In my first article as a guest blogger in Tokyo I want to write about one of the most enjoyable things here in Japan: O-matsuri! When I arrived end of May I was told I am just in time for matsuri season – yay, many festivals that offer a fun glimpse on Japanese culture!
Matsuri offer the opportunity to relax, to celebrate, to have a lot of fun – even when you are just watching and eating (like I did) and not actively taking part in carrying a mikoshi. At the shrine-festivals you won’t see any earnest salary men in black suits, no: here people are enjoying themselves and many are dressed in yukata and special matsuri gear. That can look very pretty and sometimes.. uuhm.. quite exciting ;)
What amazes me the most is the array of games for children never seen before somewhere else in that form. Those distinctly Japanese (correct me if I am wrong) kid’s entertainments include many water games, which are thought to be refreshing during hot summerdays. For example fishing rubberballs or other toys out of a swiftly moving water stream, which is enjoyed mostly by the little ones.
Although the animal rights activist in me had to keep both eyes shut, it is great fun for schoolkids to try to catch real goldfish (and I read sometimes even tiny turtles – aaw) with round paper-covered frames. This demands a lot of skill because the paper soaks and rips easily, especially when the victim flounders and struggles not to get caught and the little fisherman keeps his scoop underwater for too long. But some way or the other the kids seem to become experts pretty fast and you can see many of them walking around proudly with their prey in small plastic bags.
I don’t want to know how most of those goldfish end up.. Since they are a symbol of prosperity, I hope that they get treated well and do not go down a toilet flush!
I assume that this game is one of the reasons why the image of a goldfish (as well as the sound of glass wind bells, the taste of zarusoba or watermelon and watching fireworks, that are also displayed at matsuri very often, just to name a few things) make Japanese people instantly think of the summer.
There are also games without water at matsuri, but all demand a certain skill. For another game, that is more or less exclusivly attended by little girls, you really need to have a calm hand and a lot of patience. You buy a tiny fragile plate made out of pressed sugar with the outline of a flower or some other pattern perforated in it and you get a pin with it. Now you have to try to “cut out” the pattern with the pin without breaking it – if you succed you get twice as much money back as you paid. This seemed quite tempting, so I tried… and failed badly: the flower broke in thousand pieces after a few seconds. I am not sure if anyone ever got one Yen back…
While girls are sweating concentrated over there sugar flowers, boys try their luck at a shooting stand. Well, this is not something especially Japanese, rather a worldwide phenomenon, but it fits into the picture I had of most games at Japanese festivals. It seems like they all try to bring forward abilities that were needed in an oftentimes harsh life on the Japanese countryside back in the days prior to the introduction of konbini and vendingmachines at every corner. When you had to be able to catch a fish if you wanted to have something between your chopsticks for dinner and you had to be skillful and patient to sew clothes or make tools and stuff for everyday life. And elements like water and fire for sure played a decisive role in that kind of life and so they still do at the matsuri, as matters of purification, symbols of life and just for fun at the games there.
And if you catch a goldfish there, pleaseplease be nice and let him have a pleasant life in a pretty pond..