Summer

JAPAN: Kyoto (Gion Matsuri / 祇園祭)

If your travel itinerary to Kyoto was not already bursting at the seams with things to and places to see, there is one more item which merits consideration.  It is the Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival/祇園祭) which takes place during the entire month of July and is punctuated by two float processions, (Yamaboko Junko/ 山鉾巡行), held on July 17 and July 24.  It is the largest and most famous festival in Japan.

The festival originated in 869 when the Japanese people will suffering from plague and pestilence. The Emperor Seiwa ordered the people to pray to the god of Yasaka Shrine to deliver them from all that ailed them and the practice was repeated whenever there was an outbreak. In 970 it became an annual event that eventually evolved into a huge celebration of Kyoto culture. During the Edo period, the wealthy merchant class used the festival/ parade to brandish their wealth and thus it grew into a more elaborate event.

Although the Gion Matsuri is centered on a collection of magnificent parade floats known as “yamaboko,” the events preceding the float processions known as “yoiyama” also draw huge crowds to what seems like an colossal summer block party.  People happily stroll through Kyoto’s downtown area, which during the three nights leading up to the parade(s), is reserved for pedestrian only traffic. They don their summer yukatas and partake of the street food and beer offered at the various food stalls lining the streets. These events are called Yoi-yoi-yoi-yama, Yoi-yoi-yama and Yoi-yama, respectively.

Yoi-yama (宵山) takes place on July 16 and July 23, Yoi-yoi-yama (宵々山) on July 15 and July 22, and Yoi-yoi-yoi-yama (宵々々山) on July 14 and July 21. Some of the oldest families in the area open the front of their traditional machiya houses or shops to display their treasures to the public during this time. This tradition is known as Byobu Matsuri. (Byobu is a traditional Japanese folding screen.) You cannot enter the houses, but you can admire the treasures from outside.

Also prior to the parade(s), the yamaboko are brought out of their warehouses and assembled in designated spots on the major downtown streets of Kyoto (the main area is Shijo-dori between the Kamo-gawa River and Horikawa-dori). Yamaboko refers to the two types of floats used in the procession: the 23 yama and 10 hoko. The yama floats are enormous in size, some weighing as much as 12 tons and towering 25 meters in height.  The hoko floats are smaller but still an example of Kyoto’s finest craftsmanship and artistry.

The procession takes place between 9:00 and 11:30 and follows a three kilometer route.  Paid seating is available in front of the city hall but good viewing spots along the parade route are abundant.

So, if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in Kyoto in July, put on your summer yukata and come see what all the fun is about.

Web page:         http://gionfestival.org/

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Japan: Hyogo / Himeji (Yukata Festival / 姫路ゆかたまつり )

Most visitors to Himeji City are drawn there because of the beautiful Himeji Castle and Engyoji Temple on Mount Shosha, but did you know there is another attraction Himeji is known for, which draws over 200,000 visitors to Hyogo’s second largest city?  It is the Himeji Yukata Matsuri, which takes place in late June. The tradition goes back to a ceremony that took place about 260 years ago when the lord of Himeji Castle moved the Osakabe Shrine to downtown Himeji. Himeji Castle was built on the former grounds of the shrine, therefore, common folks could not visit or pray at the shrine. Moving the shrine to downtown Himeji meant that everyone could easily have access to the shrine and a celebration ensued.  However, the ceremony took place on such short notice that the citizens of Himeji did not have enough time or money to prepare their formal kimonos.  Instead, they were permitted to wear their summer yukatas and thus the Yukata Festival began.

In the beginning, the event was simply referred to as the Yukata Matsuri but since more and more yukata festivals were popping up across Japan, it was eventually renamed the Himeji Yukata Matsuri. The event runs three days and consists of a yukata parade, a yukata fashion show and various live dance and musical performances. It is considered the oldest and largest festival of its type in Japan with over 800 vendors. You can even gain free access to Himeji Castle if you are dressed in a yukata!

The yukata differs from the kimono in that it is made from a light cotton material with bright colors and patterns and is typically worn during the summer months. Although it is common to see men and women wearing yukatas during the summer festivals, the garment represents the main component of this particular festival and it is estimated that 70% of all festival goers at the Himeji Yukata Matsuri attend wearing their yukatas. Of course, if you do not own a yukata, you can rent one at the Jokamachi Style shop near Himeji Castle as well as other places around town.

The festival runs from 4:30 PM to 9:30 PM and is free to attend. Access to the festival is relatively easy as the city lies along the Sanyo Shinkansen line.  The destination is approximately 40 minutes from Kobe and 3 hours away from Tokyo.

