Festivals, Fireworks, and Food: Summertime in Japan
A lot of people tend to think that the best time to visit Japan is during the Spring to see the cherry blossoms or the Fall for the bright red maple leaves. A few (clearly demented) people might even insist that the snow up north makes Winter the best time. They're all wrong, of course.
Summer in Japan isn't all about crazy beach parties and music festivals and barbecues like it is elsewhere (though you can find those things if you want). Things are on a different frequency. High daytime temperatures coupled with almost stifling humidity slows down the energy of the country and pushes a lot of activities and socialization into the cooler evenings. However, because Japan will never give up the excuse to celebrate literally anything, this results in perhaps the greatest Japanese invention of all time, the natsu matsuri, summer festival.
Every city, town, and village regardless of its size will hold at least one festival sometime during July or August. And while they'll naturally have their regional variations, there are a few things that always seem to remain constant that will evoke a sense of nostalgia in anyone who's ever experienced a natsu matsuri.
In the days leading up to a festival, you'll see paper lanterns lining the streets. Though the festival stalls won't show up until the day of, the lights are illuminated during the nights prior, bathing the streets in a warm glow and announcing to the town of the events to come.
Once festival day arrives, people spend all afternoon setting up stalls and stages so that by about 5:00 pm, things are ready to go. Depending on the size of the town there will be more or less activities and performances, but generally speaking there will always be games, food stalls, and fireworks, and they're likely to include the same staples no matter where you are. For example, a ubiquitous matsuri game involves scooping rubber balls from a pool of water using a paper net. Foods that you'll find everywhere include shaved ice, fried chicken, and taiyaki, fish-shaped pancakes with a variety of fillings. And perhaps the smallest of festivals won't have their own fireworks shows, but there are sure to be vendors selling firecrackers and sparklers for the neighborhood kids to play with.
At the smaller, more local matsuri, you'll get to really see how close community can be. Children will run around playing unsupervised as their parents stand chatting with one of the vendors who was maybe a childhood neighbor once upon a time. High school girls will walk down the street arm-in-arm, donning yukata, summer kimono, and a light layer of makeup that wouldn't be allowed during the school months. The town's mayor will spend an obscene amount of time welcoming everybody and thanking all of the individual people who helped put on the event. And if you're lucky enough to live there yourself, you'll find yourself stopped or greeted every few seconds by someone you may or may not know directly.
I do admit that because natsu matsuri tend to be such localized events, perhaps it isn't the easiest thing to do to come to Japan during the summer specifically to attend one. But if you do happen to be in Japan during July or August, and you see the matsuri lanterns lining a street or notice that people seem to be getting ready for something on a public thoroughfare, I suggest making it a point to pop back later to check it out. Or if you hear of one going on that may conflict with plans you already have, I promise you, it'll be worth it to skip what you were going to do and go to the festival instead. Even if you're in a big city and it may not be as quaint of an event as if it were farther out in the country, by taking part in a matsuri, you're experiencing one of the mainstays of Japanese culture, something every Japanese person can relate to. Which is worth so much more than seeing one more temple or eating a bowl of ramen, in my opinion.