Festivals in Japan: What to expect, or not?
Over my trips to Japan, I have made an effort to see as many festivals as weekends would allow. From male genitalia, to flowers and fireflies, to Suntory beer (available at all, but there’s one special too), there’s a festival for everything and everyone.
The difficulty is finding the right one… you never know if you’re walking into a masked parade or a glorified bar party. But, you do know you’re always in for a surprise!
Japan loves festivals- you can find one nearly every day of the weekend, especially during the summer. From Shinto festivals to neighborhood shindigs to country showdowns, Tokyo is full of them. However, they are not exactly like the festivals most people think of most of the time. Sure, some of them involve parades around town, and some of them involve wears for sale, and the all involve food and drink… but each festival is different, and never, never what you’re expecting.
Shinto festivals (Matsuri):
Signaled by lanterns hung outside the sponsoring temple days before, these are the most familiar kinds of festivals. Featuring food, a lot to drink, artisan stalls, and games for the kids, I would most liken them to street-fairs in the US. They are laud, joyous affairs, that many foreigners are surprised to see at a “religious” festival. However, Shintoism in Japan is very different than religions elsewhere. Seen as more of a way or tradition and ritualization than a strict religious system, Shintoism can be practiced in many forms. I am certainly not an expert, but you can read more about it here and here
The most interesting shinto festival I have attended was the Kanamara Matsuri, otherwise known as the Penis Festival. Yes, you heard me right. The country very well known for their manners and shame around sex hold a festival to the male organ of love complete with giant penis statues, penis shaped candy, and nude parade-goers. If you thought Tokyo couldn’t get any more contradictory (pun intended), check this one out.
Most of the 47 neighborhoods in Tokyo hold their own “festivals” at at least one point in the year. They range greatly between block party shin digs to little cafe sponsored events. Fun thing as a non-Japanese speaking foreigner? You’ll never be able to tell which is which. You might travel 45 minutes out of your way to one of these guys just to find out its a bar-held event with a DJ, and the free food post-entrance fee? It runs out after 3PM. Yea, it may have happened to me.
Most of these are held in Yoyogi park, and are intended to celebrate the culture of the country du jour, but mostly people come for the food. This spot holds more than 100 food stalls, and each festival sort of has the same variation of offerings. Oh, right, they do have a theater area with a range of performances traditional to the host country.
Food & Drink festivals:
Who isn’t down for for and drink, especially when it’s free?? Maybe you, after you hear about this. Usually when you hear about a festival of consumables, you think of stalls from different makers offering samples in hopes that you’ll buy some to take home, or to your restaurant. Most of the time, you’d be right. Well, not in Japan:
I heard about the “International Wine Festival” in my neighborhood, and snagged my French friend to attend with me before asking any further questions. Free wine? Yesss. I had been in Japan long enough to expect it to not be exactly what I thought it would be, but how could free alcohol in the afternoon around a bunch of fancy Japanese people go wrong? Welllllllll. It was free, and there was wine, but this “international festival” was celebrating a single wine company, and more resembled a somber luncheon with goers seated across from sellers, sampling a variety of wares. Goers were expected to buy potpourri-smelling bottles by the case load, delivered to your door. Needless to say, they were not happy with the gaijins throwing back samples between giggles with no home address. But, sometimes it’s good to be the odd one out.
One thing that can put people off from traveling is that things don’t always go according to plan, sometimes embarrassingly so (see above). In fact, they usually go very, very differently than planned. But, with an open mind and a sense of humor, that can be better than what you did expect.