November 21, 2016
Festive and lively Japanese matsuri
In autumn, traditional Japanese festivals, or matsuri, take place all over Japan to celebrate the harvest, often of rice. While some of those festivals are huge and attract thousands of people, and others are quite small and very local, they share many of the same elements. An important one is the festival procession, in which the local shrine’s kami (a Shinto deity) is carried through the town in a mikoshi, which is a portable Shinto shrine. Locals wearing a uniform (a traditional lightweight cotton robe called happi coat) carry the mikoshi on their shoulders, often chanting in unison to show their spirit. Mikoshi are very heavy and lots of strength and endurance are required to parade them around town, and sometimes to even bounce them up and down. It is usually the only time of the year that the kami leaves the shrine.
The importance of the festival day
Festivals not only take place in autumn, but all year round, celebrating seasonal or historical events. Ennichi, which means festival day, is a day thought to have a special relation with a particular Shinto or Buddhist deity, and a festival is held on that date to celebrate it. It is commonly believed that visiting a shrine or a temple on ennichi brings good fortune. On those particularly lucky days, shop owners set up stalls and outdoor stands on the road or path approaching a shrine, called sandou. Ennichi has a long history that dates back to the Heian era (794-1192), but nowadays, it is a fun day filled with favorite entertainments at local shrines or temples across the country.
Yatai offering delicious festival foods
One of the highlights of Japanese festivals is yatai. Yatai are stalls that are set up to serve quick and tasty Japanese dishes, that are typically associated with festivals. As visitors arrive at the festival venue, they can smell delicious aromas coming from the yatai that line the sandou leading up to the shrine. Sampling fare from various yatai is an entertaining element that makes the event even more festive. Here are some typical foods people can find at Japanese matsuri.
Yakisoba is perhaps the most popular matsuri food. It’s a simple yet delicious dish made of fried wheat flour ramen-style noodles and strips of pork and cabbage in a sauce. It is garnished with skipjack shavings, benishoga (pickled ginger) and aonori flakes.
The name translates as “cook what you like”, thus this savory pancake can contain a variety of ingredients. The base is made of a pancake-like batter, cabbage, and practically anything else can be added to the mix, such as pork or seafood. It is fried on a hot plate then topped with skipjack shavings, aonori flakes, okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise.
These are octopus balls, and they originate from Osaka. They are made from the same kind of batter as okonomiyaki, and contain diced tako (octopus), pickled ginger and green onion. Toppings vary, but usually the balls are covered with takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce), skipjack shavings and aonori flakes.
Ika means squid, and ikayaki is simply a whole grilled squid (or sometimes just a tentacle) coated in soy sauce and served on a stick. The appearance can be a bit daunting, but the taste is delicious.
This dish is Japanese grilled corn on the cob and is usually served during summer festivals. The corncobs are barbecued on an outdoor charcoal grill and drizzled with a sweet soy glaze.
In Japanese, cotton candy is called wata-ame (or wata-gashi), and it is very popular with children at festivals. The colorful puffs are usually sold in prepackaged bags adorned with images of popular animation characters.
A festival favorite around the world is the candy apple. At matsuri, other fruits are coated in sugar candy, such as strawberry, grape, mikan (Satsuma mandarin), and even ume (Japanese plum).
While taiyaki are in the shape of a fish, they do not contain fish. They are made with pancake batter, which is poured into fish-shaped molds, filled and grilled on both sides. Anko (azuki bean paste) is the most common filling, but custard, sweet potato or chocolate are often available.
Other popular snacks:
Simple but tasty, the grilled sausages served on a stick are also a well-liked food at matsuri, and ideal for a quick snack.
The French-style and very thin pancakes can be filled with chocolate, bananas, whipped cream, and a plethora of other ingredients.
As the name implies, it’s a banana covered in chocolate, and sometimes also coated with colorful sugary sprinkles. It is rare to not find choco bananas at a festival, and the combination of those two ingredients is a classic.
Ramune is a matsuri staple that has been around for many years. This sparkling soda drink comes in a glass bottle that can be opened by pushing a marble down into the bottle’s neck. The original flavor is similar to lemonade, but nowadays it comes in an array of flavors, and children love drinking ramune.
The joys of yatai
Food offered at yatai rarely costs more than ¥500, which is about $5. The dishes can be taken out, and it’s perfectly acceptable to walk around while eating them. Sometimes there is even a space with tables and chairs where people can take a break to enjoy their food.
In addition to the yatai dedicated to food, the matsuri venues are filled with attractions, such as games and activity stands. Tossing rings and scooping goldfish to take home are well-loved by younger and older children.
Most foods served at festivals can also be found at specialty restaurants, and can also be cooked at home. However, the combination of the taste of the food, the familiar sights and smells that often bring back happy memories for Japanese people and the festive atmosphere make the visit very special. Matsuri are events that have a distinctive Japanese essence, and the food served at yatai is part of that cultural experience.
Text: Vivian Morelli