Tanabata and Summer Festivals!
Japan’s official summer season commences at the beginning of June and finishes at the end of August. Except for a short rainy season, called tsuyu (梅雨), the summer months are usually filled with sunny days and popular summer matsuri festivals. Japan’s summer is the perfect time for school groups wishing to travel to Japan during the June/July school holidays. There are so many local festivals to choose from therefore below is a selection of festivals held in the major tourist cities during the Australian June/July school holidays.
Visit a local festival, dress up in summer yukata, eat kakigōri and traditional matsuri food, play festival games and view the fireworks at night. A perfect cultural event to share with students!
SANNŌ MATSURI TOKYO
The Sannō Matsuri (山王祭) is one of the three major Tokyo festivals celebrated in mid June during even numbered years, alternating with the Tokyo Kanda Matsuri. The festival was established to celebrate Tokyo (known as Edo) as the capital and the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo Period (1603-1867). The festival has many small events and lasts for over a week. However the main attraction is the parade that begins at Hie Shrine and winds through the streets of Tokyo. From Hie Shrine the parade passes Yasukuni Shrine, continues to Tokyo Imperial Palace, Tokyo Station, Nihonbashi Bridge, Ginza, Shinbashi Station and finishes where it started at Hie Shrine. The parade consists of festival floats, portable mikoshi shrines and about 500 people dressed in period costume. There is traditional Japanese entertainment, music, dance and Sannō drums.
SUMIDA RIVER FIREWORKS FESTIVAL TOKYO
Fireworks (hanabi 花火) are a summer festival favourite; featured at both large festivals and small local festivals. The biggest and best is the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival (Sumida Hanabi Taikai 隅田川花火大会), an annual fireworks festival held on the last Saturday in July. The festival attracts massive crowds, commences at 7pm and runs for about 90 minutes. The Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai follows the Japanese tradition of being a huge competition between rival pyrotechnic groups. Believed to have first exploded onto the scene in 1733, this event has a long history of intense competition, with pyrotechnic companies still today trying to outdo one another. The best viewpoint is said to be at Sumida Park. That said, everyone heads to Sumida Park and therefore you need to be there REALLY EARLY to roll out your blue tarp! Asakusa Station is the closest subway station. Try further north at Shiori Park for an alternative area with not quite as many crowds.
GION MATSURI KYOTO
Gion Matsuri (祇園祭) is Kyoto’s biggest annual festival and renowned for being the most famous festival in all of Japan. It consists of many different events with the grand procession of floats taking place on 17th July each year. There is a second procession of smaller and fewer floats that takes place one week later on the 24th July.
The floats are displayed for three days before the respective processions and tourists are even able to enter some of the floats. The huge floats are constructed from crafted timber and decorated with beautiful Nishijin fabrics. The floats sit on massive wheels and take dozens of men to pull each float through the streets. The display area of floats is situated within half a kilometre of the intersection of Karasuma and Shijo Streets. From 6pm until 11pm these streets are closed to traffic and replaced with festival food and drink stalls.
Buy yourself a summer yukata, get dressed up, put on your happy face and join the fun!
The 17th July procession starts at 9am and follows a three-kilometre route along Shijo, Kawaramachi and Oike Streets. The official endpoint is the Oike-Karasuma intersection.
The most interesting vantage points are the corners where you can watch the painstaking process of manouvering these gigantic floats turning around the street corners. You can book and pay for some seating online however there are many vantage points along the streets.
The festival dates back to 869, starting as a religious ceremony to appease the gods during an epidemic. Today the festival continues the practice of selecting a local boy to be a divine messenger. The child cannot set foot on the ground from the 13th July until after he has been paraded through town on the 17th July.
TENJIN MATSURI OSAKA
If you are in Osaka on the 25th of July head to Osaka Tenmangu Shrine and the Okawa River for the famous Tenjin Matsuri (天神祭). This is one of Japan’s top three festivals. It boasts music and dance, lion dancers, portable mikoshi shrines, floats, fireworks and spectacular bonfires on boats.
The Tenjin Matsuri begins on July 24 with a lion dance at the Tenmangu Shrine and prayers for Osaka's safety and prosperity. When the ceremony has finished men in red hats begin playing drums to signal the start of the festivities.
The festival first began in the year 951. Sugawara Michizane, the Japanese deity of scholarship and learning, is enshrined at Tenmangu. During the festival he is moved from the shrine to a portable mikoshi shrine and carried through the streets, before being taken on a cruise of the city to ensure Osaka's prosperity.
