Monday, July 04, 2005

Summer is here: Part III

Happy 4th of July!

I couldn’t have hoped for better timing – posting this summer segment on the 4th of July… well, sort of

As mentioned in the previous posts, a focal point of the various celebrations during this season is a big firework display or “hanabi taikai”.

In the US, the time that we most associate big firework displays is the 4th of July. Depending on what city you find yourself on that day you could be in for quite a spectacular show. However, some folks in Japan might argue that when it comes to these kinds of shows, Americans are just scratching the surface.

Check out GMAN’s blog to see what I mean.

The latest summer limited item being offered up from the folks at Asunaro-sha is called “Yatai.” Yatai is a street vendor/stall that sells food. There used to be a time when this only happened during festivals, but these days, a lot of larger cities in Japan are starting to offer food from this kind of “mobile kitchen” throughout the year – especially around the train stations.

Another type of street vendor associated with summer is called “yomise”. These stands either sell souvenir items or have games where you can win prizes.

During the festival season there is plenty of food to chose from and plenty of it is directly related to summer. Always interesting to note: some of these summer festival food items (although given a different spin via preparation) are fairly universal.

A fictional tale of my new Kitty items:
Although Kitty likes fireworks, she tells me she’s seen so many hanabi-takais that she doesn’t get excited anymore. “Sometimes its just not worth it. It can be a real pain because it’s hot, muggy, buggy and really crowded. Sometimes the ground is wet and you end up having to sit in a soggy yukata for five million hours. Some of the stuff is fun, like the finale, but most of the time, I just get aggravated."

While the crowd was enjoying the beautiful “fire flowers” Kitty was lying on her back, tossing tufts of grass from paw to paw. “Booooring!” she wailed as the crowd ooohed and ahhed. I was determined to ignore her, hoping she’s give up the teeny-bopper, bratty-katty thing, but I guess it was too much to hope for. She started to knead her claws into my leg until I shot her a look. She gave me a wink and nodded her head in the direction of the lantern-lit streets off in the distance. “C’mon,” she whispered. “Let’s get some grub!” and before I could say no, she was off and running. I chased after her as best I could as she quickly scampered towards the street stalls.


When I finally caught up with her, Kitty was already strolling the avenue of stalls. “How about some takoyaki? Sound good?” I thought it sounded okay. “You stay here,” she ordered. “I’ll go get it.” She returned to me holding a plate with some round little dough balls. “You like it?” Yeah, they were pretty good. “Guess what? You’re eating octopus balls.”

Octopus, either chopped or whole is dropped into a seasoned, egg-flour batter. Its cooked in a takoyaki grill – a pan that looks a little like a Swedish apple dumpling pan.

“I’m thirsty,” Kitty sais as she strutted over to the kagoori stand. Kagoori is shaved ice, kind of like our version of the snow cone. However since the ice is shaved, its texture is smoother – almost like Italian ice. In addition to the fruit flavors, sometimes people like to have it flavored with green tea and milk.


”I’m still hungry,” said Kitty, “that serving to takoyaki was kinda puny for two.” Clearly, she was disappointed that I didn’t refuse the takoyaki. “Well, we still have about an hour before the finale of the fireworks begins. My doctor told me to watch my blood sugar so I think I need some refined carbs.” She trotted over to the next stall. “Yakisoba, perfect!” Yakisoba is simply prepared, stir-fried noodles.

After she gobbled up her noodles, Kitty headed back at the kagoori stand for a second hit – “Wow. Its pretty hot tonight!”


I guess Kitty ate her noodles too fast because we still had about 50 minutes to go and she was still thinking about food. Then I saw her nose start to twitch, her ears start to perk. "I need a veggie to round out my dinner. Oooh, how about that?" She took my arm and dragged me over to a stand that was selling corn on the cob on a stick. "That's yaki-toumorokoshi, grilled corn on the cob." I looked at her and said, "Why such a fancy, long name for corn?" Kitty hit me in the arm and said, “Bakachan – its special corn on the cob! Its been marinated in some soy sauce and fish-stock.”

