Aaah! Summer in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The season of beach bashes, fireworks, summer kimonos, traditional festivals, rock concerts, beer gardens, shaved ice – and so much more. With so much to do and see from the northern top of Hokkaido to the southern-most tip of the Okinawa isles, it can be hard to decide what to try first.
The solution is easy: No matter where you are in Japan, just do as the locals do. There are both old and newer summer traditions here just waiting to be tried. Here are just a few.
Eisa and Bon Odori festivals are summer traditions that have their roots in Buddhism. They usually occur in mid-August when it was once widely believed that ancestral spirits would visit from the great beyond. Relatives would return to the family home for these festivals and traditional dances were performed to entertain the otherworldly guests. (This also the traditional time of year to tell ghost stories in Japan.)
Today, many still take the opportunity to visit the family home. Local Bon Odori festivals take place throughout mainland Japan, while similar Eisa festivals are held throughout the Okinawan islands. These are fun carnival-like community events with colorful lanterns and lots of food and game booths.
On Okinawa the dancers usually train to dance, sing and play drums from an early age, and the event is more of a parade. On the mainland, the dancing is usually a procession around a central stage used by taiko drummers and other performers and everybody is welcomed to join in the dancing. Don’t be shy, just dance with the crowd.
Nothing says summer nights in Japan like a fireworks display. Many fireworks festivals will be scheduled all over the archipelago during the months of July and August. Many of the fireworks you’ll see are quite elaborate and impressive. Young and old alike look forward to seeing these spectacular shows in the night sky.
I highly recommend that you checkout some of the big firework shows while you are in Japan. They’re usually about an hour long and often there are concession booths on site offering food and beverages. People like to wear yukata, or summer kimonos, while enjoying the show with friends and family.
Don’t forget your handy “uchiwa,” or hand fan, too. It’s a great way to keep cool and look stylish at the same time. They actually work quite well. I recommend getting a nice handcrafted one instead of one of those cheap mass-produced ones. That way you’ll a nice souvenir to take back to the States with you.
If you like to jump, shout and jam to the sound good music, summertime is definitely the right time to be in the Land of the Rising Sun. Outside music festivals are all the rage this time of year and several big events draw big-name lineups.
The two biggest festivals that draw the most famous performers from overseas are Summer Sonic in Tokyo (Aug. 20-21) and Fuji Rock Festival in Niigata (July 22-24). But there are tons of good local music festivals featuring music from a variety of genres. Make sure to stay well hydrated at these sometimes days-long festivals; it can get very hot.
Those who prefer the quitter sounds of nature outdoors needn’t worry. As always, the cicada’s will be out full force this time of year to serenade us all. In fact, it is said that most Japanese consider the sound of cicadas, or “semi,” to be the sound of summer.
You will often see children running and trying to catch them with butterfly nets – a local summer tradition that’s great to try out if you have kids. You’ll see these butterfly nets in department and 100 yen stores all around town this time of year. Why not give it a try?
Cicada catching is not the only children’s summer pastime that involves insects. You’ll also see a lot of little ones playing with Japanese rhinoceros beetles. A summer favorite, they are considered the king of insects in Japan along with stag beetles.
My grandfather used to take me to catch rhinoceros beetles. We’d smear some honey or sugar water at the base of some bushes the night before, then come back around 5 a.m. I was so stoked to catch those beetles. It was fun as a kid watching those big black insects with a cool looking horns fight each other.
Some stores not only sell the clear boxes used to house these pets, they even sell the beetles themselves, since they can be hard to find in urban areas with few bushes.
Of course no summer is complete without special foods to cool you down; and it would be a shame to spend a summer in Japan without trying some.
“Somen” is a well-known summer comfort food in Japan – especially on the mainland. This is a cold thin-noodle dish; you dip the noodles into a cold soy-sauce based broth to eat. Add a little chopped green onions and wasabi and you’re good to go. Nice cold noodles and the cold soup are a perfect on a hot summer day.
A good summer drink to cool you down is “mugicha,” or iced barley tea. A glass of cold mugicha in the summer, that’s naturally caffeine and sugar free, is quite refreshing. You can easily purchase it bottled at convenience stores, or buy the teabags at supermarket and stock your fridge with it.
For dessert there’s always “kakigori, or shaved ice.” It’s very popular and served in many restaurants and at local events and festivals throughout Japan during the summer. Kind of like snow cones, there’s a lot of flavors to choose from.
A classic mainland flavor, however, is “ujikintoki,” with sweet green tea syrup and sweet beans over the shaved ice. While “zenzai,” sweeten “azuki” beans and “mocha” (rice cake) over the ice, is a popular choice on Okinawa.
As for adult beverages, who doesn’t like a nice cold beer on a hot day?
It may sound more German than Japanese, but summer beer gardens are a big hit here. These special seasonal drinking places are usually set up on rooftops by restaurants or shopping facilities. It is tradition that Japanese get together at beer gardens after a hard day at work for a hardy “kanpai!” (cheers!), a cold beer and a good time.
Whatever your plans, if you’re in Japan for the summer make sure you enjoy some of it like the locals. So don that comfy cotton yukata, grab a traditional hand fan and check out all your host nation has to offer. Chances are, you’ll be glad you did.