Hot summer nights in Japan call for greasy street food, dancing, drumming, and festive floats, otherwise known as a summer festival! I experienced my first one Saturday night in Kasama, and despite it being considered a relatively anonymous local festival, I found it to be a really fun introduction to this seasonal staple.
I arrived in Kasama a little earlier than necessary, and in the calm before the storm I explored the Inari shrine close by. It’s a little odd, walking around a shrine or a temple as an foreigner. For some reason, I feel like a real intruder, a disruptor of the peace. Regardless of all the times I’ve seen tourists unashamedly snap hundreds of pictures inside the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, there is some superstitious part of me that stops my photographer’s instincts when I’m at a shrine. Only when no one is looking, do I chance a quick photo shoot.
The sound of distant drumbeats lured me away. I arrived amidst the colorful food stalls and the curious crowds just as the sun was sinking. The festival had begun.
I’ll admit that by most Japanese standards, this was a typical local festival. Homemade floats were paraded down the street; a group of elderly ladies in yukata performed a simple, graceful dance to flute music; elementary children in matching outfits adorned with bells would jump and shout and wave for proud parents’ pictures at the sound of their teacher’s whistle. I saw my fellow JETs from Kasama sporting matching fox ears, dancing and chanting with their team.
One of the coolest parts of the festival was seeing the Nebuta. In Japanese, Nebuta just refers to a “brave warrior float” used in festivals, specifically those held in Aomori prefecture. Kasama’s festival featured two Aomori Nebuta, each of which weighed about 500 kilos (over 1000 pounds)! They really stood out amongst all the locally-made floats.
After an hour, the dancers fell to the sidewalks and the bearers set down their floats in the street. It was time for a rest–it was time for food. People flocked to the foodstalls selling fried chicken on sticks, fried pork on sticks, chocolate-covered bananas on sticks… basically all food on sticks. I went for one of the few non-stick options: okonomiyaki fresh off the skillet. Basically it’s a savory pancake filled with cabbage, noodles, and possibly squid, topped with a fried egg, mayo, some sort of brown sauce, and fish flakes. Not my typical dinner, but it was delicious.
I actually met up with the Kasama JETs during this period of rest. They pinned bells to my shirt and gave me a set of fox ears, and before I knew it, I was dancing in the festival right along side of them! When the whistle blew, we would get into three lines, doing a little jig by jumping from foot to foot, and crazily chanting, “Rassera, Rassera, Rasser-rasser-rassera!” over and over and over. That chant haunted my dreams Saturday night. It was fun but exhausting, and like all the Kasama JETs (who had been doing this for a whole hour prior) I began to dread the whistle. In the breaks, we would drink water and eat the electrolyte candy they passed around, fanning ourselves a little desperately with plastic fans. I wasn’t kidding when I said that festivals were for hot summer nights.
It was a true Japanese summer experience, I think–from the chanting to the food-on-sticks to the sweat. I enjoyed seeing a community come together and celebrate for the sake of celebration. Unfortunately, the festival season is slowly winding down, but with any luck this won’t be my last festival of the summer!