Summer festival Japanese style: kimonos, rhinoceros beetles, and cucumbers

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We went to one of the major Japanese festivals, Tenjin Matsuri, last Friday. It is a big celebration with a long history and is held by one of the rivers in Osaka. There were traditional Japanese dancers, a big boat parade on the river, fireworks, lots of food stalls selling delicious foods: tempura, meat skewers, sausages, fried meat, and whole cucumbers. Yes, you read correctly. One of the delicacies of the festival were whole cucumbers pierced with a wooden skewer lengthways and cooled on a bed of ice. Apparently these cucumbers cool you from the inside in the scorching heat of Osaka. I can’t understand why they were buying tons of cool cucumbers rather than ice-cream. It seems that I am alone in Japan with my fetish to Häagen-dazs. The people wanted to be cool as a cool Osakan cucumber, obviously. Sorry, a terrible pun. My view is that you need to be pretty desperate to cool yourself down to choose an iced cucumber over tempura or meat skewers from the stalls. But I have to say: It was boiling out there! It was still about 30 degrees and 95% humidity at 8pm that night. All shops and food stands were handing out free plastic fans. We ended up with three. At one point I was fanning myself down with two – one in each hand.

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By the way, if you have an image in your head of a Japanese person wolfing down a colossal European style cucumber on a wooden stick, I might need to clarify that NO, that’s not quite the correct image. You see, cucumbers in Japan are a quarter of the size of their European counterparts – quarter in terms of thickness. This is not just the case in the Tenjin Matsuri but in Japan all year round. I did not have a chance to take a photo of the iced Tenjin Matsuri cucumbers because it was so crowded at the festival but I took a photo of the cucumbers at home. I thought it would be useful to place it next to a slice of bread (toaster type) for comparison. Note that cucumbers are extremely thin in Japan and that sliced bread is ridiculously thick! I’m glad we didn’t buy a toaster during the first week of our stay in Japan before we became aware of the thick sliced bread issue. I mean, what’s the point in owning a toaster if you can’t squeeze your slice of bread into it.

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Anyway, the festival was amazing (as our three year old daughter kept pointing out). Many of the Japanese women were wearing a yukata (the summer version of kimono) – and men a hakama. Seeing women wearing a yukata or a kimono in Japan is nothing out of the ordinary – especially in Kyoto where ladies in kimonos can be seen everywhere. I think it looks so exotic and interesting. I know, I am such a tourist! I suppose it is a bit like foreigners seeing a Scottish guy wearing kilt in the UK – they are all in awe. Probably wondering the essential question re kilts: Are they really wearing nothing underneath? Some of my friends and I briefly met some Scottish dudes on the Brighton seafront some years ago. The lads volunteered to disclose this information with evidence there and then. As far as I can remember, either Scottish guys walk around ‘commando’ regardless of what they are wearing or no, they really do not wear anything underneath a kilt.

IMG_2800The festival atmosphere was merry, partly because of the festival, but also because in addition to the meat and cucumbers, the stalls also sold beer and sake. However, the Japanese didn’t seem to go overboard with their drink. This differs from any Finnish and English festivals. I mean, think about pretty much any English or Finnish festival. It’s not really a pretty sight – especially if you foolishly decide to attend it sober (also it would be foolish to bring a Godzilla-size cucumber to an English festival – the Police will think it is a weapon).

