It’s Matsuri Season
And New Days pumps mochi full of pudding
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Summer in Japan is about two things: sweltering humidity and matsuri (festivals). The latter is the beating heart of community, particularly in rural Japan. These are not quant fairs with merry-go-rounds and farmers markets. They are loud, raucous events where whole towns empty onto the streets to release a year’s worth of stress in one or two or three days while imbibing sake nonstop and gorging on endless food.
For two years I had the privilege of living on the Noto Peninsula, a remote part of Ishikawa Prefecture that juts out into the Japan Sea. The Noto is a staggeringly beautiful place with rocky cliffs abutting the sea, lush forests, and views of Mount Hakusan on clear days. The air smells like the sea. Quiet is everywhere and permanent.
Like most rural areas, it has seen dramatic population decline due to youth migrating to cities like Tokyo and Osaka. The one-car train that once ran through the peninsula shuttered nearly twenty years ago, and schools have merged because small villages do not have enough children to warrant their own schools.
It’s a peaceful place. Until summer.
From July to September, the Noto stages matsuri throughout the peninsula. Some last for up to three days. The most spectacular – perhaps in all Japan – is Abare Matsuri in Ushitsu, which translates to “The Festival of Fire of Violence.”
Its origins date back to the 17th century when Ushitsu was suffering through a series of epidemics. Desperate for help, they called on the deity Gozo Tennu from Gion Shrine in Kyoto who resolved the epidemic with a giant bee, whose sting inoculated the town’s people. Ever since, Ushitsu has thanked Gozo Tennu annually by throwing a savage party to appeal to his love of raucousness. These days, the epidemic it cures may be the tension built-up from long-hours at the office, a once-a-year chance to let loose and exorcise stress demons.
“Abare” comes from the verb “Abareru”, which means something like “to rampage”. It’s an appropriate name. For two days, Ushitsu swells with people, especially young people, who return from cities to enjoy two days Tokyo could never offer. They carry forty enormous wooden floats through the town while slugging sake handed to them by the crowd cheering them on.
On the first night, the town erects tall poles downtown atop which they light bonfires. Tall flames lick the sky as revelers weave the floats around the poles while embers shower down on them. Children commonly sit atop the floats banging drums and playing flutes while wearing wet towels to protect them from burns. When my friend was invited to carry one of the floats her hair quickly caught fire. Her drunken neighbors promptly extinguished her flaming locks and deemed it a sign of good luck.
The second night features a parade of two mikoshi, or portable shrines representing deities. Twelve local men carry the mikoshi through the town while trying to smash it to pieces. They hurl it over a bridge into a river and ram it against bridge’s pillars while a bonfire’s embers rain down on them. The festival culminates at a final bonfire just outside a shrine’s entrance where the men burn the mikoshi until sufficiently destroyed to appease the Gozo Tennu, a judgment made by a priest.
It’s wild. And if you’re ever in Japan in early July, fly to Noto and join the matsuri! It’s just a one-hour flight from Tokyo.
Ministop has started celebrating with the Summer Matsuri campaign. Unfortunately, the items would be more suited to an Iowa fair than a rural rampage festival. Corn dogs, bowls of corn, and yakisoba sandwiches don’t exactly scream drunken revelry. Where’s the yakitori, skewered beef tongue, and kakigori? The conbini gods will not be happy with this campaign.
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Item of the Week
New Days has released a Pudding Daifuku. Daifuku is a popular wagashi (Japanese confection) that features mochi stuffed with some sort of sweet, usually red bean paste. New Days has crammed it with pudding and caramel sauce. Unless they stabilized this with a truckload of guar gum, this must be a messy bite. Either grab a napkin to keep yourself tidy or down a tall boy Strong Zero so you don’t care about the sweet ooze dribbling from your chin.
From the Dumpster
Japan’s summer is hot. The humidity is off the charts. Sweaty becomes your normal state. There is no relief. All outdoors is like a steam room.
So why the hell would anyone want to eat a giant hamburg donburi? The only safe place to eat this is a Prius in the 7-11 parking lot with the AC on full blast and a pack of Gatsby cool wipes down your pants.
Sake bottles everywhere
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