The change in the season from spring to summer in Japan is a celebration when people come together, eat together, dance together on Japanese folk tunes, play funfair games, and watch firecrackers while spreading summer cheer. Summer festivals (natsu-matsuri) are an ingrained part of the Japanese tradition and culture eagerly awaited each year.
Last year while I was attending one of the summer festivals in Japan, I remember glancing through the gleaming lanterns, eating my way through the food stalls, and taking in the vibrant energy.
But this year, due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, all summer events were canceled; the streets no longer bustling with the evening chatter of festivities, no dancing, no smiling hawkers or taiko drummers racing the streets, all giving me a major FOMO (fear of missing out) and longing to feel festive again.
It quickly took an unexpected turn as the Tokyo Survival Challenge approached me to create summer matsuri at home. A few minutes after a call with Hiro-san, it dawned on me that I had accepted the challenge of organizing all aspects of a natsu matsuri festival from scratch in 24hrs. My thoughts fumbled—I knew we needed food, firecrackers, a playlist, etc., but didn’t know where to begin.
After a conflicting morning with a few too many crisscrosses on my to-do list and many cups of coffee, I decided to channel what I had missed the most about natsu matsuri festivals. Now I had a plan. 😉
The Perfect Indoor Natsu Matsuri Venue
By the afternoon, I had made a few calls to everyone I knew in Tokyo, flipped through a few pictures my friends sent, and arrived at an understanding that the urban chic Tokyo apartments entirely missed the old world Edo charm.
Finding an ideal venue with such a small window felt like an impossible task, keeping in mind the apartment needed to reflect the traditional Japanese elements, a tatami setting, and a balcony for fireworks.
Deep down, I knew what I was looking for. My sister’s apartment in Asakusa was where I genuinely believed that the natsu matsuri could come alive in its most minimalistic form. A call and a few pictures later, I had my venue booked!
Setting the Stage
I hopped on a train to Asakusa to see my venue (and, of course, my sister 😉) and figure out what decorations to purchase.
We realized we could only hang only a few light decorations around the room and nothing too elaborate or heavyweight due to the plaster-of-Paris walls.
We zeroed in on glittering battery lights, which would not require a plug point connection for red lanterns around the room. I popped in at the closest Don-Quijote and got 3 lovely lanterns, a few batteries, and fit my old bedroom lights in them. Hung the lantern a couple of places, took a few pictures, a few nods from my sister, and finalized that the entrance of the room needed two lanterns and one glowing red lantern to be placed between the wooden window blinds.
The final touch was of placing a few candles on the balcony entrance to create a festive atmosphere for the natsu matsuri event, which was now less than 24hrs away. Omg!
The VIP Guestlist
Considering I was organizing the event at their home, the guest list included my sister and her loved one, then I invited Hiro-san from Tokyo Survival Channel to join the celebration, share stories, and a few laughs together. My mini-me (4-year daughter) conveniently self-invited herself, making it a next-level challenge.
Looking the Part
Wearing a traditional yukata was unchartered territory for me; I had never worn one before and had no idea how to put one on properly. I not only needed education on how to drape a yukata but also a crash course on the items to be bought for a yukata presentation.
On a yukata mission, I desperately skimmed through online data, understanding that the yukata garment is summer wear; it’s lightweight, casual, and inexpensive compared to its cousin the kimono.
It’s relatively easy to wear and walk around in, and the yukata is made of cotton, linen, or breezy synthetic fabrics. Men and women both can wear yukata. The traditional yukata ensemble consists of a juban (slip/undergarment), yukata, obi (the cloth belt around the waist), obijime (an ornate string on top of the obi), geta sandals, no socks, a small foldable or fixed fan, a drawstring bag and a flower or accessory for the hair to complete the look.
A few YouTube videos later, I felt confident enough to head out to Asakusa streets to buy a few essential pieces to complete my look. I had bought a yukata a year back but never got around wearing it, so that was taken care of, but it was missing important details like a koshi-himo (a thin string which keeps the yukata from getting loose), obijime, and a hair clip to enhance the appeal.
I timed myself because one is very likely to lose the sense of time walking through the streets of Asakusa-Dori and successfully managed gathering all the missing pieces of my ensemble in an hour. Once home, I laid it down on the bed and admired the beauty of the garment. Now wearing the yukata on the event day would be another story for later.
Matsuri Food: A Must
Food is the center of a communal festival, having the innate ability to multiply cheer; a place where everyone gathers to greet, sipping chilled Ramune, digging into some yakisoba, gobbling some takoyaki while catching up with old friends and family or while making new ones.
