Like much of the Northern Hemisphere, Japan has been sweltering in well-over-30-degree temperatures for the past month or more. Added to its usual humidity, it makes going outside for any length of time … not an appealing idea. However, it’s also the season for festivals and excellent street food, so I did brave the heat a few times recently.
“Matsuri” is the Japanese word for “festival”. Mitama Matsuri is held anually at Yasukuni Shrine to honour the spirits of the dead, although it’s hard to guess that as an outsider dazzled by the sun and by the sight of over 30,000 yellow lanterns lining the road leading to the temple.
I didn’t get many photos thanks to the oppressive heat radiating off the flagstones, and my phone deciding it felt like showing a black screen instead of the camera viewfinder after I’d been there a few minutes. But that was fine; at the time I was much more interested in getting a cooling snack and heading for the marginally-more-tolerable shade of the shrine gardens.
As usual for a Japanese festival, rows and rows of stalls selling glorious street food were the star attraction. Some food was amazing in the summer heat …
- Cucumber on a stick. Imagine a small cucumber on a wooden skewer, chilled on a bed of ice and then served with garlic salt. Beautifully fresh, but only if you scrape off the excessive amounts of garlic salt
- Whole watermelon. Again, it’s a small watermelon, but it’s still just a whole watermelon with the top cut off and the insides mushed up a bit so you can eat it with a spoon
- Kaki-gōri is Japanese shaved ice, and it’s a summer classic I was greatly looking forward to eating again. The best ones are served in a big cup with a sweet condensed milk filling and pick-and-mix syrup flavours
… and there were some foods I couldn’t believe people were eating, like massive hot baked potatoes. Feeling hungry and walking around the stalls for a fourth time though, I realised it’s surprisingly hard to find proper filling food that isn’t piping hot. I ended up getting a variation on okonomiyaki (a savoury pancake filled with cabbage and pork) and eating it very slowly in the shade along with an iced tea!
Looking up Yasukuni shrine again to check exactly how many lanterns there were, I did come across the interesting and somewhat unsettling fact that as a temple dedicated to Japanese who died serving their country in wars throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it lists the names, dates and places of death of nearly 2.5 million people. This list includes over 1000 war criminals (albeit convicted on often flimsy evidence by the victors of World War 2), which has led to a number of controversies over the years.
Kawasaki Daishi Fūrin-ichi
“Fūrin” is “wind chime” and “ichi” is “market” (but also with a “fair” kind of nuance). This happens at a temple just a few train stops away from my share house, so a few of us decided to go on another lazy Saturday. We assumed it would be a small temple with a few wind chimes on display. It turned out to be a giant temple (one of the largest in its school of Buddhism) with around a thousand styles of wind chime on display.
The others had okonomiyaki here, but I bucked the trend and decided to try some extra-large takoyaki. “Tako” is “octopus” and “yaki” is “grilled” or “fried”, but takoyaki is actually pieces of octopus cooked in batter in a special tray that makes perfectly round balls. They’re delicious but unbelievably hot inside, so I spent rather a long time awkwardly carrying around my tray and waiting for them too cool down. We also tried soy sauce ice cream, which was … well, it was good to try once, but I don’t plan to get it again (although I rather suspect on reflection that I tried it on exchange and forgot, so I guess there’s every chance I’ll forget again in a few years and end up getting it again anyway).
Karaoke on a Yakata-bune
Yakata-bune are small enclosed boats that are designed to be a comfortable place to sit and drink beer in the middle of the harbour. I have somewhat mixed feelings about them because on the one hand it’s a boat and I love boats, but on the other hand there’s only a small outdoor area so you don’t get the full out-on-the-water experience. Anyway, we went on one for our July work party with excellent food, all-you-can-drink beer (and plum wine and sake and much other alcohol), and a karaoke machine. Heaps of fun, and some amazing views of the harbour at night (as usual making me wish I had a professional camera for night photography).
It really is a season for festivals: as I was writing this article I went out to get lunch and, lo and behold, there was a crowd of people carrying a mikoshi (portable shrine) almost past my doorstep with much shouting and commotion. I just wish I’d been quick-witted enough to get a video!