Coincidently, one of the biggest festivals in Finland takes place at the same time as the Tenjin Matsuri. My home town, Kotka, hosts Finland’s second biggest festival – Meripäivät (Maritime festival) the same weekend. During Meripäivät big sailboats, yachts, ships and other vessels sail into Kotka and people enjoy the beautiful Finnish summer by the sea, and have a good time in music concerts and other events held in the city during the festival. There are some similarities between the Finnish (and English) and Japanese festivals: food stalls, crowds and entertainment, but also some crucial differences – in addition to the size of cucumbers that is. The main differences, I feel, are: First, in Japan everything is very organized. There was police and security everywhere and even though there were thousands of people trying to get to the river banks to see the boats it did not feel like the chaos of these types of festivals in England or Finland. Queuing was done in an organised manner. No-one jumped the queue. Well, ok, there was one middle aged Asian lady who pushed herself in front of me and my son when we were standing next to the railing by the river watching the boats float by with hundreds (or even thousands) of traditionally dressed people on board complemented with the sound of drums, bells and chanting. She basically just did what your typical English (or perhaps a South European) person would have done in that situation: plough her way through and start taking photos as if nothing had happened. I was shocked! Not because I’ve never experiences that in the past, but because Japanese people don’t usually behave in that kind of rude manner. Outraged, I looked at this Japanese man standing next to us and rolled my eyes. He acted quicker than my husband sneaks out for a long run when I ask him to do the hoovering. The man tapped the lady on her shoulder and gave her an earful. I don’t know what he said, but the lady quickly backed away bowing apologetically. I thanked the guy and wanted to add ‘Bloody Koreans/Chinese!’ in Japanese but lacked the language skill so I left it. But it is likely that the lady wasn’t Japanese. She was probably Korean, Chinese or even British or Finnish judging by her manners.

Other than the Korean/Chinese lady, everything was well organised and orderly. Festivals are usually not as well organised or orderly in England or even in Finland. I rarely go to festivals or anywhere with large crowds of people in England because I find the poor organisation too stressful: the fact that I don’t know (a) where I am being pushed by the crowds, (b) how I can get out if I want to, and (c) am I queuing for the toilets or the tarot card reader parked next to the toilets. I haven’t got the patience for it. I mean, if you have read my previous posts you know that I want to kill myself when I need to spend an extra minute or two to get to our apartment on the 24th floor. Queuing 57 minutes to go and have a pee at Notting Hill Festival or Meripäivät results in not only me wanting to kill myself but also me wanting to kill everyone else around me. Please note, I don’t really mean the previous sentence literally. So, CIA if you are scanning this blog for terrorist activities, relax and don’t hack and close down my WordPress account. I am just a meek university professor who lacks the patience needed by anyone attending British/Finnish festivals or even a sunny Sunday on the Brighton seafront.

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The systems and organisation at British festivals/events or public places overall is often somewhat confusing. I don’t know who comes up with those systems and how on earth they get passed in meetings of big bosses of the relevant organizations, but somehow they do. A good example of a particularly confusing system in England is the lift at the Royal Alexandra Children’s hospital in Brighton. This is a modern hospital opened about 10 years ago, which provides excellent service to its young patients and their parents/caregivers. However, its lift system is something that perhaps only a British person can work out (see photo). I can’t resist adding that it must have been a man who came up with this lift floor system. No woman (I sincerely hope) could have thought that this lift operating board was logical and self-explanatory as lift buttons usually aim to be!

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It might be useful to add that even though Japan and Japanese people are well organised and everything is carefully thought through, there are some things over here that don’t make sense to me. One of those things are the light switches. You see, in Japan (at least in our apartment and at my work place) the light switches which are not in the same room as the actual light they are operating (e.g. a toilet light switch is outside the toilet) are equipped with a little red/green light which indicates whether the light is on or not. So the light switch constantly has either a small red or green light showing (see photos). The confusing thing is that when the light is on in the toilet (or whatever the room it relates to) the light on the light switch is red. When the light is off in the toilet the light on the light switch is green. This system does not tally up at least with the traffic light system (i.e. green means go and red means stop) but is in fact the opposite. As far as I am aware, the traffic lights are pretty much the same as in Europe so the opposite traffic lights system in Japan to Europe does not explain the light switches. In fact, I don’t know what does. We have three theories. First, my theory is that the green light means that if you want to have the light switch on press the green button. If you want to turn the light off you need to press the red button. So you are in a sense predicting what the effect is by the colour. I know, this is a bit far fetched. Second, my husband’s theory is that the green light is on when the lights are off to indicate that the situation in the room is ‘good’ (i.e. energy saving) (green), and when the light is red it indicates that the situation is bad, i.e. you have left the light on. Third, a European friend thinks it is so that a person who is by the switch knows that they should not go into the room because the light switch indicates whether or not there is someone there – i.e. if the light on the switch is red (light is on in the room) there is someone in the toilet, i.e. stop! And if it is green (light is off i.e. no-one in the room) – go in! This last option makes sense until you find the small green-red lights on switches where the there-is-someone-in-the-room-theory does not work, like walk-in closets, bathroom vanity unit light switches and University classroom light switches. So, I don’t know what the answer is. If you do, please tell me. I would really love to know!