I knew I needed to ace my food game for a successful natsu matsuri, so I decided to get in some expert advice and asked Hiro-san for help. He suggested we do a takoyaki-building station. We also planned on making kakigori, seasonal fruit jelly, rice crackers, and our favorite Ramune drink to seal the deal.
It was evening by now, and I probably could make one more trip out to buy the remaining elements that I needed for the next day’s event. So, I decided to head out one last time and wrap up food and entertainment purchases. For food shopping, I decided to visit the Tokyu Food Show Shop in the basement of Shibuya Station, well known for fresh seafood. In about half an hour, I had found all edibles on the list except my Ramune, which I thought I could find on my next stop to Don-Quijote. On the way there, I stopped at Flying Tiger as I saw a sale and got disposable cups and some napkins.
I didn’t find the elusive Ramune at Don-Quijote, but I did find everything else! The search for Ramune would not be an easy one and I decided to check the grocery close to my house. They didn’t have it either, so I decided to continue my search the next day.
The Race for Entertainment
While the food might be the backbone of an event, the entertainment sets the course on how eventful the evening would turn out to be, and I needed the excitement to not fizz down after snacking but rather maintain the momentum of thrill. It required engaging my guests; what could serve me better than games, competitions, and prizes, I thought to myself. It was time to research the local Japanese festive games and compile the most fun game list for the natsu matsuri festivities.
The games shopping was the most time-efficient and swift as Don-Quijote had a separate section set-up with all natsu matsuri games. But I purchased the ball shooting game from Flying Tiger on my stop before Don-Quijote.
The last thing while walking back home on my mind was a playlist for the event. A playlist for the evening, which would set the mood for the evening. Music, which would include the essential elements of natsu matsuri like taiko drums, whistling cicadas, and soulful summer tunes for Obon dancing.
I listed up some fun tracks and went to bed after an eventful day:
Putting it All Together
The day started with a mission to find Ramune while the natsu matsuri was scheduled for 5 pm, which gave me a few hours to get things in order.
This time I had to be smarter, I had limited time, and it was evident that Ramune was not available in general convenience stores. I thought of posting on a few Facebook groups asking for help on where to find Ramune, but just before I was about to give up, I stumbled upon a discussion group saying I’d have more luck finding it in a liquor store.
I was a woman with a mission. As soon as I dropped my daughter off at school, I ran straight to the liquor shop and waited outside for it to open. A guy arrived at exactly 10 am, switched on the lights, and directed me inside. The store was massive and I prayed I could find it in time.
So, I turned around and, in an attempt to explain Ramune to the staff, I gestured a thumb-out-hand, raising it above my head, acting like I was pouring a drink in my mouth. I was sure I looked like a raging alcoholic.
My Japanese skills were horrible that day, leaving me to resort to my questionable acting skills. I tried gesturing again, thumb out, hand pouring a drink in my mouth, but this time I added an “ahh” after the sip and said “Ramune” at the end.
The guy smiled, and I realized he spoke perfectly good English as he said, “Oh, Ramune is straight left, this way, please.” Feeling a bit foolish, I followed him to the precious bottles. Now I had everything that I needed for the challenge, so I headed straight to my sister’s.
At around noon, I reached Asakusa and started to set things up over a cup of coffee with my sister.
I chopped octopus and spring onion and kept it in two bowls, mixed the takoyaki mix, and arranged the table with a blue mat and a few napkins.
Next, I platted a few lychee and peach jellies in a bowl and arranged a couple of Ramune bottles on the side with rice crackers. Heated the yakisoba and made sure the kakigori was chilled.
I took a few pictures of the place and set out to pick up my daughter from school. It was dress-up time once we got back, and after an hour of chaos, we were all ready.
My sister and my daughter did some mandatory #kawaii poses, and I played along as their photographer. I realized that my sister accidentally closed the yukata flaps right over left instead of the other way around. Oops! We know better for the next summer festival!
I lit up the candles, played some music from my playlist, and took a deep breath while adding the final touches.
Let the Natsu Matsuri Begin!
Drinks And Snacks
At about 5.30, Hiro-san arrived wearing a yukata just like us and with the takoyaki plate as promised; after the introductions, once everyone got settled, Hiro-san started the evening by showing Meher, my daughter, how to open a Ramune.
After throwing back a few Ramune, we got on to making the takoyaki. Hiro-san oiled the takoyaki plate, got two sticks for flipping the takoyaki, and made the batter to pour in the molds. I was excited to learn how to make takoyaki, but somehow, Meher had become best friends with Hiro-san and was hogging all the batter. I eagerly awaited my turn to make a batch.