At 3:30pm, on the second day July 25, the traditional floats, portable mikoshi shrines and performers commence at the shrine and head to the Okawa River. The highlight of the festival is in the evening when the mikoshi shrines are loaded onto illuminated boats from the Nakanoshima Park area - the area is an easy walk from the shrine. Thousands of festival food stalls are set up along the river and the crowds mingle dressed in summer yukata to celebrate and watch the fireworks.
Unsurprisingly, the banks of the Okawa River become very crowded in anticipation of the fireworks display. People start arriving very early to get the best spots so it’s best to arrive as early as possible. The floating procession finishes at 9pm after the fireworks finish and mark the end of the festival.
NARITA GION MATSURI
The Narita Gion Festival is celebrated every year in early July. The date of the festival may change slightly from year to year so it is best to check the dates before you arrive. The people of Narita have been celebrating the festival for the past 300 years to pray for the summer rice planting and a good harvest.
The festival begins at Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, after midday on the first day, with a blessing ceremony and a meeting of the festival float bearers before they parade around Narita City. The festival floats are spectacular - exquisite woodwork, sumptuous draperies, and a company of musicians, float bearers, and dancers in colourful costumes accompany each festival float. The festival continues into the evenings, with lights on the floats and participants bearing lanterns.
Each day the procession of floats continue with traditional dancers and music. The floats wind their way through the steep and narrow streets of Narita accompanied by drums and chanting. The streets are abundant with stalls and festival food. Plus don’t miss the local specialty, grilled eel, served in many shops along the main street, Omotesando-Dori, which winds its way down to Naritasan Temple.
Naritasan Temple is easily accessed by train or bus from Narita International Airport.
Check festival dates and book an overnight stay in Narita City to enjoy the festivities!
If you are in Narita at a different time of the year some of the floats can be seen on the first floor of the Narita Tourist Pavillion. The tourist pavillion is located on Omotesando Street leading to Naritasan Temple. Entrance to the float hall is free.
GRAND FESTIVAL OF SAWARA CHIBA PREFECTURE
Sawara Festival (佐原祭) is one of my most favourite local festivals. Sawara is a small town situated northeast of Narita City in Chiba Prefecture. During the Edo Period (1603~1867) the town prospered as a transport hub for rice being shipped to the capital via the canals and Ono River. Sawara is situated on a canal, and is known as "Little Edo" for its small district of preserved and restored traditional residences, merchant shops and warehouses from the Edo Period. The canal is crossed by a number of small bridges with flat-bottomed, traditional boat tours departing regularly for tourists.
Sawara can be reached by train from Narita Station on the JR Narita Line. The adult fare is ¥510 and takes 30 minutes. The historic canal district is about 10-15 minutes walk from Sawara Station.
Sawara holds two festivals annually, an autumn festival in October and a summer festival in July. The summer festival is known as the Sawara no Taisai Natsu Matsuri (佐原の大祭夏祭) and is held annually on the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday after July 10th.
The parade features a total of 10 floats featuring giant 4-metre tall figures representing mythical and historical figures. The floats are also highly decorated with wooden carvings of hawks, carp fish, lions and dragons. The floats are dragged through the narrow “Little Edo” streets with participants loudly chanting “sawara bayashi”. The festival continues into the night with the floats beautifully lit with lanterns that are reflected on the Ono River.
Not to be missed, the Sawara Matsuri is a fantastic, lively festival with stunning floats and town scenes evoking the Edo period.
TANABATA STAR FESTIVAL
The Tanabata, or Star Festival, is traditionally celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, 07 July. It is the romantic story of two lovers, represented by the stars Vega and Altair, who are only allowed to meet each other once a year as long as the skies are clear. According to the legend a gifted weaver and a cow herder fell in love and then began to neglect their duties. The bride’s father, the emperor of heaven, became angry at the lovers and sent them to separate ends of the Milky Way. They were allowed to meet on 07 July each year as long as they fulfilled their celestial duties.
In Japan, the lovers are celebrated with lively decorations and wishes written on long, narrow strips of coloured paper called tanzaku. The tanzaku are inscribed with wishes, such as finding a boyfriend, getting married, becoming a famous baseball player or passing exams. They are then hung on bamboo branches and displayed in schools, shopping arcades, train station, airports and other public places.
One of the largest Tanabata Festivals is held in Sendai at the beginning of August, highlighted with a huge parade of paper decorations on tall poles. However, there are also many small, regional star festival celebrations as well as special events at various venues, such as Tokyo Disneyland and Minami-Tenma Park in Osaka.