Osakabe shrine

Osakabe shrine

 

Men's Yukata

Men’s Yukata

Women's Yukata

Women’s Yukata

Wed page:       http://www.hyogo-tourism.jp/english/whatsnew/index.php?id=149

Address:          33 Tatemachi, Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture 670-0903

Japan: Nagano Prefecture (Lake Suwa Fireworks)

Lake Suwa (Suwa-ko) located in the central part of the Nagano Prefecture is the 23rd largest lake in Japan with an area of 13 square kilometers compared to the 670 square kilometers occupied by Japan’s largest fresh water lake, Lake Biwa, located in Shiga Prefecture. An interesting phenomenon takes place at Lake Suwa during winter, something that is referred to as Omiwatari (The God’s Crossing). There is a natural onsen (hot spring) located under the lake’s surface which causes pressure ridges to form on the surface of the lake. When the lake’s surface freezes during winter, the warm onsen waters beneath the lake circulate, forming these ridges which can reach heights of 30 centimeters or more!

But that is not the only thing that Lake Suwa is famous for. During mid-August of each year, a grand fireworks festival is held at the Kamisuwa district. Fireworks festivals during the summer months are highly regarded in Japan, just like the blooming sakura (cherry blossoms) in the spring. Hanabi means flowers of fire and like the cherry blossoms their existence is very brief. Hailed as the largest fireworks festival in the world with 40,000 shells detonated, the Lake Suwa Fireworks Festival draws over 350,000 spectators. (The largest fireworks festival in Tokyo, held over the Sumida River only uses 20,000 shells.)

The event, which began shortly after World War II in an effort to uplift spirits in postwar Japan, lasts 2 hours. The finale features a 2 kilometer long waterfall of cascading sparkles which draws gasps from the spectators as the sounds of the shells detonating resonate from the surrounding Japanese Alps.

Lake Suwa is accessible via the JR Chuo Line. Exit at Kamisuwa Station and your destination is a short 8 minute walk from that point.

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Lake Suwa (Nagano)

Lake Suwa (Nagano)

God's Crossing on Lake Suwa

God’s Crossing on Lake Suwa

Kamisuwa,Nagano

Kamisuwa,Nagano

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c1fd7895431c8cd003e9d7e6ff6332ca For more information, visit the event website at: http://www.suwako-hanabi.com/ (Japanese)

Japan: Summer Fireworks Displays

Now that the biggest summer fireworks show in Japan has come and gone, I thought it would be a good time to itemize the other major fireworks festivals that are about to take place. There are several scheduled in and around Tokyo, as a matter of fact, with events ranging in scale from less than 2,000 shells all the way up to over 10,000 shells being utilized! The Japanese fireworks (hanabi) are highly regarded as the most beautiful in the world with colorful vibrant colors, a wide variety of shapes and techniques accented by a dynamic but delicate sense of art.

As I mentioned, the Sumida River Fireworks Festival took place this past Saturday, July 26th at 7:00 PM over the Sumida River near Asakusa. Typically this festival is held on the last Saturday in July and is a revival of celebrations held during the Edo period. This is not a mere fireworks display but a fierce competition between rival pyrotechnics groups which produces some of the most amazing displays that can be seen over the skies of Tokyo. This year, it was said that 20,000 shells were used during the event. The event is so popular, it draws close to a million people annually. (Information: http://gotokyo.org/en/kanko/taito/event/sumidahanabi.html)

Sumida River fireworks

Sumida River fireworks

Sumida River with Tokyo Skytree in the background

Sumida River with Tokyo Skytree in the background

Spectators gathering to watch the fireworks show along Sumida River

Spectators gathering to watch the fireworks show along Sumida River

If you missed the Sumida River show, you can still catch another nice fireworks display on August 2nd. Edogawa Fireworks Festival is the oldest fireworks festival in Tokyo, marking its 39th year this year! Taking place on the banks of the Edo River, the event utilizes some 14,000 shells during a show which is divided into eight sections, each section based on a different theme. The venue is just a 25 minute walk from the JR Koiwa Station and a 15 minute walk from Shinozaki Station on the Toei Shinjuku Line. (Information: (Japanese only)http://www.city.edogawa.tokyo.jp/hanabi/index.html)

Edogawa Fireworks Festival

Edogawa Fireworks Festival

Edo river

Edogawa

Also on August 2nd, you can watch 11,000 fireworks launched from the banks of the Arakawa River in the Itabashi ward, one of 23 special wards in Tokyo. The Arakawa River forms part of the boundary with Saitama Prefecture. The Itabashi Fireworks Festival lasts and hour and 40 minutes and reserved seating is available, if you so choose. You can reach the venue via the Toei Mita Line, just exit at the Nishidai station. (Information: (Japanese only) http://itabashihanabi.jp/)