Hiro-san explained that a good takoyaki should be crispy brown from outside and soft on the inside. The filling could be any meat or vegetable, but traditionally it’s an octopus meat filling.
He plated it, drizzled the takoyaki sauce, and garnished it with spring onions. It was #kanpai time—we tucked into the delicious takoyaki and yakisoba, pausing only to get some kakigori and sips of Ramune.
By now, the temperature had dropped a few degrees, so we opened the windows and got ready for the first game of the night post-dinner.
Bring on the Matsuri Games
Traditionally, the Goldfish Game is done with real fish in a pond or bowl, and your prize is that you get to keep the fish you catch.
I made a rendition to it instead of real fishes; we used a fishing board and competed in 2 teams. Nivi (my sister) and Hiro-san were on one team, against Meher and Soham (my sister’s partner). The game was addictive, to say the least. We had three 20-second rounds each. In the end, the second team (Meher and Soham) caught the most fish, winning the game.
Ball Scooping Game
The next game was about scooping balls from a tub of water; rules were the same three 20-second rounds. My sister reused the bottoms of old water bottles and stuck them on chopsticks for scooping.
We shuffled the teams—Hiro-san and Meher on one team, and Nivi and Soham on the other.
Many splashes and counting later, the winners were declared—Hiro-san and Meher won the round.
Ball Shooting Game
It was time for some ball shooting, another rendition of mine, instead of the traditional gun shooting game where you aim for the center, and depending on the points, you win a prize.
In this game, one person would wear a net on there head becoming the goal, and the others had to shoot the balls aiming for the net or well the head would do too. This game quickly turned hilarious, and once again, Hiro-san and Meher’s team won.
Puffer Fish Game
It was now time for the fiercest competition between two sisters (Nivi and me) to see who could inflate a bigger balloon pufferfish in 40 seconds. I had to win this round. The pressure was intense, and sneaking side glances was not helping. 40 seconds later, Nivi’s pufferfish was way bigger than mine—I tried my best not to cry and be a sore loser.
Hiro-san threw us for a loop with a new game idea. We had to guess the origami he was making before it was finished, and the winner would get to keep it. Honestly, I was delighted that this wasn’t an origami-making competition. Soham guessed it was a pink rose and got it right!
Ohajiki (Marble Game)
This is a traditional Japanese game played by children with flattened marbles called Ohajiki. The concept of the game revolves around flicking one marble with another in one clean shot, and if missed, the next player gets a shot. I won this round, baffled by my uncanny talents, and decided I knew what I would be doing every day after I retired.
The next sport was darts—each player got 3 strikes with no time constraints. I was on a roll, winning this round as a team with Nivi.
Ubon or Bon is a Japanese traditional dance performed in honor of one’s ancestors. It’s a community dance in which everyone participates; kids, adults, and elders. This folk dance incorporates drums, gongs, and flutes, with people singing and clapping their hands together while walking in circles around the stage.
One of the most common dances is the “Tanko Bushi,” also known as the coal miners dance, a song about the people working in the mountain mines while missing their homes.
The movements of the dance show the miner digging coal, and carrying heavy sacks, and pushing carts. We tried all the fun moves from this page, easy to follow, and you get a nice backstretch if you do it right!
We had a small prize of chocolate medals for the winners and losers of all the games.
It was time for lighting firecrackers, and we all invariably started discussing last year’s fire show around the Sumida River in Asakusa, all while taking in the beautiful Skytree view.
Smiling faces gathered in the balcony to dwell on what was the final celebration of the spirit of natsu matsuri with all its sparkling colors.
Striking a Pose: A Late-Night Photo Session
No celebration is complete without a photocard picture, so we tried all the kawaii poses before ending the night.
The End of a Glorious Challenge
Putting the challenge into perspective, it was way more fun than staying at home and working out, which was my last challenge. It was incredibly fun for everyone, probably because it involved meeting people, learning, and human interaction, which are far better than staring at a screen watching Netflix.
But replicating the magnitude and scale of a traditional natsu matsuri, along with the time I had to put it together, was the real challenge. Even if our matsuri wasn’t a replica of a real Japanese summer festival, I feel we had more than enough fun to make up for it.
To me, the challenge was a success and we all had a blast. You can most definitely give this a try at home, dress up for a change, get a few firecrackers, some food to share, some games, and invite a few friends or family. I believe summer festivals are all about spreading cheer, and what better place to start celebrating the festivities than in your home sweet home. 😊