While she was still munching on her corn, she frantically waved her paw towards another stand. “Look at that! That’s my favorite! Ikayaki!” I turned to where she pointed, and there, piled high on a grill was stack of grilled squid. Like the corn, the squid is marinated before being grilled.

As Kitty paid for her Ikayaki she asked, “Don’t you want anything?” I shrugged and said that a simple hot dog would do just fine for me right now. “Well, there’s a stand right there. Don’t expect any bread with that, okay? Don’t embarrass me.”


”Oh boy, I am full!” Kitty groaned. But before I could say anything she was off and running “Time for dessert.” I was both amazed and horrified at what happened next.

Kitty first picked up a chocolate covered banana. It was gone it less than a minute. Next was a ringo ame or candied apple. That took longer because of the candy coating. Then to round out the feast, she bought a cotton candy. “This is for later, just in case I get hungry.”


There was still about 20 minutes to go, but I was able to convince Kitty that the cotton candy would probably be enough to hold her until we headed back to her place. As we walked back towards the fireworks, Kitty stopped in her tracks and pulled me to a stop. “Kingyo-sukui! You have to try this game. This is positively my ultra-fav game. C’mon!” She brought me into a stall that had a long, low table. On the table was a long tank filled with water and live goldfish! Kitty handed me something that looked like a tiny plastic tennis racket with paper in the center. “Here, take this and try to catch one of these fish.” That didn’t seem so challenging so I dunked my funny fish catcher in pursuit of a fine looking goldfish. Once I felt I had my fish cornered I pulled up my catcher and the fish. I looked at Kitty and said, “That wasn’t so hard, I can see why you like this game,” but as soon as I said that, I heard a little sploosh. I looked down to where my fish should have been and there was my catcher, nothing more than a plastic ring with wet, torn paper in the center. Kitty laughed hysterically for about five minutes while I tried to catch another fish with a new paper net.

Finally, I was able to whip up a fish that the kindly vendor placed in a plastic bag for me. I held it out to Kitty and said, “I hope you’re satisfied. This is the world’s most expensive goldfish. She smiled at me and said quietly, “Arigato.”

“Is there anything else you think I might enjoy?” Kitty looked at her goldfish, her cotton candy and said, “Well, yeah, there might be just one thing more. Its another game.” She headed towards another stall that had a long, low table and a tank filled with water. However, instead of fish, the long tank was filled will small, colorful balloons. “This game is call bon-bon tsuri. These balloons are filled with a little water and a little air. You try to pull the balloon out by its rubber band handle.” I looked at her and said, “That’s it? What’s so hard about that?” She held up the goldfish to my face. “You think you’re so great. C’mon, let me finish! You don’t grab it with your hands. You use this.” She handed me a long strip of paper that was twisted until it looked like a string. At the end was a piece of metal that obviously was my means of hooking the balloon. I asked Kitty to point out a balloon she’d like. Of course, she picked pink. Several tickets/dollars later, I finally snagged her pink yo-yo balloon. Kitty held out her fish as I handed her the balloon. She wrapped the rubber band around her paw and gave the balloon a few soft bounces. She beamed. Then she yawned. I noticed that the finale had begun. Oh well, I thought. I’m sure she’ll take me to the big one in Gujo-Hachimen. I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder. She nuzzled and purred, drooled cotton candy into my hair, then finally fell asleep.

  • To see pictures of the "real thing" (various foods and kingyo sukui), check out Kuishinbo Meow's blog

  • Happily, these Kitty "Yatai" items are available to overseas buyers via The series is going fast, but they have restocked these items at least twice since hitting the site.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Summer is here: Part II

Summer Festivals:

