenever possible – even if it’s just something mundane like a meeting. If I get there 30 min or even an hour early, I can plop down my bags, and then retire to the coffee shop for a leisurely cup of coffee, newspaper and snack. In recent years I’ve also applied the same theory to travel and airports. Getting there 3 or 4 hours or even more ahead of time? Awesome! I check my bags, maybe even put my carry-ons into a storage locker, and then I have all kinds of time to go shopping, sightseeing, hit the airport bar for a few drinks, read a book, watch a show… Life is good.

Many of Japan’s summer festivals are religious in nature. They involve portable shrines which are then paraded through the streets and accompanied by thousands of faithful, and with traditional Japanese court music. Now portable is a relative term here, as some of these shrines are absolutely massive, and require 20, 30, or even more people to lift and carry them through the streets. And the one thing they often have in common, is that they wear ceremonial clothing, called a happi coat, which loo500ks a bit like a cotton kimono that comes down just below the waist and has a mon or crest on the back. The stereotypical happi nowadays is bright blue, with white decoration and trim on the bottom, with black lapels, and a large red kanji character on the back that says “matsuri” or festival. They are common to see at many festivals, but they are just as typically associated nowadays with tourist tat in my opinion, so I don’t own one, never wanted one, and rarely ever wore one in Japan, even at festivals. I preferred to wear either a yukata or jimbe, for such occasions. But anyway, this has also taught me something about life. No matter what, take the time and trouble to dress up for the occasion. You know, it would be perfectly acceptable to not dress up and just wear whatever. Even when I go to church on Sunday, I know that I wouldn’t even get so much as a second glance if I wore a T-shirt with jeans… But for my own personal joy, enjoyment, and feeling of being alive, I love to take the extra time to wear something nice, or interesting, or unique. The same thing goes if I’m going to a concert or theatre play. I think it’s important to use costumes in life. Just like I could easily eat my supper without pepper or condiments, it’s those little things that make all the difference. Now, mind you, I do realize that not everyone looks at clothing in the same way – many are far too utilitarian to really grok what I’m saying here, and even if they did, might disagree… Which is fine. I would however encourage those of that mind to at least give it a try sometime. Instead of reaching for that favorite t-shirt, just for fun, grab a dress shirt and bow tie. And if people aren’t used to seeing you wearing something like that, I pretty much guarantee they’ll ask: What’s the occasion? To which you can reply, “I’m celebrating.” And when they answer, “What are you celebrating?” You know what to do next. Feel free to make up your own in promptu celebration!

The next life lesson I’ve learned from Japanese summer festivals, has to do with priorities, among other things. Before I go on, let me just ask you to answer a quick question in your mind.  How long was the last fireworks show that you went to? As in: how much time elapsed from when the fireworks starting going off, until the grand finale at the end?  Okay. Got it? Well, if you figured around 15 to 20 minutes, you’d be pretty much spot on. And just for confirmation, I looked at the Fox News list of top 8 cities to watch Independence Day fireworks, which includes: Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., L.A., and they all came in at around 20 minutes. And if you scrolled down to the comments, some added their own votes as well: Columbus OH, with a full 30 minute show, and Wamego, KS, boasting the same. Now, come to Japan, where the shortest show is at least an hour. In many cases, like in Yamanashi Prefecture where we lived, shows were on the order of two to two and a half hours long, and some of the granddaddies include shows that are 3 or even 3 and half hours long, like the Katakai Matsuri in Niigata Prefecture in the first week of September. It features over 20,000 fireworks, with some of the world’s largest – called yonshaku-dama, which are 1.2 meters or 48 inches in diameter, weigh 420 kg, which is almost 1000 lbs of explosives, need a stinkin’ CRANE to lower them into the massive mortars they are fired from. The shell goes up almost 800m into the air, and will make an explosion that’s 800 m in diameter. Boom goes the dynamite!

