When you think of Japan, what are the first things that come to mind? Politeness, sushi, Tokyo, temples, cleanliness, Mt. Fuji — yes, all accurate. But what about delicious street food, throngs of revelers, and costumed people singing and dancing in the streets for hours? Not your image of Japan? Let me explain…
It’s true that life in Japan is quite contained, both physically (in offices, trains, and tiny apartments) and psychologically (in a fairly rigid set of customs and hierarchies). In my experience, most raucousness occurs in the guise of office parties or gatherings at karaoke bars and smoky izakayas.
However, this all changes when the weather warms. Summer in Japan is the season of matsuri, or festivals. These can take many forms, from elaborate processions of portable shrines to gorgeous fireworks displays and taiko drumming performances. Sometimes, mountainsides are set on fire, as in Kyoto’s famous Gozan no Okuribi, and boats are hauled over long distances by festival participants, as in Suwa’s amazing O-fune (boat) matsuri. Japanese festivals are lively, ebullient, and often awe-inspiring events. As it happens, they’re also great places to eat.
Summer in Japan is, to put it bluntly, brutal. This is particularly true where I live, in Saitama prefecture, just outside Tokyo. Thanks to Saitama’s geography – it’s essentially a giant, flat plain – the residual heat and smog of the city get trapped in its valleys and lowlands, with no promise of relief from the cooling ocean breezes that reach Chiba prefecture to the east.
This year, with everyone doing their best to conserve electricity after the accident at Fukushima, the need to stay cool is more pressing than ever.
I’m not even sure where to begin with this post, because I feel like there’s so much I want to tell you, fellow Shichimians. Suffice it to say that the summer was an absolute whirlwind of work, travel, exploration, and plenty of good eats. I can’t hope to write about all of it in detail, but what follows should give you a good idea of what I’ve been up to and what I’ve been thinking about as my favorite season comes to a close.
Last weekend, I saw some spectacular fireworks in Toda city, which is located outside of Tokyo in Saitama prefecture. (This is apparently one of the biggest fireworks displays in the country.) I had seen the event advertised on the Tokyo CouchSurfing page and decided to tag along. In our little group we had representatives from South Korea, Turkey, Taiwan, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the U.S., and Thailand. No doubt I’ve forgotten a few countries, too. We must’ve been quite a sight!
The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi (花火), which translates to “fire (火) flower (花).” This is actually a very accurate description. As Steven has pointed out, Japanese fireworks are a much more subtle and artistic affair than their flashier American and Chinese counterparts. The colors seem to change much more gradually, and the light from the explosions seems to dissipate more slowly as well. This doesn’t mean they’re any less breathtaking, though. In fact, these fireworks were far more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen back home. Plus, the show lasted for a full two hours! How can you beat that?
So, I shall leave you with a video of these “fire flowers.” The quality isn’t great, but I hope you’ll find them just as mesmerizing as I did. (Warning: there is a considerable amount of silly laughter in this movie. Yeah, that’s me. Sorry. I don’t even remember what was so funny. I believe it had to do with popcorn… Anyway!)
Although rice is unarguably the mainstay of the Japanese diet, noodles are just as important to the cuisine, with many people consuming them as often as rice. This is especially true during the summer, when the notoriously humid and stifling weather makes even eating seem like a chore (or so I’ve heard. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s coming…) Indeed, the thought of a steaming hot bowl noodles (or rice) in the middle of July would kill even the heartiest eater’s appetite. Luckily, the Japanese have devised a number of delicious (and healthy) ways to consume noodles when the weather’s warm. These dishes are quick to prepare, requiring little time behind the stove, and they also take almost no effort to eat, a great boon when the dog days of summer are upon us.
The basis of all these dishes is some form of chilled noodle, usually dipped in or lightly dressed with a dashi and soy-based sauce. Many of you have probably heard of zaru soba, but the others may be unfamiliar. Below, a quick run-through of four common Japanese summer noodle dishes.