Take your Kids to a Festival in JapanJun 24th, 2009 | By Aimee Weinstein | Category: Festivals, Lifestyle
Japan is in the middle of its spring matsuri – festival – season, and the summer fireworks (hanabi) are soon to come. All over the country people flock to the shrines to pay homage and watch the spectacle as the portable shrines – mikoshi – are paraded through the streets by colorfully dressed and shouting men and women. It’s an honor for a Japanese to carry the mikoshi and they pack in as many people as possible, all bouncing and yelling and chanting in time.
The scene consists of more than just the parade, though. Often, on the streets surrounding the shrine, there are games and foods and vendors of various types all hawking their wares with loud voices and strong lungs.
For a parent, Japanese or foreign, the scene can be a frightening one. The crowds alone are enough to cause panic. Figuring out how to get the most out of the experience while still keeping the kids safe, happy and well-fed can cause quite a quandary. But it doesn’t have to be that difficult.
First of all, bag the pram. In most places the crowds are so thick on the day of the matsuri that there is no way to navigate while pushing a toddler in a stroller. And for the toddler, it is frightening to look out into a sea of unfamiliar legs. For the child who is under two years old (or as long as you’re comfortable) try a backpack. There are the soft ones that literally strap the child to an adult’s back or the steel-framed hiking backpacks. If you use the hiking backpack, the child can actually experience the scene by looking over his or her parents’ heads.
Some strollers these days fold very small and weigh very little. These small ones often come with a strap for slinging over the shoulder. I’d highly recommend the Aprica version sold all over Japan at places like Akachan Hampo. It’s less than three kilos and slings comfortably enough to hold both stroller and child. If you can do this, then you can go a little bit into the crowd and then fold and carry the pram when the crowd thickens. This type of stroller is also useful when using the trains in Japan because often the stations only have steps, not escalators.
Older kids just need a firm hand holding theirs. In our family we end up with children on our shoulders to see above the crowd, too. The myriad of sights and sounds and smells could potentially overwhelm some children, but we have found that our kids (ages 9 and 6) revel in the experience and ask to go to a matsuri whenever there’s a chance.
After watching the parade for a while, make sure to see everything around it. Many places will have games for the kids. There’s one where they get a little colander and fish little toys out of a stream of water. There is the omnipresent water-filled, thick balloons on a stick to bounce. Often there are masks of various Japanese and non-Japanese characters to buy. Sometimes there are even small goldfish to win. Each area of Japan has their own way of catering to the children, so you’ll find different games in different places, but there will always be some way for parents to spend money and children to walk away with small prizes.
The food will be as varying as the number of shrines in Japan. Hot dogs, which Japanese refer to as sausages, will almost always appear along the walk of vendors. Most kids will be excited to eat that. Often men and women clad in yukata are sautéing noodles for yakisoba. It might differ in style between Kansai and Kanto, but okonomiyaki will most always put in an appearance at a matsuri. Sometimes referred to as a Japanese pancake and sometimes as Japanese pizza, the reality is somewhere between the two. It’s a flour-pancake base with heaps of veggies and some seafood heaped on top before folding over, omelet style. The sauce is slightly thick and sweet. Some kids might shy away from all the things that are in it, but if they’re remotely adventurous with food, they’ll love it! Especially as summer progresses, there will be sno-cones with as many as eight different flavor choices available. Buyers get to pump their own syrup right on their shaved-ice. It’s decadent!
All in all, a matsuri is a not-to-be missed experience, no matter what ages your kids might be. There are definitely ways in which the whole family can have the uniquely Japanese experience without any trauma. It will be a day to remember for everyone.
There are thousands of festivals in Japan every year – many small towns have their own shrines and accompanying festivals. Check the city or town’s website for a specific listing or peruse the Japan Event Calendar where you will find links to a number of festival listings as well as movie listings, and art & design events that you can add to your itinerary.
This article is by, writer and writing professor, Aimee Weinstein. You can read more from Aimee on her website The Weekly Weinstein: Tales of Tokyo Life where she blogs about Tokyo, parenting and the intersection of the two.