For the romantics at heart Tanabata is a celebration of love, hope and wishes for the future.
A special date for my family as my son waited until Tanabata, 07 July, to propose to his wife, Chihiro!
YATAI FOOD STALLS AND FESTIVAL STALLS
You have to love a Japanese festival! From the famous, crowded festivals that are a "must see" to the small, local festivals such as the above festival held annually in Sakura City. Festival highlights include yatai food stalls, festival drinks and traditional festival game stalls.
Yakisoba is made with soba noodles that are stir-fried with cabbage, carrots, sliced pork, yakisoba sauce and topped with pickled ginger, slivered seaweed and Japanese mayonnaise.
Takoyaki is most famous in Osaka. However this is a tasty, popular festival treat throughout Japan. Takoyaki is a small, round ball made with a light pancake batter with pieces of octopus inside and pan-fired in a special takoyaki pan. The takoyaki balls are then topped with takoyaki sauce, bonito fish flakes, red pickled ginger and mayonnaise.
Okonomiyaki is a savoury pancake made with a batter, cabbage and a choice of various fillings. Most popular variations include pork, seafood, prawns, cheese and spring onions. The pancake is then topped with okonomiyaki sauce and bonito fish flakes.
Ikayaki is a popular festival snack to have with beer – large grilled squid, seasoned with soy sauce and cut horizontally into rings.
Yakitori is commonly seen at both Japanese festivals and at roadside yatai stalls. It consists of grilled chicken pieces on a skewer - these pieces can be grilled chicken thighs, chicken meatballs, chicken skin, chicken wings and bone cartilage, chicken tail, and even internal chicken organs such as liver, gizzard, heart, and small intestines as well. Bite-size chicken parts are put on wooden sticks and seasoned with a savoury yakitori sauce. They are then grilled to perfection, giving out a unique and enticing aroma.
Choco Bananas are frozen bananas coated in chocolate and sprinkled with sweets such as multi-coloured sprinkles or nuts. Although it is called chocolate banana, it can also be dipped in other kinds of melted chocolate such as white chocolate, strawberry chocolate or other chocolate variants. The Choco Bananas are a favourite festival treat with children and adults alike!
Taiyaki are a delicious fish-shaped pancake filled with a sweet filling such as anko red bean paste, custard cream or chocolate. The pancake mixture is poured into fish-shaped metal moulds, filled with the chosen filling and then cooked both sides. Delicious!!
Kakigōri is a favourite sweet at summer festivals. It is basically shaved ice mixed with fruit flavouring – see below.
Game stalls are all part of the festival fun, especially for children. Popular games include:
Kingyo Sukui (Goldfish Scooping) - this is a very popular game where the objective is for the player to scoop up a goldfish using a net. The net is made with a thin piece of paper, which is designed to be weak enough to break if there is too much force or it becomes too wet.
Yo-yo Tsuri (Yo-yo Scooping) – yo-yos are made out of small water and air filled balloons floating in water. The balloons have a rubber string with a long loop and the player uses a paper string with a hook to try and hook the yo-yo balloons.
Senbon Biki (Thousand Strings) – this is a game of chance where players pull long pieces of string that are attached to treats or to penalties.
Wanage (Ring Toss) – this game is similar to quoits whereby rings are thrown to land over prizes.
What makes a summer trip to Japan special? Summer festivals and kakigōri ........ traditional Japanese shaved ice; fresh, light and airy ice crystals flavoured with a choice of various fruit syrups. Flavours include cherry, lemon, yuzu, strawberry and melon. Kakigōri is very soft, light and fluffy, and melts in the mouth like freshly fallen snow.
Kakigōri (かき氷) has been enjoyed in Japan for centuries, with references to it being found as early as the 11th century when it was a delicacy that was reserved only for the wealthy nobility. The traditional way of making kakigōri is to use a hand-cranked machine to spin a block of ice over a shaving blade. At summer festivals these street vendors can still be seen hand-shaving ice blocks in the summer. However these days electric shavers are most often used in shops and convenience stores.
For a simple homemade kakigōri try fresh and juicy watermelon – perfect as a thirst quencher! Cut the watermelon into cubes and freeze them, preferably overnight. Place the watermelon cubes in a sturdy blender and mix with two tablespoons of honey and a few mint leaves until the mixture has a texture similar to snow. Add watermelon cubes until you have the right amount of shaved ice. Serve in your prettiest bowl. Garnish with a few mint leaves.
Written by Rondell Herriot, Co-Managing Director Saizen Tours
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