Family Fun in Japan: Summer Festivals

According to Wikipedia Japanophilia is an interest in, or love of, Japan and anything Japanese. One who has such an interest or love is a Japanophile. That about sums me up I guess.

I’ve had an obsession with Japan since first visiting the country on a working holiday after my first year of university and falling in love with the fascinating culture and people. On this first trip I was fortunate enough to stay with an amazing ‘host family’ the Watanabes, who have become like my own family over the years and on the many subsequent visits to work, live and travel in Japan. The connections to this awesome group of islands don’t stop there however, as my older brother has resided in the mountains of central Honshuu for over 16 years now, running an outdoor adventure business (Canyons Japan) and bringing up three children with his Japanese wife.  Needless to say, I have plenty of reasons to keep going back there but with a young family of my own, financial constraints and worries about lingering radiation, I won’t be watching the rising sun on those shores anytime soon.

Still, one of the things I remember most fondly are the amazing festivals or matsuri’s which are on throughout the year but particularly busy in the summer months.  In addition to the famous larger festivals, each town or village holds its own celebrations to mark everything from the seasons to folklore, buddhist or shinto holidays, but mainly its just a good excuse for a party.  The Japanese really know how to put together great family events, so there are plenty of fun activities for kids and adults (the latter mostly consists of copious eating and drinking) and there are even quite a few national celebratory days and festivals specifically for children such as girls day (Hinamatsuri), boys day (Tango no Sekku) and Shichi Go San (literally 7-5-3, for children of these auspicious ages).

If you visit Japan any time from late June to late August you are pretty much guaranteed to come across quite a few famous and smaller local festivals, with all of these expect Japanese festival-goers to be dressed in brightly coloured Summer Kimono, side-show style games, Taiko drumming and a plethora of hot food stalls selling delicious snacks such as sweet miso-dipped dango balls (glutinous rice), yakitori skewers, anko confectionary (sweet bean paste), Yakisoba (stirfried noodles with vege and meat) among other tempting bites.

Delicious custard cream, chocolate or sweet bean paste Taiyaki cakes

A few of the popular nation-wide goings on:

In July there is Tanabata (star festival) where adults and children write wishes on strips of brightly coloured paper which are then hung on bamboo poles in the garden or housefront and the streets are decorated with ornate versions of the same.

Tanabata decorations up in a pedestrian mall in Takasaki

Omikoshi festivals, held throughout the summer, are one of the most lively and hilarious from a visitor viewpoint. Linked to shinto shrines, townspeople carry a large wooden mobile shrine believed to contain the spirit of a deity around their village, dancing, singing, shouting and generally enjoying themselves in a ridiculous fashion.  For those who think the Japanese are a serious, straight-laced bunch, a visit to an Omikoshi festival will quickly disabuse you of the notion.  There is usually a considerable amount of Sake consumed by the shrine bearers as they stop at stations around the town to refresh themselves, needless to say the progress of the procession gets rather eratic and drunken by the end of the evening!

My beautiful niece Kaya dressed in summer kimono for a festival

Of course festival season wouldn’t be complete without the Hanabi (fireworks) displays, which I’d wager are among the best in the world, even in the smaller towns. Tokyo is famous for its yearly display but I prefer the smaller gatherings in countryside villages where there is hardly any light pollution and  you can get a viewpoint from a mountainside.

At the end of the summer calendar is Obon which celebrates and remembers family members who have passed away, but it’s certainly not a sombre affair and everyone takes part in Bonodori dances, which are not to dificult to master even if you are a Gaijin with two left feet and no rhythm. As with most festivals there is a good deal of eating and a carnival like atmosphere prevails however it ends with the more poignant ceremony of illuminated paper lanterns floated down rivers symbolically signaling the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the dead.

Twin lantern bearers – cute!

The local ladies cooking up a mammoth Yakisoba feed

For families, these festivals are a highlight of the year and a chance to shake off some of the more rigid aspects and stresses of daily life. Whole neighbourhoods and communities join together in a spirit of participation and cooperation that is both harmonius, fun and everyone looks out for everyone elses kids. Sweet.

With the dreary weather this UK ‘summer’ (more like a Monsoon season) I have been dreaming of the warm, humid Japanese summer evenings filled with the aromas of sizzling festival food and blooming with beautifully coloured summer kimonos. I guess I am also a little homesick for Japan, which over the years I’ve come to regard as one of my spiritual homes, with many lifelong friends made there.

Oh well, in lieu of actually being there in person, I’ll don my own summer kimono and the Squigglet can wear hers, we’ll make some yakitori and Somen noodles and sit out in the garden under colourful paper lanterns with friends and of course plenty of Sake!

This post is dedicated to all my wonderful friends and family in Nippon xx

Squigglet wearing a summer yukata from her Japanese cousins


Posted on June 23, 2012, in Cool Activities wth Kids, General, Global Family Culture, Lifestyle, Planet Family Food, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. yes, well, enough about Sake, except to say I understand what legless means now!

  2. I LOVE Japan, have only been twice, but the most recent time was last July, with husband and children in tow. We had a fab time, sadly missed out on festivals. We intended to visit a bit one in Kyoto, but it was very hot so we hung out with the deer in Nara a bit longer. Japan was definitely one of the highlights of our nine month trip and the children now have onigiri in their school lunchboxes!

    • OMG I love onigiri, absolute fav snack. Just discoved an awesome little Japanese grocery and sushi place on Priory Rd near Muswell Hill, Fuji Foods – Japanese chefs and divine sushi. You might know it already!

      • I’m a South Londoner, so I don’t! I can get quite a decent range of ingredients at our local Wholefoods. Otherwise I head into the West End for sushi!

  3. PS I came to you because you’ve started following my travel blog, I don’t really blog there any more, I’ve got a new one, still a bit travelly, but also what’s going on at home.

    • Ok thanks Victoria, actually I’m already following your other blog 🙂 Just did a search on my twitter contacts on WP and the travel one came up, might have a look at your old posts anyhow.

  4. I would love to visit Japan, but I think with all that gorgeous food I’d return at least a stone heavier!

    • It’s very tempting Em, the first time I went there I did gain at least that amount just trying all the yummy snacks and sweets but the traditional diet is pretty healthy and low fat as well as delicious!
      Thx for stopping by and commenting.

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