On five-color strips of paper I have written. (ごしきの たんざくわたしが かいた/Goshiki no tanzaku watashi ga kaita) ~ lyrics from “The Tanabata Song”
Miserable and drenched in sweat.
That’s how you’ll likely to feel your first summer in central Japan where hot and humid is the weather report day after day after day.
Yet you’d miss out big time if you decided to let a little hot weather get in your way (as it almost did when heatstroke put me in bed for 4 days my first summer in Japan.)
Note to my younger self: If you ever decide to run an errand on foot in Japan in the summertime but don’t know exactly how far your destination is, please don’t.
Summer is the major festival season in Japan and you do not want to miss any of it.
Local communities come alive during festival season. Neighborhood enthusiasm is contagious, and if you’re in Japan at this time of year, you WILL catch it.
You may even join in the festivities with a little traditional dancing as I did after recovering from that heatstroke, at Tanabata.
Tanabata, the “star festival,” is a popular Japanese summer festival.
It’s based on two star-crossed lovers, actually two star-crossed stars: Altair and Vega (of the constellations Aquila and Lyra, respectively). Personified in folklore as Hikoboshi, a cowherd, and Orihime, a weaver, they marry but live separated by the Milky Way. The couple meets only once a year ~ on the seventh day of the 7th month.
That’s July 7th in most parts of Japan and August 7th elsewhere.
TANABATA IS THE FIRST JAPANESE SUMMER FESTIVAL OF THE SEASON.
How do people celebrate it and other Japanese summer festivals? How can you take part in Japan’s biggest outdoor parties?
Read on for the answers . . .
- For the “wow” factor, Japanese fireworks cannot be beaten. Depending on the festival, a fireworks show is a one-to-three-day spectacle of color, sound, and lights orchestrated by trained craftsmen.
- Dance, clap, sing along with every kind of performance artist ~ singers, dancers, fire-eaters, and drummers ~ who take their turn on the community stage. Listen to street musicians and small groups play traditional Japanese music on traditional Japanese instruments while amplifiers crank up the sound.
- Enjoy the decorations. At Tanabata, people write personal wishes on long colored strips of paper called tanzaku and attach them to bamboo. So you will see entire streets decorated with bamboo and hanging ornaments made of paper and other lightweight materials all over town.
Easy to eat grilled (yaki) foods, often served on skewers, including:
- okonomiyaki ~ a grilled pancake filled with your choice of ingredients, including pork, seafood, veggies, and cheese; optional toppings run from seafood flakes to pickled ginger to mayonnaise.
- yakisoba ~ stir-fried noodles tossed with pork and veggies (cabbage, carrots, and onions).
- ikiyaki and takoyaki ~ for the seafood lover, here is your soy-sauce brushed grilled squid (ika) and balls of deep fried batter with bits of octopus (tako) in the center.
- yakitori ~ bite-size chunks of grilled chicken (tori = bird) on a skewer.
Cool off with cold beverages and chilled dishes. Somen ~ with thin noodles resembling the strands of the Milky Way and the threads Orihime uses to weave ~ is especially popular during Tanabata.
And come dessert time, take your pick of shaved ices in a rainbow of flavors, cotton candy, fruit crepes, and ringo ame ~
~ also known as candy (ame) apples (ringo).
- Spend time with your sweetheart. Maybe it’s something they put into the fireworks, but the excitement of the show puts everyone in an upbeat mood. The usually reserved break out cheering, the usually loud get louder, and budding couples who may have felt awkward until now begin holding hands.
- If the festival happens to be Tanabata, express a desire of your own on a tanzaku, and hang it on a bamboo branch. And stand by at festival’s end to see it together with thousands of others be burned or float away downriver.
- Wear a cool cotton yukata instead of your regular street clothes. It’s popular among people of all ages during the annual summer festival dance celebrations held throughout Japan.
Yukata – pronounced yoo-kah-tah – is a type of kimono worn by both women and, to a lesser extent, men in Japan.
Formal kimono, the kind usually seen in travel advertisements and movies set in Japan, can be drop-dead gorgeous.
However, getting the elaborate obi – decorative outer belt – tied just so can be a hassle, difficult to do unaided.
The stiffness of the obi can feel more than a little uncomfortable even if you’ve been wearing kimono for years.
Plus, the costs of buying kimono, which are ideally of silk rather than synthetic fabric, run high.
Not so with yukata, the casual summer kimono. Made of washable cotton, they’re a pretty and practical option for warm weather leisure activities.
Yukata are available in various styles and color combinations. Older women customarily wear more subdued colors and leave brighter hues for the younger gals.
But that’s in Japan; outside of Japan, the rules are more relaxed.
And since many Japanese people living in the U.S. wear yukata to Fourth of July firework celebrations, this coming Independence Day could be the ideal occasion to publicly debut in one of your own.
In whatever color you like.
When you’re ready to wear yukata – and you’ve no Japanese friends or acquaintances nearby to help – check out one of the supremely easy to follow videos YouTube, like this one, before seeking to order online.
Fun, food, and yukata ~ Japan is a summer festival.
1) Watch both versions of the movie, The Karate Kid. You’ll want to see the 2010 version with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith in the title role set in China. It includes a scene featuring the Qi Xi, the Chinese festival from which Tanabata originates. And you’ll want to see the original 1984 version set, partially, in Japan. Because, well, despite all the imitators since, there’s nothing like seeing a young Ralph Macchio winning the fight of his life with the “crane” technique.
3) Learn more about Tanabata and how an originally Chinese event became so very Japanese.
Featured image, Hiratsuka Tanabata 2008 daytime by Cassiopeia sweet; Yakisoba by 5th Luna; and Candied Apples by Bryan James Henry.