When you think of the Japanese way of life, words that typically come to mind are orderly, calm or disciplined.
Then there are matsuri, or Japanese festivals…
My first taste of a ‘chaotic’ festival was the Sanja Matsuri, famous for the yakuza who walk around freely showing off their tattoos. Men and women heave portable shrines through the packed crowds, shouting, chanting and almost getting crushed along the way.
Recently, I went to the Kawagoe Matsuri for the first time. I’m not gonna lie, it was about 5 times more chaotic than the Sanja. It was hectic.
During the day, things are relatively peaceful. Hundreds and hundreds of yatai – more than I’ve ever seen at a festival before – line the streets selling yakitori, takoyaki, yakisoba, taiyaki, karaage, and all that good Japanese street food. Everyone is relaxed and having a good time.
Then when the sun goes down, the youngsters go home and the atmosphere completely changes. The crowd gets even more congested, everyone there to see 5~6 tonne dashi floats take part in ‘battles’. Whenever floats coming from opposite directions meet, they face each other and compete to decide who can pass first. The musicians on board turn it up a notch, the masked dancers at the front try to outdo each other, and the crowd cheers in support.
Because the streets are so narrow, the floats have to push their way through the half a million spectators. For the crowd, it’s like being in a concert mosh pit. You have no choice but to go with the flow even if that means stomping on toes and pushing people in the back. I came scarily close to the giant wheels of the dashi at one point. I also got separated from my friends during one of the battles. As soon as that battle finished, another started, and then another. It was 45 minutes till I finally managed to reunite with them!
Festivals like these have this exciting energy which you don’t get to see or feel in everyday Japan. It might be a little chaotic, but it’s definitely a lot of fun!