For some reason great things in Japan come in threes.
For example, any guidebook on Japan will tell you about the three most famous views in all of Japan. The floating torii in Miyajima, the Amanohashidate sand spit in Kyoto and the Matsushima valley in Miyagi.
Similarly there’s also a set of three most famous night views, three best onsen, three best gardens, three best castles etc, etc.
The set relevant to today is the three greatest festivals/matsuri in Japan. Number 1 is the Gion festival in Kyoto, number 2 is the Kanda and Sannoo Matsuri in Tokyo and number 3 is the Tenjin matsuri in Osaka.
I sadly had to be at work for the Gion festival this year* and Tokyo is a long trek to look at floats but I was not going to miss the one in Osaka. Thus last Friday I set off to Osaka along with my girlfriend Fran and three of her friends.
* However my girlfriend did attend Gion matsuri and she is hopefully going to do a guest post telling you all about it.
Unfortunately I only knew three things about this festival.
1. There is a float incorporating a shrine to a god.
2. At some stage it is put on a boat and traverses the river.
3. There are fireworks.
And I’ll own up to the following right away, I missed nearly every event that was happening during the festival. Apparently at a shrine in Osaka the god is paraded around up and down the street on an enormous float. There are more floats, dancing, chanting, music, etc, etc. My friends and I saw almost none of this because we were wandering about near the river where we assumed everything was happening.
In fairness considering the only things we knew were happening involved boats this wasn’t entirely wrong of us, and the riverbanks were lined with tents.
Yup, tents selling food. This is the defining feature of Japanese festivals. I may have explained the principle of Japanese festivals to you all before but allow me to reiterate.
What one does at a Japanese festival.
Firstly one dresses up in Yukata. Particularly if one is a lady.
Secondly, one goes to a tent and buys enormous quantities of festival food, a kind of food that is quite unlike most other Japanese food.
Thirdly, one sits down and watches whatever spectacle the festival is in aid of.
Lacking a yukata yet (although you just wait) I skipped straight to stage two and wandered about looking at all the bizarre food.
These enormous takoyaki, the size of my fist. Takoyaki are octopus dumplings and usually they only contain part of one octopus tentacle. These takoyaki contained a whole octopus each. They were absolutely enormous.
Delicious pineapple slices on a stick and even more bizarrely watermelon on a stick. There really is nothing that the Japanese won’t put on a stick.
These awesome looking barbequed fish. Not pictured, the barbequed sea snails that seem daring for even the bravest culinary adventurer.
Some strange snack thing consisting of a giant prawn rice cracker coated with takoyaki sauce, sprinkled with something crispy I couldn’t identify and topped with a fried egg shaped like a heart. Nice but an odd combination of elements.
We also made a brief alteration to stage 2 to pause and play some of the traditional festival games.
This game involves using a paper scoop to try and capture goldfish before the paper disintegrates. You can then pay extra to keep the fish. I didn’t try it as scaring fish for amusement is not really my cup of tea but Fran had a go and captured an impressive 18 fish! Considering I’ve watched people fail to capture one that is a sterling performance.
There was also a variant of this involving some turtles which turned all the girls I was with very kawaii. Fran had a long and very intense argument with herself as to whether or not to get a turtle.
Finally, refreshed and having completed stage 2 we moved onto stage 3, in this case watching things happen in the river.
Japan wins at fireworks by the way guys. The rest of the world can just give up now because Japan has won. The firework displays in this country are immense stunning things. The entire sky is constantly illuminated from one end to the other. I lack the words really to convey quite how superior the fireworks here are to those in Britain. There simply isn’t a shared frame of reference that can be used to compare them. In fact, even mentioning such inferior fireworks as the kind we have in Britain devalues the spectacle a little bit.
And spectacle is definitely the right word, particularly when later into the night the fireworks were joined by hundreds of brightly lit barges (many sporting music and giant illuminated advertising mascots) and a small boat, containing the shiny golden casket that the god the festival celebrates resides in, zipping about. Fireworks, Noh dance, barges and golden casket all combined to create a visual effect that completely overwhelms your ability to take it all in at once.
Sadly my videos failed entirely to capture the scale of what was going on. Especially the fireworks.
The only thing more sensory overloading than the visuals is the absolute crush of people all around you. There were a lot of people lining the riverbanks, an awful lot. As I have mentioned before it is easy to forget quite how many people there are living in Japan until they all try and occupy the same space. I have been more crushed in my time (Arcade Fire at Leeds Festival springs to mind) but that was in a small tent. This was a perfectly open environment and it was already swelteringly hot. The combination of heat, sweat, physical bodies and smell was the only thing that could potentially rival the visual feast for my sensory attention.
Fireworks dispensed with we descended upon the festival tents to eat something (barbequed corn and yakitori for me) and tried to leave at around roughly the same time as several million other people.
I love Japanese festivals unreservedly. There are perhaps more exciting ways to have fun but nothing makes me feel more like I’m making the most of my time here than going to a festival.