Omatsuri in Japan

Summer in Japan is pretty interesting. On the one hand, you have to face heat, humidity, mosquitos, typhoons (more on that in another post) and such. On the other hand, you have lots of neighborhood summer festivals called omatsuri (お祭り).

When my wife and the kids were in Japan by themselves, they went to a couple different omatsuri, and when I came, we went to another omatsuri that was a bit further away.

Omatsuri in Japan often look the same as each other:

  • Often take place at a local Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple (i.e. a communal spot)
  • They have many food-stalls, and stalls for games where kids can collect cheap (often low-quality) prizes.
  • There’s a large platform in the middle for playing music and singing.
  • People will often dance around that platform.
  • People like to dress up either in yukata or jinbei.

Here’s a photo I took when we first got there. The Torii gate tells me this was a Shinto shrine, but within the premises you can see food stalls and such, and the platform on the right:

Untitled

The foodstalls will often sell the same foods at every omatsuri: yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer), takoyaki (octopus “balls”…they taste much better than they sound), yakisoba, baked or fried potatoes, fried squid, etc. In other words, “comfort food”. I like the jagabatť (baked potato with butter) a lot. We noticed a couple stalls next to each other run by younger ladies. Suddenly, at one of the stalls, this older, rough-looking guy wearing loud, flashy clothes scolded one of the girls in rough Japanese. Something about his look reminded me of a stereotypical mobsters you see on Japanese TV.

Foodstall people, or tekiya (テキ屋) in Japan often have a shady reputation similar to “carnies” in the US.1 They’re not organized-crime per se, but may be related somehow. The shady looking guy definitely acted like the boss of the food-stalls, because he kept walking behind them, inspecting things, and giving orders. Othertimes, he sat behind the stalls, somewhat hidden. I was curious, so I tried to see if he was missing part of his finger (like mobsters in Japan), but couldn’t see clearly. 😉

Also, there was a game where kids could shoot prizes with a BB gun, but the larger prizes were almost impossible to shoot down. The stall keeper was another shady-looking guy who smoked cigarettes in front of the kids, and wasn’t too friendly. I didn’t like his vibe very much.

But that doesn’t mean the omatsuri wasn’t fun though. In fact, we had a great time. That evening the weather had cooled down somewhat, so it was warm, but pleasant, and I enjoyed some good french-fries and canned green-tea. As the sun set, the omatsuri became more festive:

Japan Omatsuri Nighttime

By now, there was a lot more people, and the central platform had some music playing, and a lot of older women were dancing in a circle. Little Guy was getting a little tired, so we had to leave.

We have omatsuri in the US as well in Seattle because there is a large Japanese community, and they’re fairly similar.2 But it’s nice to see real omatsuri in person. Omatsuri definitely get a little wild, and have some shady parts to them, but they also bring together a local community with song, dance and food, so they’re a really important part of the culture. That’s one thing missing from American-Japanese omatsuri: the community. At a Japanese omatsuri, you get a good slice of the local community, from the really poor or shady characters, to wealthy business owners and everyone in between. The American ones are mostly for one particular ethnic group, and for people curious about (or married into) the Japanese community, so it feels like something “exotic” not “homegrown”.

Anyhow, if you go to Japan in the summer, check out the local omatsuri if you can. You can see similar festivities too in the Winter during Hatsumode too.

1 It seems some omatsuri now even ban tekiya because of their reputation. This has some obvious benefits, but also some problems because tekiya genuinely depend on the revenue from omatsuri, plus something feels like its missing when the foodstalls are gone. It’s a tricky issue.

2 A lot more non-Japanese people of course. 😉

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Omatsuri in Japan”

  1. People dancing around a central platform are a particular type of omatsuri called ‘bon odori,’ a mid- or late-summer folk dance fest. Others are characterized by parading floats or portable shrines around the neighborhood, but the festival food and presence of tekiya are the same. Shady characters now seem less common around the major festivals like Sanja Matsuri, so maybe the situation is improving. (At least, that’s my experience.) The Japanese take their matsuri seriously, with high rates of participation and enthusiasm. And, they are cheap and fun!

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