No-one does festivals (or events) quite like Japan. The planning, organisation and execution are flawless, and the sheer breadth of types and themes is staggering. Every city, town and tiny hamlet has a festival. Schools have them. Universities have them. There are events to promote disaster awareness or local food, to raise money for charity and to simply celebrate the joys of dance and music.

I have many great memories related to such festivals and events as these, and that is what I’m going to share with you in this blog post.

I have to start with one of my favourite Sendai festivals – Aoba Festival. Although Sendai is well-known for Tanabata, and millions of people travel to see it, there’s nothing quite like Sendai’s very own celebration of itself. It’s local, it’s inclusive and it tells you everything you need to know about the City of Trees.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the whole city gets involved. Businesses, caterers, dancers, and even firemen all have a role to play in the Aoba Festival (ladders make an amazing performance prop). There are people in City Hall planning it, helpers taking recycling and rubbish, workers setting up stages and police officers clearing the roads ready for the big parade. And then all of the citizens gather to attend, to eat, watch and play as they enjoy the best of the city. And you can feel this sense of “by the people, for the people”; you can feel the history of it and the sheer energy that is something more than the size of the crowds.

Now, I’m not very keen on crowds, but the atmosphere is amazing. This festival stretches over the whole weekend, and I’ve managed to be among it for hours without tiring. There is so much to experience. My favourite things are the food (always), the parade and the dancing. Sendai’s local dance is the Sparrow Dance (Suzume Odori), and it even has its own mascot, Suzunosuke (he’s a sparrow…). The dancers wear colourful costumes and each group takes the steps and weaves them into something different each time, but always with a smile on their faces and certainty in their movements.
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ID:	1111 Suzunosuke!

I’m going to continue by going back to food, because it really is a passion of mine. I’ve tasted my way around Sendai, from different ramen in Ochiai to as many types of sakura sweets as I could find in patisseries and department stores all over (hint: it was a lot). Festivals have their own food. I’m not keen on the bananas dipped in chocolate, pickled cucumbers or hurricane potatoes. I’m more about the unique and the local. The local is covered by delicious treats such as roasted mochi covered in miso. And it doesn’t get more unique than a tray of what look like takoyaki (balls of cooked batter containing octopus) that turn out to be artfully decorated choux buns. They were delicious, too.
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ID:	1115 'Takoyaki' choux buns

Even something as simple-sounding as winter illuminations becomes special when you turn it into an event. Although other cities are impressive and beautiful at this time of year, Sendai’s version is unforgettable. It may not be particularly unique, but it’s still magical. There’s a road called Jozenji-dori that has a pedestrian area in the middle, and it’s so long that it takes 10 minutes to walk from end to end. The whole length is covered in trees, and they cover these trees in tiny lights. The overall effect is like a beacon in the cold dark. It gets better, too, because they have a switch-on every hour, so you don’t have to miss the night lighting up like magic. It’s this magic, this wonder that I love the most. It’s wonderful to recapture that precious feeling; I almost felt like a child again.
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ID:	1113 The trees full of starlight

It just shows that it really is the simple things that are the most effective. I once went to a fundraising event for charity. All I remember about the background of it was that it was run by a particular TV channel and that it ran for 24 hours. But one thing about the event sticks clearly in my mind, and that was one of the ways in which they raised money. It was a giant, blue tarp on the ground, weighed to keep it stationary. On it was the outline of a picture, divided into sections that each had a monetary value. What people had to do was to fill in the picture using the coins requested – the 3 lowest denomination coins, which happen to all be different colours. Everyone could join in, even if they only had 5 yen or if they were only 5 years old. And at the end, they could physically see the results of their donation in a beautiful mosaic-like artwork.
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ID:	1114 Coin art for charity

Events can also be educational as well as fun. Sendai was a city that was greatly affected by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. After the clean-up had been done, everyone was determined that they would not forget the lessons that the disaster had taught them. Commemorative songs were written for schools, special lessons take place a couple of times a year, and there was also a disaster awareness festival. For an event that could easily evoke sad and scary memories, it was very positive. There were booths related to preventative measures, where you could taste suggested food to stock up on; and displays from the fire brigade and from rescue teams who brought along their adorable canine colleagues.
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ID:	1112The rescue teams (and dogs!) search fake collapsed buildings for 'survivors'

All of these memories are amazing, and I hold them dear. But festivals aren’t just fun, they’re important. They’ve existed since the dawn of humanity to mark the year and bring people together under a common purpose. Festivals and other events give people something to work towards and look forward to, and a sense of achievement afterwards. If you celebrate it, think of what it feels like to count down the days until Christmas, or to a long-awaited holiday. Festivals are a way to make each other happy, and to remember shared culture and history. That’s why Japan puts so much effort into them; it’s why they’re so well-known and well attended; and it’s why I have such wonderful memories of festivals and events in Japan.

I hope you enjoyed reading, and please comment – each one encourages me to write more!