Tanabata is not the only excuse for a festival. New Years, various temple days over the year, are all reasons to bring out the stalls, and go have some fun. The street matsuri in my local area would take up entire thoroughfares, lined with stalls selling knickknacks. There would be little games of throw the shuriken into a board, or beanbag into a hole, or fish out little tiny koi to put into clear bags and take home to sit on a shelf. There would be decorated balloons filled with water, and attached to a stick for children to bounce like balls. Amongst all this fun it was the food that was the star.
The street food sellers would go from Matsuri to Matsuri – festival to festival, bringing their skills: cotton candy shokonin craftsman who would fashion hello kitty, or mickey mouse out of pastel colored candy floss, mounds of sweetcorn brushed with soy and butter and grilled competed with fried noodle yakisoba purveyors of hearty salty greasy food which they formed into piles on their hotplates with thin sliced pork and vegetables in a rich thick sauce. Candied fruit on little plastic holders so you didn’t get your fingers sticky, chocolate dipped frozen bananas, and trays of puffy pounded rice cakes filled with red bean paste and strawberries. Mochi is not traditionally filled with ice cream, ice cream mochi is a junk food snack from convenience stores not a traditional sweet treat. There would be Japanese savory pancakes filled with meat and seafood and drizzled with kewpie mayonnaise and sweet salty sauce – how I loved okonomiyaki! Sellers of grilled squid tried to tempt your business away from sellers of chicken skewers, who all looked at the line in front of the chocolate covered bananas in envy!
Grandpa would come and get us, and we would throw ourselves into the crowds of people. The festivals at shrines would have traditional dancing that everybody could join in, and traditional music, much drinking of cold beer and sake, and the young girls dressed in informal yukata gathered in groups staring at young men who nervously stared back. The mikoshi house for the Kami would be hoisted onto shoulders, and men and women would bounce the heavy wooden decorated box around town on their shoulders, sometimes with a woman dancing on top of it, the Kami inhabiting her body, joyous to be free, whilst Shinto Priests danced in front of the procession. Some of these mikoshi are small and manageable, others are so large and heavy they require many people and a lot of work.
My brother in law was quite the character, a Bosozoku motorcycle gang member, much younger than me and his brother, he would appear at festivals in his Winnie the Pooh mask, dancing wildly, and revving up his motorcycle. Up he would bounce, lifting his mask: It is me. Takeshi! he would announce as if he was zorro or batman, and try and take the children off to ride on his Kawasaki Ninja. I would protest, he would pout, and we would laugh and drink and giggle until it was time to go home. These evenings with grandpa were sheer joy. Standing around with paper plates of Yakisoba, cans of strong mixed chuhi drinks, the children bouncing those small balloons filled with water, or waving plastic katana fighting with their cousins. It almost felt normal, a new normal, one I could love.
Reality always seeped in round the edges of Matsuri, grey and dangerous, cold and miserable. Mr. Charming would show up, and put the chains back on. I would have to be quiet and careful, small and insignificant. I couldn’t laugh and joke and play and be joyful. He would push and grab and the children would shrink back into themselves, silent and worried. Off we would go, off back to the apartment, the Matsuri merrily continuing down the road, shutting the door to the fun and the happiness of summer in Japan.