Summer in Kamakura

There’s no denying it: Rainy season is over (something like 22 days earlier than average!), which means summer is here and it is hot. And humid. And it’s going to last at least two months. Of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way in a beach town — who wants cool, drizzly summers when there’s an ocean to enjoy? But it is a tough go some days, and even the most dedicated sun worshippers need something to help get them through the dog days of the season.

What helps get me to the cool(er) days of September without losing my mind is summer festivals, or matsuri.

Tanabata

Once a year, two celestial lovers banished to separate sides of the night sky by an angry father reunite. The stars Vega and Altair play the roles of Orihime, a weaver, and Hikoboshi, a cow herder, two newlyweds who neglected their duties in a post-wedding haze of happiness (one assumes). Tentei, Orihime’s father, emperor of the heavens and clearly a strict disciplinarian, sent them packing in opposite directions, and allows them to meet but once a year — and only if they work hard the rest of the year.

IMG_6743Those in the earthly realm celebrate the day by making wishes. At stations and schools, shops, shrines and in some homes, you’ll see bamboo branches covered with bright strips of paper. Written on the strips are wishes, from simple “I wish I would become better at drawing” (my daughter’s wish for the year) to far more serious wishes concerning love, school entrance exams, jobs and health.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the main shrine in Kamakura, holds a Tanabata festival every year. The streamers are already up, and a few different events take place on July 7.

For more information on Tanabata, see Nippon.com‘s article on the festival.

For more information on Tanabata at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, click here.

Bon Festivals

Bon Odori KoganeiObon is the spookiest time of year in Japan. It’s when the division between the spirit world and our world is at its thinnest, and it’s at this time of year that Japanese families invite their ancestors into their homes. Of course, not all Japanese families do this anymore, but it isn’t terribly uncommon, particularly in more rural areas, to find signs of invitation — a lantern, perhaps, or little animals outside houses made of cucumbers and eggplants to help carry ancestors to our world and back to their own. Plenty goes on during Obon (find more information here), but by far my favourite activity is the bon festival.

There are three fairly large bon festivals in Kamakura, in addition to smaller neighbourhood events. The big ones are at Engaku-ji, Kamakura-gu and at the beach.

Engaku-ji: TBA (usually mid-August)

Kamakura-gu: August 20, 21 (This is according to the person we spoke with at Kamakura-gu — but the city website says 19, 20… Will be looking into this again later in the month.)

Kamakura Hama no Bon Odori: July 28 (Hosted by Asia beach house. Not quite sure where the beach house is this year, but once you hit the beach, it should soon become obvious.)

Fireworks

Summer just wouldn’t be summer without seeing some fireworks. Fingers crossed for a light breeze to carry the smoke offshore!

70th Kamakura Hanabi Taikai, Yuigahama Beach: July 24 (7:20-8:10pm) *Rain date: July 25

Enoshima Noryo Hanabi Taikai, Katase Nishihama: August 21 (7-7:20pm) *Cancelled if weather is poor; no rain date

Of course, there are plenty of other little festivals here and there at various temples and shrines, and in small neighbourhoods, so always keep an eye out for lanterns and an ear cocked for taiko pounding. Sometimes the best festivals are the unexpected kind.

Bon Odori Summer Festivals

 

tsukiji Hongwan-ji bon festival
Bon odori at Tsukiji Hongwan-ji, near Tsukiji Station, Tokyo

Japanese summers are pretty spectacular. They buzz (cicadas) and DON DON DON (taiko drums). They whistle and gong and chant (festivals). They’re burning hot and impossibly humid. But if you let the music drifting from the festival grounds carry you along, not only will you make it to fall without melting into a puddle (maybe), you’ll have a damn good time, too.

Awa odori drummer
Taiko drummer at Awa Odori in Musashi-Koganei, Koganei City, Tokyo

There are a huge number of matsuri (festivals) that take place over the summer months. The big ones are definitely worth a visit if you’ve got the time and the means (the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture, and the Awa Odori in Tokushima, Shikoku, are my favourites), but there’s absolutely no need to go far afield to find a fun summer matsuri.

Bon odori, dance festivals that take place during the period of Obon when the Japanese honour their ancestors, are held in small neighbourhoods as well as in large city centres. The dances are easy—and usually repeated several times at each dance—and there’s no costume requirement (though a yukata or jimbei adds a bit of authenticity to the experience). Some have live music, while others rely on tinny recordings played on ancient tape recorders. You might get lucky and get a fireworks show tacked onto the end, or other entertainment, like cheerleaders demonstrating routines, a taiko performance, a hula dance recital, or, if you’re really lucky, traditional Japanese clowns demonstrating their art.

Bon Odori Koganei
Bon odori stage and lanterns, Higashi-Koganei, Koganei City, Tokyo

Depending on the area, Obon is observed around mid-July or mid-August, meaning that bon odori are held in various areas throughout the summer.

Favourites in the Tokyo area include the Hanazono Jinja bon odori (August 1 and 2, located roughly 10min from Shinjuku Station), the Tsukiji Hongwan-ji bon odori (August 3-6, located near Tsukiji Station), and the Hibiya Park bon odori (August 26, 27, located near Hibiya Station).

Kamakura, of course, has a few of its own bon odori. In our little neighbourhood, there are two very small odori, one at Gokuraku-ji and one at Goryo Jinja. These are mostly for neighbourhood kids, so not surprisingly, the song selection is limited to two or three easy songs. Kamakura does host two rather large bon odori, however, that could cap off a day-trip to the city in fine fashion.

engaku-jiEngaku-ji, one of the area’s larger temples (and temple number two of Kamakura’s five major Zen temples) hosts its bon odori on August 24 and 25 this year. The temple is located right at Kita-Kamakura Station, very likely allowing it to claim the title of most convenient bon odori in the city. The expansive temple grounds deserve a good look before dusk falls, so be sure to make time for some wandering. Have a look here, here and here for an idea of what the grounds are like.

Kamakura-guKamakura-gu (Kamakura Shrine) is host to the other large bon odori in Kamakura. The dance is held on August 19 and 20. The shrine is a bit of a hike from Kamakura Station (around 20min), but there is a bus that leaves from the east exit of Kamakura Station that heads out towards Kamakura-gu. For bus information, please visit Kamakura Visitor’s Guide. (Note the Kamakura Free Kankyo Tegata bus pass that, for around ¥600, will give riders unlimited rides within the pass’s boundaries on participating bus and train lines).