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Turning swiftly back to the Tenjin Matsuri. It is a big festival with thousands of people there in the summer heat extremely hot and bothered but we saw no fighting, no shouting, we weren’t concerned about pick pockets. Osaka (and Japan generally) just seems to be an amazingly safe considering that probably about 5 million people were in Osaka that day (regular inhabitants, festival goers, commuters). This is of course not the case in Finland or England. In Finland and England festival/event/party goers are often quite aggressive and you are pretty lucky if you don’t witness some sort of a bust up or a catfight. Apparently the latest trend in England is that girls/women use their high heels as weapons when fighting when out and about. What’s next? Using their extremely long fake eyelashes as daggers? Or fake tan spray as mace? I’m obviously getting way too old for this shit. One reason for the aggressive behaviour in England and Finland is their love of vodka, gin, rum, and whisky (I don’t think there are many people in either of these countries who get drunk on brandy/cognac). I have to admit, I am one of those who does enjoy a sneaky gin and tonic or a cold pint of cider but I don’t get aggressive (other than towards my husband and only if I am at a big British festival queuing for the toilets for 57 minutes). Japanese people also enjoy having a couple of beers and some sake but during our four-month stay in Japan I haven’t seen aggressive behaviour, not once. However, I have seen ladies clean the front of their houses and shops in the morning when the drunken Japanese men (for whom anything is allowed when drunk) have used these places as their toilet the night before, for an urgent ‘number-two’ I might add.

Festivals in England and Finland entail a huge cleaning operation of the festival/event area after the event. There is likely to be more rubbish on the ground than in the bins. This is not a problem in Japan. Perhaps you saw the footage of the Japanese football fans cleaning their rubbish on the floor after having watched the Japanese football team play at the World Cup. These were not photoshopped photos! They really are like that! Japanese people really hate rubbish on the ground. Drunken Japanese men might have a poo on someone’s porch but they would not throw an empty Coke can on the ground. I went to the cinema a couple of days ago. I could not believe the sight at the theatre after the film finished. There was practically nothing on the floor! Not even popcorn! Everyone took their own trash out of the theatre and left it with two members of staff outside the theatre doors. I felt obliged to do the same.

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Before I finish this festive blog post, I want to add one more anecdote. You see, on one of the stalls that we saw had several food dishes on its counter. At the end of the counter there was a fish tank with some sand and about 10 live rhinoceros beetles. I didn’t know what to think. Did they eat big black beetles over here? Furthermore, did they eat them live? Just put their hand in the fish tank, pick one and crunch away? I know they eat some pretty weird stuff in Asia but live rhino size beetles straight from a fish tank? Jeez! Me, my husband and our children stood there a good 5 minutes staring at the beetles and any potential punters doing just that, then we gave up and moved along. The following day I went to work and told my Japanese work colleagues that I had been to the Tenjin Matsuri and had seen some big beetles in a fish tank. They didn’t flinch. I then asked: Do you eat them alive? They looked at each other and started laughing hysterically. They explained that they don’t eat the bugs. Instead, children buy them as pets. The children take the beetles home, keep them in a fish tank, feed them watermelon and after some weeks take them back to the forest where they originally came from. Japan finds it easy to make me feel like an idiot.

2 thoughts on “Summer festival Japanese style: kimonos, rhinoceros beetles, and cucumbers

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