Once in a while in the course of my travels I’ll stumble upon a local festival. Abroad it has happened in Germany, in Peru and in Malaysia. Here in Japan it’s happened in Hokkaido, in Honshu and in Kyushu. This month, if you’re in Matsumoto, it just might happen to you.
It’s no secret that all throughout Japan, summertime means festival time. And Matsumoto is no exception to this rule. Coming up soon is the 32nd Annual Taiko Festival, taking place as always in Matsumoto Castle’s ‘Honmaru’ Inner Garden. Entry is free, the performances are beyond amazing, and you can catch it on Saturday July 27th or Sunday the 28th – or both! The drumming starts at 5:40 and goes until 9:00. (Garden gates open at 4:40pm. Go early to snag a good seat!)
There are also performances in front of Matsumoto Station from 1:30 to 3:00 and in the old Ote-mon Gate square (near Yohashira Shrine and Nawate ‘Frog’ Street) from 2:00 to 3:45. There at the square you might also be able to try your own hand at banging on the big drum, so swing on by!
What might be Matsumoto’s single biggest festival of the year is also on the way. The mesmerizing Matsumoto BonBon Dance happens the first Saturday of August, and is an experience you’ll never forget. For five hours starting at 5pm over two hundred groups take over the streets of downtown, dancing and singing and luring passersby into the frenzy. You pretty much have to see it to believe it. (Wear comfortable shoes. Trust me.)
And while you can show up anytime and start taking in the vibe, the party goes full-throttle right from the get-go. From under the late afternoon sun into the shadows of dusk and on into the dark of night the festival just keeps rolling. For some people, five hours still just isn’t enough. So if you’re going, go early! There will be lots of food and drink to go along with the fun.
These events, however spectacular, do lack that one thing that makes certain summertime festivals in Japan so magical for the accidental onlooker: the magic of that spontaneous, intimate experience. This is what I was reminded of yesterday as I passed by Matsumoto Shrine.
There was nothing happening, actually. But everything was in place. Lanterns were strung along the perimeter of the shrine grounds…
Extra adornments hung from the torii gates and the trees and the shrine itself…
Banners were flying. Here and there a few floodlights were in place. And all over were the bright colors of the tents where children – and plenty of adults too – will be fishing for goldfish and gunning for prizes and getting their fill of yakisoba and cotton candy and a dozen other flavors of festival tradition.
I’ll get down there if I can, either Wednesday evening or Thursday, to take it all in: the sights, the sounds, and yes, the smells. But I’ll also be going down to try once again to feel what it’s like to stumble upon a local Japanese festival.
Of course, I know now when it’s happening. And if you’re reading this, so do you. Still, if you find yourself down near the castle this evening or sometime tomorrow, take a stroll over to the north side of the castle grounds and find your way to the Matsumoto Shrine festival.
And see the magic for yourself.