Now, just to be fair, when you’re at a two and a half hour fireworks show, the shells aren’t going off all the time without stop. There are pauses between sets, sometimes as long as 5 minutes or so. But that still doesn’t take away from the enormity of the show. Clearly, fireworks, no matter where you are, are not cheap. That’s why most shows in the west are only 15 to 20 minutes long. I looked it up, and going rate for a good, professionally done show, is about $1,000 a minute minimum. It’s no wonder then, that for a city to budget $20 to $50,000 for a moderate-sized fireworks display is a lot of money that people would probably not want to spend much more for. Again, to be fair, not all shows are created equal. At New York’s Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular, they’re firing off around 1,600 shells a minute, which can really add up when one shell can easily cost $3 to $400. Just think about that the next time you’re watching a show. Whup. There’s 300.. 6, 9, 12… 15, 18, 21. Jeez. So yeah, the New York show, while not a 3 hour long monster, IS impressive and can easily cost several million to put on. Especially when you start choreographing in music and other visual and design elements.  Seattle considered doing away with their Fourth of July show, as it came with a price tag of $150,000 for 20 minutes. But anyway, all of this brings me to another life lesson I’ve gotten out of all this. And that is: consider carefully where your priorities are, and how much time, energy, and money you are willing to dedicate to those priorities. Are they commensurate with one another? Or are you spending far more than you should on something that isn’t or shouldn’t be as important as it is? And conversely, are you putting in enough to those things that are or should be important? Honestly? There were times in Japan where I thought it would have been better to spend more of the city’s tax dollars on pothole repair than putting on elaborate, expensive fireworks shows. But that’s where the art of balancing comes in I suppose.

The last lesson I learned from Japanese festivals, is… Don’t be afraid to give something a miss and say ‘no’ to attending. Even the most unique and interesting festivals, I found, had a shelf life. And when they expired, they expired. It was awesome to enjoy them for what they were, but when it came to repeat performances? The annoyances sometimes outweighed the fun factor. The best example I have of this, is the Onbashira festival in Nagano. Some of you may already know about this one because it’s been featured years and years ago on Ripley’s Believe it or Not (when I was a kid) and other similar programs that feature crazy spectacles from around the world… But this is the one where crazy people ride on top of humungous logs as they go sliding down a steep mountainside. And yes, there are fatalities – almost each and every time. But this unique festival happens only once every seven years, so given the length of our tenure in Japan, we got to see not one, but two Onbashira festivals go by. Except we didn’t. While the first time was amazing, unforgettable, and tremendously memorable for a number of reasons (no, we didn’t get to ride the logs – (that’s a dubious honour reserved ONLY for local men who were born and raised in that region – even other Japanese are not permitted to take part). But while a friend of mine and I made elaborate plans to make it out to some of the celebrations, in particular, the ones we had missed the first time around, I’ve got to say… All of them fell through. We didn’t make it out to any of them in the end. So what happened? Was it just not special anymore? Well, kind of. In a way. It was a situation where value, meaning, and specialness did not originate from within us. I mean, this IS a religious Shinto ceremony, and that’s not our religion. And the fact remains, that is what the purpose is, all show and spectacle aside. And over time, I found myself missing more and more festivals, again – not because they weren’t fun or entertaining, but because I had already taken part in them, seen what they have to offer, and enjoyed them for what they were. But there is a certain level of same-ness at most Japanese festivals. You have your typical shrine hoisting, with men in happi coats chanting ‘wasshoi, wasshoi, wasshoi‘ (which roughly means heave-ho), and your street vendors offering a very typical selection of Japanese street food like fried octopus balls, chicken on a stick, and yakisoba noodles… And I think we just got to a point where we realized that it would be better, and more pleasant to go someplace where everyone else wasn’t. In other words, if we knew there’d be a festival in town, that would be a great reason to leave and visit someplace where there might be fewer people as a result. So in a nutshell, the corollary to the earlier lesson, is: don’t let others ascribe value to your time and influence your choices in how to spend it. And as I mentioned earlier on when talking about celebrations – maybe it’s better to create your own meaning and reasons to celebrate rather than simply just adopting the appointed dates that the culture you live in has deemed important.

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