One of the major summer festival celebrations focus on Obon - an annual Buddhist ritual that commemorates family ancestors. Traditional beliefs are that our ancestor’s spirits are released from a kind of purgatory. They travel to our world to visit their relatives before they make their way to the final destination. As the traditional story goes, a disciple of Buddha saw his deceased mother suffering in the “world of hungry ghosts.” When he tries to give her a bowl of rice, the food turns to burnt charcoal and cannot be eaten. The disciple goes to Buddha and tells him what happened. Buddha then explains to the disciple that his mother had been hot-tempered and greedy in her past life and did not believe in retribution for her behavior. This is why she suffers in the world of hungry ghosts. The disciple asks Buddha if there is anything that he can do to free his mother. Buddha tells him to make an offering to all holy monks on the last day of their summer retreat – a time when many of them will have attained enlightenment. Only these monks, united in the effort can free his mother from suffering. The disciple makes his offerings as Buddha instructs and his mother is freed. The disciple “dances for joy.”

Every region in Japan has its own adaption to the story/history behind their summer festivities, but they all tend to include lanterns/fire (to guide the spirits), food offerings (as Buddha instructed his disciple) either at home or in temples and dancing. I’m not sure whether theme dancing comes from the story of the disciple or from the idea of giving comfort to the spirits. Nevertheless, the Obon season of festivals means lots of dancing and lots of food.

Hanagasa Matsuri (Early August): Kitty prepares to perform the Hanagasa Odori (flower hat dance). She wears a colorful happi coat and holds a big, round hat decorated with, of course, flowers. The motions of the dance are based on the movements of the old rice farmers who harvested their crops by hand.



Aomori Nebuta (mid-August): Nebutas are giant, washi paper laterns that are usually in the shape of legendary characters from myths and history. Illuminated from the inside, these giant laterns are quite a sight as they parade down the city streets at night. This festival’s origins are thought to come from a famous samurai who conquered his enemies by frightening them with these nebutas. While Kitty would love to see herself up there with the great samurai for now she’ll have to be satisfied as a member of the “haneto” – costumed dancers that accompany each of the floats. She’ll have to keep up with the taiko drummers and flutes!


NEBUTA (2005)

I believe that Kitty is trying to be one of the elaborate hats (goldfish-style) that the haneto wear in the parades

Kochi Yosakoi (mid August): Kitty is going to get tired because she has to keep dancing. This time she picks up her "narukos" (clappers that were originally used by farm workers to scare birds away from crops) and dons her happi coat. Although it occurs during the bon period, the festival originally began to encourage the morale and economy of Kochi following WWII. This may be why this particular festival’s dance music isn’t restricted to traditional Japanese interpretation. Competing dance “teams” have been putting their own spin on the traditional “Yokaskoi Bushi” with rock, hip-hop, jazz and samba interpretations. Kitty doesn’t care. She’ll be refueling soon at the food stalls.

Some "real" Hello Kitty narukos from a YahooJapan auction



Gujo Hachiman – Gujo odori (July - September): For the people of Gujo Hachimen, dancing festivities aren’t isolated just to obon. The Gujo Odori festival runs from July through early September. The festival was begun over 400 years ago by its feudal lord Endo Yoshitaka. He wanted all townspeople to come get together and mix, regardless of social positions. The Obon odori is said to be the highpoint of this festival. In mid-August, Kitty will join up 100,000 people who have come to this city to dance from 8PM to 4AM.

Dancing isn’t all there is in this city. Kitty loves fish, but in Gujo Hachiman, fish and summer can mean only one thing: Aiyu! She loves to eat these sweet tasting fresh water fishies – and there’s plenty of fresh water here as well. Several rivers and freshwater springs flow through the center of town. The most famous of these springs, the Sougisui is said to be the purest water in all of Japan.



Kyoto Daimonji bonfire festival - Daimonji Gozan Okuribi (August 16th): On August 16th, five huge bonfires are lit on the surrounding mountains of Kyoto. The bonfires are in the shape the Chinese characters “Myoho” (the supreme law of Buddha), "Funagata" (the shape of a ship), “Hidari” (left) “Dai” (large) and “Toriigata” (the shrine archway) The Daimonji Gozan Okuribi festival signals the end of “Obon”. In Kyoto, the bonfires are lit to guide the souls of the departed.