You’re in Japan, it’s summer, everything is awesome and you want to go to a summer festival because everyone else seems super excited about it. You should absolutely get out there and do it. Summer festivals in Japan are an integral part of the culture and it’s just part of the full experience.
You want to make sure you have the best time possible so let me help you out with some basic pointers.
First: Japan is hot. You might come from a hot place too, in which case this might not be as much of an issue, but most people don’t. Some of you might come from hot places, but they aren’t as humid. This is the thing that surprises most visitors in the summer. Japan is crazy hot and disgustingly humid.
This politician is drinking water from a Fukushima puddle to prove it’s safe. The thing is, drinking from puddles isn’t safe.
The best way to battle that is to drink water. You need to have some with you before you get started and keep drinking through the whole day. Most festivals culminate in a fireworks display, which happens in the evening, but the festival usually starts in the morning. You need to be prepared to be outside, in the hot sun, in humidity, in a crowd for hours and not die. Water is your best friend for this.
You can bring water with you, but they will be selling it at the venue. While water isn’t going to be cheap, they aren’t going to do the same kind of price gouging you would see at a popular music festival.
Second: Go with a friend at least, or with a group of friends. There is a lot of walking involved in most festivals as they set up artificial streets with stalls and the routes usually lead to local temples or parks with kids playing games. There is a pretty even split between the stalls with games where you can win prizes and food stalls where you can buy questionable food. The games, like in every festival all over the world, are a bit sketchy. You tend to always walk away with some prize, but these things are aimed at kids so you’d probably just be doing it to walk away with a souvenir for the day.
Festival games, teaching children about death and disappointment since time immemorial
Going with a group of friends gives you kind of a buffer to the crowds and even means you can split up to find the cool things to do. Eventually you will want to carve out a spot to sit and eat, and if it is late enough, watch the fireworks. Going with a group means you can sustain yourself off each others energy throughout the day.
Men’s Yukata, for some reason, makes it hard to balance.
Third: clothes. You need to dress for a long hot day. That includes sunscreen if you are the paler end of the spectrum (like myself). Nothing is more miserable than having sunburned arms mid way through a day because you weren’t thinking ahead. Japanese people, in general, tan, so they won’t be thinking about this for you.
Traditionally people wear a summer yukata. Girls are wearing bright summer colors while men’s tend to be more subdued navy blues and dark colors, but they are light and very comfortable. They don’t tend to come with proper pockets, they have those in sleeve pouches, which if you are not used to them makes it feel like you’ve lost your wallet all the time. I bring a small pouch that I can keep my hands on, mainly because I don’t trust myself.
Be wary of the wooden sandals. They are part of the traditional get up, but if you are not use to them the rope that holds the wood to your feet is going to rub and cause blistering. The wood is also going to be tough on your feet. I recommend a sports sandal, which might get commented on, but will be way more comfortable throughout the day and I see a lot of Japanese people wearing them.
You may have noticed I keep hitting the theme of thinking about the whole day. This brings us to:
Fourth: drinking. I mentioned water, but this is a festival, so there will be alcohol. I have also mentioned that you will be there all day. These are two elements that should be included in the calculation as to how much and how often you imbibe. There is no need for a frat party keg stand at the beginning of the day, think more of a slow burn that you want to fuel through the upcoming energy crisis. Be conservative. The worst thing you can do is end up with a hangover before the festival is even over.
This is a real image from the Tokyo Oktoberfest. Barely a Japanese person in it, that’s how much foreigners come out for booze.
As an addendum, drinking water fixes most of that.
Fifth: I waited on this one until after alcohol because the previous point can negatively impact you feeling about this one. Crowds. There will be some. These are Japanese crowds, some of the crowdiest people in the world. Think shoulder to shoulder for most of the day. The bigger the city, the worse that situation gets. Since festivals generally happen in designated areas it means that as many people who want to attend the festival will be crowded into a finite amount of space.
You cannot get annoyed, upset or angry about crowds because you are there making the situation worse by existing in the same space. You are one with the crowd. You are the crowd. This was something that took me a long time to come to terms with. I hate being pushed, whereas in Japan, pushing past people to get around is much more common and socially acceptable. You might be thinking you are fine with it, but the addition of alcohol into a crowd situation can have catastrophic effects. Knowing it’s going to be this way means you’ll be mentally prepared for it when the people get tight.
Sixth: Now we’re getting to the end of the day, the sun goes down and the fireworks start. Everyone is basically going to stop and watch. If you can find a place to sit before this you should. Japanese fireworks displays are on the long side. Some festivals stretch them out to 2 hours. In Japanese society this is a very romantic time, so if you are with an attractive person, this is when you take their hand and they smile shyly, or you lean in close to them.
No big public displays of affection, Japan is generally more on the subtle side of these things.
The finale: You’d think that the fireworks is the end of the festival, and it technically is, but there is one more event that if you don’t take into account can ruin the whole experience. Now you have to get home.
If you drove a car, that was probably a mistake as everyone is leaving at exactly the same time, when the fireworks end. This means traffic jams. In big cities this also means 99% of the people attending are about to attempt to take the same train home.
You thought it was crowded before, wait till you see station attendants trying to push all those people from outside into the sausage links that are the train. And if you thought it was hot and gross before, welcome to the same thing being stewed in a metal case.
This is why I recommend actually leaving a bit before the rush. Not a huge amount of time, but if you can’t walk back to where you live, you probably don’t want to experience one of the worst things about being in Japan. The last train rush.
Of course, it’s up to you. I think for a lot of people this is part of the package. I always wanted to bail about 30 minutes early so we could ride the train like humans instead of cattle. You can also avoid the risk of someone who didn’t take point #4 properly into account. The guy who is dehydrated and drank too much that is now on a swaying train. That is a prime candidate for public vomiting and the less packed the train is, the easier it is to escape.
Armed with this information hopefully you can make some good decisions for yourself and have a great summer festival. They truly can be some of the highlights of a stay in Japan. Unlike that guy, who is trapped in his own nightmare.