Flying Solo at a Japanese Summer Festival
It’s the rainy season here in Japan, but the clouds are clearing and the summer festival season has already started. My first Japanese summer festival of the year was the Tohoku Kizuna Festival. This is a massive festival celebrating the bond (kizuna) between the six prefectures of Tohoku, the northern region of Japan’s Honshu island, below Hokkaido. It’s one part of the larger effort to restore the region after the March 2011 earthquake and nuclear accident, and is held once a year, rotating between Aomori, Iwate, Fukushima, Yamagata, and Akita. This year the festival was held in Fukushima City, the capital of the prefecture, and just one city away from where I live. But deciding that I’d go wasn’t as easy as it should have been.
Every summer, a giant sandal (waraji) is paraded through the city of Fukushima during the Waraji Festival. I had meant to go last summer, but I wasn’t sure what time it would start or where I should wait. I didn’t know how to begin to look for that information. There was no one to ask, no one wanted to go with me, and I assumed that I wouldn’t enjoy the festival by myself. So I gave up.
When I heard about the Kizuna Tohoku Festival this year, I still couldn’t find anyone interested in going with me. None of my coworkers wanted to brave the crowds, and again, with no information available to me, I was starting to think it wasn’t worth it.
The woman offered me juice, chilled vegetables, candy, and finally pressed a plastic tub of pink gelato towards me. She laughed and insisted that I take it because, while we were strangers, we had our kizuna, our bond.
But nothing is as disappointing as missing out on the biggest festival of the summer, especially when it’s only a quick train ride away from my apartment. Fortunately, a local newspaper published a special English-language edition featuring the upcoming festival, including a detailed schedule, peripheral events happening throughout the city, and extra performances unique to this year’s parade. Not only would I be able to see the dancers and drummers from Sendai, Yamagata, and Morioka, the men balancing masts of lanterns from Akita’s Kanto Festival, Fukushima’s giant sandal, and an ornate float from Aomori’s Nebuta festival, but a lion dance troupe from Taiwan and the horsemen from the Soma Nomaoi festival would also perform!
Armed with the details of the parade, several maps, and my smartphone, I finally felt confident enough to make the trip by myself. I packed a bag with frozen drinks, sunscreen, and a book, anticipating a long wait. There were more people than I had ever seen at my station before and I worried that I would have a hard time finding my way in the crowds to come. I get confused easily. But after asking for directions, it wasn’t long before I found a good spot.
Most visitors to Japan will agree that being alone in a crowd is uncomfortable. Being alone in a crowd while sweating over a crinkled map is even less so.
I rushed to get there early and sit in the very front. It turns out I didn’t need to worry. I watched cars go by for hours as my bottled drinks quietly melted all over my book. People eventually gathered along the road and volunteers helped us take our seats. My neighbors asked where I was from, and then no, where I was from. They told me about Saitama Prefecture and their bus ride from Tokyo. While I chatted with one of them about her grandchildren, another left and came back with a hat for me. She worried I would get a sunburn, and she was right. The shadow of the office building behind us had shifted drastically. The same woman offered me juice, chilled vegetables, candy, and finally pressed a plastic tub of pink gelato towards me. She laughed and insisted that I take it because, while we were strangers, we had our kizuna, our bond. So I did.
Of course, if you’re traveling to a new place to experience the local festival, you might not be able to get a hold of the kind of information I was able to find. In that case, it doesn’t hurt to ask people once you get there. I think most visitors to Japan will agree that being alone in a crowd is uncomfortable. Being alone in a crowd while sweating over a crinkled map is even less so. But as it turns out, when festival goers see that you’re uncomfortable, they’re pretty likely to try and help.