When the rainy season comes to an end, and true summer is finally underway, a steady stream of Natsu Matsuri, or Summer Festivals, unfolds across Japan. Natsu Matsuri occur across the month of July, sprinkled between the end of the rainy season and the Bon Festival in August. While many of them originally had ties to religious events such as Obon, Tanabata, and Gion Festivals, today Natsu Matsuri are largely secular events focused on celebrating the joy of life in the summertime.
Some Natsu Matsuri have a Shinto spin and are dedicated to a local neighborhood deity. These are called Mikoshi Matsuri and feature a ritual surrounding a smaller, portable version of the local shrine called a mikoshi. Volunteers dressed in a traditional costume work together to lift the shrine up and down to amuse the local deity. There is often a parade where the shrine is carried along the streets of the town, accompanied by music and a type of rhythmic chanting called wasshoi to set the pace for the lifts. Mikoshi Matsuri are lively affairs-- the mikoshi bearers’ enthusiasm radiating out to the onlookers and theirs radiating back in return.
Mikoshi Matsuri only comprise one subtype of Natsu Matsuri. In general, Natsu Matsuri are known for three things in particular-- food stalls carrying all kinds of delicious street foods, carnival-style games, and, once the sun goes down, fireworks. Matsuri food stalls sell a delicious selection of deep fried, grilled, baked and sweet treats. Yakisoba, okonomiyaki, and takoyaki abound. Food on sticks like ikayaki, and kushiyaki are much enjoyed by festival goers, and desserts like chocolate covered bananas, taiyaki, and kakigori give attendees and nice sweet finish their festival food experience. A traditional game, called Kingyo Sukui or goldfish scooping is a very common sight at Natsu Matsuri. A paper net is used to catch goldfish out of a pool of water. If the net is left in the water too long, or pulled too forcefully, the paper will tear making catching a goldfish impossible. While the game may be difficult and require the perfect combination of skill and luck, the winners get to keep the goldfish they’ve caught as the prize.
It is fairly common for people to wear yukata, a traditional type of summer clothing to Natsu Matsuri. Yukata are a type of light, summer kimono, usually made of cotton rather than silk, and are worn without tabi or socks. Yukata are worn by men and women alike, though with slightly different styling for different genders. Women’s yukata are brightly colored, often featuring floral patterns, and are worn with a wide obi, or belt. Men’s yukata tend to be more subdued, with darker colors and simpler patterns, like thin vertical stripes. The obi is also smaller, and usually fairly plain in comparison to women’s obi.
After the sun sets, fireworks grace the skies overtop of the festival. Technicians carefully plan out their displays to create the most beautiful and colorful fireworks possible and give the perfect end to what was an exciting day to everyone there. The joy and culture of Natsu Matsuri make them appealing to both native Japanese and foreigners alike, and a thing to look forward to during the summer months of the year.