Japanese Festivals: Celebrating Culture and Community
Japan has a lot of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines throughout almost every city. Besides famous temples and shrines in Kamakura, Harujuku, Nara, etc., you may inadvertently walk by one of the smaller local shrines or temples while you're out exploring. If you do, you can stop to draw your fortune or ring the bell. They are great places to spend a quiet afternoon reading or meditating, and they often have beautiful parks or gardens where people come to relax.
Also, since Japan has many holidays, you may run in to a festival at your local shrine or temple. Some of the festivals include ceremonies in which members of the community carry portable shrines (called mikoshi), or push or pull large festival cartsthroughout the surrounding area. You may see one of these ceremonies while out and about; I've seen it in Harujuku, Shibuya, and by my homestay. If you run into a full-blown festival, though, take the time to stop and look around. It some-what resembles a county fair in America with the various food stands, music performances, and massive crowds of people, but it definitely has a very unique feel that you should experience at least once.
I have accidentally run into several festivals in the three months I've been here. One day I was walking home from the train station and heard loud rock music a few blocks away from my homestay apartment. Later that night my host dad invited me to go to the festival with him. "What festival?" I asked. It turned out the loud rock music I heard on my way home was actually a festival held annually by the local temple. There were stands with great food, games for the kids, and a stage where a famous retired rock guitarist was playing. They even had enormous heaters around the seating area to keep people warm. It was a really fun surprise just down the street.
Just a few weeks ago a Japanese friend invited another CIEE student and I to go see fireworks somewhere down the Seibu subway line. We weren't really sure about the details, but we decided to go. It turned out to be the Chichibu Winter Festival, which is a famous festival that people from all over Japan will travel to see each year. It happens on December 3, and for 3 hours there is on-and-off fireworks, great street food, lots of people, and 6 massive festival carts that different groups of local men pull throughout the city. It's like an American county fair mixed with a parade mixed with the 4th of July. It was a great surprise to be there, and both my CIEE friend and I really enjoyed it. It was really cold out that night, but the warm street food like local style udon and fried beef on a stick helped a lot. It was also really fun to spend the night practicing Japanese with our friend and feeling like a local as we blended with the crowd.
Festivals are a great way to mix with locals and to enjoy local food and culture. While you're here in Japan, I recommend visiting many of the different shrines and temples you find in Tokyo and elsewhere, and try to attend a festival at least once! They happen often, and you might just run into one, so join in and have fun!