News from the Tennessee Valley Living Today

Journals from Japan
Festivals offer fun, fireworks, tradition

Editor’s note: Hartselle High School student Amanda Elliott, 17, is spending seven weeks in Akita, Japan, this summer on a scholarship through Youth for Understanding, a nonprofit educational organization. This is part of an occasional series Amanda is writing for The Daily.

The three Japanese festivals I’ve attended are nothing like the carnival-esque festivals in the U.S.

Upon arriving at the small community festival, it is considered an obligation to visit the local shrine and offer thanks for the occasion. The festival kicked off with a parade.

At some of the grander festivals, up to 60 men carry large wooden stages on their shoulders, spotlighting performances from karaoke to ritual taiko-drum playing.

After the parade, I was taken to a shop and allowed to borrow a “yukata” (a lightweight kimono designed for comfort during the summertime). It may have been a little breezy, but it was anything but comfortable. A larger adornment, called an “oobi,” tied around my waist and looped into a bow in the back.

After an hour of dressing, the streets had become crowded with festival-goers. Small stands lining the front of the shops offered food, clothing, jewelry and books for sale. Paper lanterns hung on strings by tall poles, which were erected for the occasion.

I played a few games, tried festival foods such as mochi and rice cakes, and listened to karaoke. (I won’t lie. I’m not fond of the music.)

Another festival I attended, my school’s festival, was much different.

The students had feverishly worked on their homeroom themes all week. Some rooms transformed into haunted houses, others into game rooms or restaurants, and even one into a balloon-animal stand. In the school courtyard, ramen and soba stands were set up, as well as a stand for “Babahera-Ice.” Babahera-Ice is the Kazuno rendition of an ice cream alternative. It tastes like cotton candy on a sugar cone, but the ice cream itself contains no milk. (And it’s to die for.)

About 600 students, teachers and visitors attended the main event: a performance in the gymnasium. It was similar to a talent show, where students and teachers could perform in drama, karaoke and student bands. I played the saxophone in a duet.

The final festival I attended was a “hanabi” festival. Hanabi is the Japanese word for fireworks. Fireworks were originally invented in Asia, so I assumed they would be more advanced — and I was not disappointed. We watched the hourlong show from a parking lot crowded with festival-goers.

The fireworks’ exploding colors and shapes were so unexpected that I would turn to my host family and shout, “Oh, wow! Did you see that? That was so cool!” They expected my ecstatic reaction, though, especially near the end, when the fireworks turned into flowers, TV characters and even Hello Kitty.

Though the larger and more famous festivals begin shortly after I return home, I have been fortunate to get a small taste of traditional Japanese festivals.

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