Generally, these festivals follow the same formula. A street or two will be cordoned off from cars and stalls set up for people to visit. Some stalls will sell street food like yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) or yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), others will sell cute trinkets like face masks, balloons, or fans. Still others are dedicated to mini-games like trying to catch goldfish from a stream. They usually start at nightfall, with lanterns lighting the way. A special float will be set up, decorated in dedication to the patron deity of the festival. Visitors will be dressed in colorful yukata, or summer kimono, and the night usually finishes off with some fireworks.
I have wanted to attend one of these small festivals since I was younger. As a mild fan of anime (Japanese animation) I would often see my favorite characters visiting festivals, with evening cicada singing in the background. The image had become iconic of Japan in my mind. So I was delighted when my host family invited me and Justin to attend one near the center of Akita city. Although I was excited, experience had taught me not to expect the real thing to perfectly mimic the image I had gleaned from a cartoon.
As Justin and I rode the train, we grew nervous about missing our stop. Luckily, a trio of Japanese girls decked out in bright pink yukata and glistening hair jewelry realized we were going to the same place (since I, too, was dressed in a purple yukata), and helped us to get off at the right stop. There, our host family waited for us with welcoming smiles. Near the entrance of the train station, we saw the float. I had no idea what all the symbolism meant, but the figures on the float were pretty impressive and intimidating.
Reaching the festival was like walking directly into one of my favorite anime episodes. The sounds were the same, the crowd was the same, the stalls and the lights all looked the same. It was exactly as I had always imagined it. In that moment my excitement ballooned, and I couldn’t wait to try every single game and snack.
Dragging my host family around, I played a game that involved catching slimy little jelly balls from the water. Later I would keep these in a little vase, watching them shrivel up in the Colorado dry air, until I revived them with a splash of water. They were a lot of fun, but a little gross. Another game involved coaxing a goldfish from a stream into a little cup with a net. The netting was very fragile and prone to breaking. I managed to pull in a huge gold fish. The stall owner told me normally you weren’t supposed to catch the big ones, but because it was my first festival he let me keep it. He wrapped it up in a clear bag, and I gave the fish to Miu, my 8 year old host sister. From another catching game, Miu won a toy goldfish for me that lit up when you squeezed it. Much easier for me to take home to the US! The games were really meant for small children, so they were pretty easy. I really didn’t care, though. I was just delighted to get a chance to play.
Finally, we left the festival and took a short walk through the city before arriving at Miu’s grandparents’ house. Their front yard contained a cute little pond, which became the new home of the goldfish I had caught.
“Sono ike ga hiroi kara, kingyo ga okikunaru yo,” I told Miu. That pond is wide, so the goldfish will get big, you know. Miu’s face lit up with delight and surprise and ran into the house, telling her grandparents about the fish.
Her grandparents were a lovely couple, elated to have American visitors in their home. As with most Japanese people I met personally, they were thrilled by my language skills. (No matter how modest your speaking ability, Japanese people will always think you’re amazing.) They brought out a special box filled with small, delicately decorated cakes. These cakes were reserved specifically for rare guests, a hosting tradition found throughout Japan. While we ate, they asked us eager questions about the United States. I discovered that trying to explain where Colorado is to someone whose only frame of reference is Los Angeles and New York can be very difficult. “Um…it’s in the middle…sort of?”
Finally the night came to a close. It is an amazing feeling when you go to a new country and experience something completely unexpected. But it is equally amazing to find an experience that is as perfect as you imagined it. It was surreal and wonderful, and I fell asleep that night thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I am really in Japan.” I might have already spent two months there, but nights like the festival that made it seem brand new all over again.