Remembering Summer: London Matsuri

Before Winter finally settles, I’m keen to remember summer one last time. (At least the memories will keep me warm!) My strongest association with a Japanese summer is the matsuri festivals. On summer evenings, in the humidity of a thirty-degree-heat, communities gather, dressed in yukata, and enjoy the festival. It usually consists of a procession and a gathering in a local square. Crowds form around the taiko drums which are often on a stage in the centre of the square and they dance, encircling the taiko drummers. Young children who dance for the first time are taught by their parents and grandparents, who push them along gently if they forget to keep moving round. The dancing is entrancing. The beat of the taiko drums is something which still enraptures me and raises the hair on my arms with excitement.

Not to mention the food! The smokey yakitori with the most delicious sauce, the ice-cold, bright, blue kakigori which gives you brain-freeze, the warming takoyaki. I was having bubble tea at matsuri festivals way before it was hipster and cool. These memories of the sounds and smells of my childhood nourish me when I am feeling homesick.

It is wonderful that every year the Japanese community in London holds a masturi festival in Trafalgar Square. It is held in September and its aim is apparently to celebrate Japanese culture. For members of the Japanese diaspora in London, it’s a chance to meet up and enjoy good food.

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In the intimidating shadows of Admiral Nelson’s statue, Trafalgar Square is absolutely nothing like the cosy, warm, lantern-lit spaces of the masturi that I knew growing up. Nor are the streets filled with the chantings of the procession as people of the neighbourhood carry the mikoshi down the road from the temple to the festival grounds. But Trafalgar Square seems oddly fitting for the Japanese community in London – it is very ‘Japlish’.

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And indeed, the festival itself is a mixture of things. On the one hand, there are stalls which will make members of the Japanese diaspora feel nostalgic and homesick, selling Japanese brands of snacks and drinks, such as Pocky, Yakult and ramune (a children’s drink of lemonade with a marble in the bottle to play with). There are boxes of second-hand Japanese books and old kimonos. On the other, there are touristy stalls, selling Japanese ceramics or attracting people to buy flights and rail passes.

The food! The food is great although the queuing takes a long time. Slightly disappointingly, it does not have exactly the same food as a Japanese matsuri festival but it does have some of the same smells. It has nothing like the intense smoke which fills a festival in the Tokyo heat, but the smoke of yakitori and takoyaki is definitely detectable. The food on offer is really more like the typical lunch dishes of local Japanese restaurants. You can get curry rice or donburi, which is more like a normal lunch than a special festival meal. Nevertheless, the cauliflower karaage and tofu from Pochi was absolutely delicious and I can feel my tongue tingle as I remember the taste of the pickled ginger.

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Tofu and cauliflower karaage from Pochi

Overall London’s Japan Matsuri festival is good fun. It is very crowded and busy, but the food is good. The onstage entertainment is alright, though not really the main attraction.

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A childhood special – ramune

I’d recommend going to the matsuri festival next year if you’re looking for a fun day out. Make sure you find the ramune stall if you’re thirsty – you can keep the marble as a keepsake. Or, if you’re lucky like one lady who was in front of me at the raffle stand, you could win a free flight to Japan and go to see a real matsuri.

Now, Winter, where were we?


Naomi | 直美

Author: Naomi

Twitter: @Naomified @ThinkingJaplish

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