June is the rainy season in Japan, and it marks the arrival of the heat and humidity of summer. The end of rainy season also means the beginning of the summer festival season. In Japan, every city and town host its own summer festival. Typically held over a weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday night, rows of food stands will line a city’s main street or riverside, offering a class of Japanese food known as “B-Class Gourmet” to crowds of people as they watch parades and fireworks.
Festival food comes in many varieties. Some of the traditional staples you will find are fried chicken, grilled meat on a stick (chicken, beef, and pork are obviously very delicious, but I also highly recommend yaki-ika, grilled squid, usually in a teriyaki sauce), tako-yaki (fried octopus dumplings), and yaki-soba (fried noodles). You’re also likely to find some relatively new creations, a personal favorite of mine being tamago-senbei: a fried egg over a pile of shredded lettuce with mayonnaise and other sauces, served sandwiched between two large, shrimp-flavored rice crackers. Sweets you can find will include candied apples and strawberries, cotton candy, and, of course, shaved ice, “kaki-gouri”, in all kinds of flavors (if you ever come across ichigo-gouri, get it; it’s shaved ice with strawberries and ice cream, and it is the king of kaki-gouri).
The parades will feature all kinds of extravagant displays and demonstrations, showing off the respective locale’s traditional and contemporary characters, mythological and commercial, large floats decorated with bells and lanterns, pulled by teams of people, gigantic drums and gongs, also carried by teams of people, and lots of dancing! Some towns also have dance contests and/or plays telling stories of the place’s origins.
Although many attend the festivals in plain, Western-style clothes, you will also see just as many people, young and old, in traditional Japanese clothes: yukata (a summer form of the kimono), jinbei (a shorts-and-shirt style garb), and happi (a top bearing a town or a team’s significant emblem or Chinese character, worn over shorts or tights) are the most common, and are often paired with the traditional wooden slippers called “geta”.
Festivities often run late into the weekend nights. As the darkness falls, there will often be a grand fireworks display. Japanese take great pride in their fireworks displays, and they are more impressive than anything I’ve ever witnessed in the United States, some lasting for hours! Even the smallest towns in the countryside will often have incredibly extravagant fireworks shows.
So if you’re in Japan from the end of July to September, look for flyers advertising summer festivals (called “matsuri”) or fireworks shows. They are the epitome of Japanese summer celebration!