Itabashi Fireworks Festival

Itabashi Fireworks Festival

If you happen to be in Yokohama, the capital of Kanagawa, on August 5th, make sure not to miss the Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival. Here 15,000 fireworks will be launched from boats in front of Rinko Park. Sponsored by the Kanagawa newspaper (Kangawa Shimbun) this is Yokohama’s signature summer event! This year will be the 29th year for this event which will be highlighted by fireworks synchronized with music and laser beams. (Information: http://www.yokohamajapan.com/things-to-do/events/29th-kanagawa-shimbun-fireworks-festival-2014/)

Kanagawa Fireworks Festival

Kanagawa Fireworks Festival

Kanagawa

Festival vendor

Festival vendor

Last but not least on August 10th, the Tokyo Bay Grand Fireworks Competition will take place. This event will be utilizing 12,000 shells which will light up the sky of Tokyo Bay including the Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Tower. Two leading pyrotechnics companies, Marutamaya and Hosoya, compete to show off the most spectacular display of fireworks. The Tokyo Bay Grand Fireworks Festival has become one of the biggest and well known fireworks festivals in Tokyo along with Sumida River Fireworks Festival, drawing over 650,000 visitors each year. The main viewing area is the Harumi wharf, but it is limited to only those who have tickets. Visitors to Odaiba’s Decks Tokyo Beach can also view the fireworks display. The hanabi show is scheduled to start at 6:50 PM, concluding at 8:10 PM. (Information: http://www.gotokyo.org/en/tourists/attractions/fourseasons/hanabitaikai.html)

Tokyo Bay Fireworks Competition with the Rainbow Bridge in the background

Tokyo Bay Fireworks Competition with the Rainbow Bridge in the background

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Of course, this is not a complete list but it will give you an idea of what is available during the month of August. Summer in Japan is not complete until you have had an opportunity to view the fireworks, so plan on it!

California: Southern California Festivals/ Fairs

Southern California offers such diversity that there is always something for everyone here.  Whether you enjoy the beach, the dessert or the mountains, you can always find something to satisfy you.

The same holds true for the series of festivals and fairs that are held in Southern California throughout the year.  Something to satisfy everyone!

Renaissance Pleasure Faire

6520 N Irwindale Ave #202,

Irwindale, California 91702

http://www.renfair.com/socal/

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The Renaissance Pleasure Faire began in Agoura in 1963 and was created to provide school children and their families with a living history of Elizabethan England.  Since its inception, the faire has grown into an interactive playground for over 200,000 guests and participants. Over the years, more than 5 million people from around the world have visited Southern California’s Renaissance Pleasure Faire!

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Nisei Week

Little Tokyo District

Los Angeles, CA.

http://www.niseiweek.org/

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With a sizeable Japanese population residing in Southern California, Los Angeles is the annual host of the Nisei Week festival. 

Nisei (meaning second generation) week is a nine-day festival which was first held in 1934 and today is recognized as one of the longest running ethnic festivals in the U.S.  The event takes place in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district during August.

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During the nine-day event, one weekend is devoted to the traditional Tanabata Festival.  This event celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi represented by the stars, Vega and Altair who according to legend are seperated by the Milky Way and allowed to meet only once a year.

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In preparation of the celebration, people make colorful flower decorations out of “washi” paper that will be displayed throughout the event.

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Bridge Summer Festival

Torrance Cultural Center

3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance, CA

http://bridgeusa.com/SpecialEdition/sp.php?n=201306&p=sf

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Each July Bridge USA, a Japanese language monthly magazine hosts its annual summer festival.  Modeled after the traditional matsuri, the event is a celebration of Japanese culture featuring countless food and game booths as well as an entertainment stage showcasing performances by local and overseas Japanese acts.

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The festival draws throngs of Japanese and non-Japanese alike with its thundering Taiko performances, martial arts demonstrations and talent show.

In Japan children try to scoop up gold fish with tiny paper backed scoopers called poi.  Here they play the same game with marbles. The game is called kingyo sukui.

In Japan children try to scoop up gold fish with tiny paper backed scoopers called poi. Here they play the same game with marbles. The game is called kingyo sukui.

Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese snack made with pieces of octopus and wheat flour batter

Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese snack made with pieces of octopus and wheat flour batter

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Yaki tori, meaning grilled chicken is cooked to perfection on a stick and goes great with Japanese beer!

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning "what you like" or "what you want", and yaki meaning "grilled" or "cooked."

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked.”

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The mikoshi serves as the vehicle to transport a deity while moving between the main shrine and a temporary shrine during a festival or when moving to a new shrine.

The mikoshi serves as the vehicle to transport a deity while moving between the main shrine and a temporary shrine during a festival or when moving to a new shrine.

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Various booths offer everything imaginable for sale

You can have a photograph taken wearing a kimono

You can have a photograph taken wearing a kimono

Live entertainment is available throughout the festival. Some acts travel all the way from Japan to perform here.

Live entertainment is available throughout the festival. Some acts travel all the way from Japan to perform here.

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