On the second Saturday in July, Hanyu city in Saitama prefecture puts on its annual summer festival. During the matsuri, the city's Honcho-dori comes alive with portable shrines, thronging crowds, street food, and children with balloons, cotton candy, and glow sticks. The air pulses with the beat of taiko drumming, and the sounds of flutes, whistles, and chanting floats along on the pungent smoky breezes. Adolescents flirt and grandparents corral grandkids for a go at a goldfish dip or a helping of yakisoba. Put on your yukata and join the parade!
The festival is one of the biggest events in the city (population around 56,000), with citizens coming out in droves to enjoy the sultry night air. Held on mainly Honcho street about five minutes' walk northeast of Hanyu station, the 500 meter thoroughfare, usually a relatively calm road, is lined on both sides with street stalls, its masters elbow to elbow serving the eager clusters that step up to sample their wares. In addition to candy floss and fried noodles, you can also get festival fare like oden, okonomiyaki, shaved ice, candied apples, baked and buttered potatoes, and much more.
The history of the festival stretches back 370 years and is rooted in the Yagumo shrine, which celebrates the gods enshrined there and promotes peace in the area. Yagumo, a Shinto shrine, shares its name with many others around the country and is an offshoot of Kyoto's Yasaka shrine, which was established more than 1000 years ago.
Today, the celebration includes floats, 11 mikoshi (portable shrines) each carried by a different group wearing brightly colored matching happi coats and yukata, and various kinds of dancing and musical entertainment.
A town's summer festival is a quintessential Japanese experience where the whole community comes out, should not be missed if at all possible. Mingle with sticky faced excited children, teens with emotions running high, jovial adults reconnecting with their neighbors, and grandmothers reminding the young'ns about their traditional dances and taking some of the next generation in hand to join in the symbolic twirling, gesturing, and stamping. You may even find yourself pulled into a dance circle!
Thanks to Norihiro Togasaki for his input on this article.