Monday, July 14, 2008

Kickin it with the carnies

What July is complete without the Mitama matsuri at Yasukuni shrine? With some relation to the upcoming obon festival in August, the Mitama festival is a "soul festival" but without looking into the history of it, it has all the elements of many other summer festivals around Japan: parading of mikoshi, food stalls as far as the eye can see, taiko drumming, obon odori dancing and my personal favourite, men in thongs.

To look at the throngs of couples, teenagers and families you would never guess that this was all taking place at one of the most controversial spots in Japan.

I love summer festivals in Japan, especially the carnie-like quality that many of them have. Have you ever looked closely at the people working behind the games and food booths? Either young tanned high school dropouts or old sweaty ojichan or obachan, and definitely carnies. Yesterday some of the tents were set up under a group of dark trees surrounding the shrine and reminded me of a scene from Beat Takeshi's Kikujiro.

My main strategy when approaching a festival is to basically eat my way through it. There are really no other times when one can justify eating such greasy nastiness with such pleasure so I always try to take full advantage. A sampling of what I tend to go for:

Yakisoba - goes with out saying. Festival standard.

Okonomiyaki - often makes me feel a little sick but is hot and tasty on the way down.

Jaga bataa - a magic combination of potatoes and butter (and other toppings if you're not a purist like me).

Karaage - they know how to fry their chicken, that's for sheez.

Cheezu boru - cheese balls!

Baby kasutera - cake batter poured into little ball molds (ball sponge cake?!) doesn't sound too appetizing but these babies are tasty!

Wataame - cotton candy, also a staple at carnie fairs Overseas.

A little off-putting? Tell me that when you're walking between two rows of stalls in a tight crowd of people, you're looking for an accompaniment to your beer and you can smell this stuff. Really, festival food here should have its own food group. There's also squid on sticks, candied fruit, flavoured ice, yakitori, oden, ramen, chocolate bananas, and roasted corn. I think the thrill for me of eating this stuff is not only that I've drunk the carnie Kool-aid but also that in a typical Japanese kitchen (ie. sans oil tanks and industrial flame grills) you can't make most of this stuff. Who am I kidding, I just like it period.

Yesterday I didn't just eat however. There was dancing to take in, and also a lantern display that had large rectangular white lanterns which had been signed/drawn on/painted on by sumo wrestlers and other celebs in Japan. I also found myself mother to some goldfish by the end of the evening.

The beau and I partook in the ancient Japanese art of goldfish, well, fishing. Or kingyo sukui. For usually around 300 yen you get a small bowl and a flat net made of paper and then you squat down in front of a small pool of water and try to catch as many little goldfish as you can before the net breaks. I don't mean to say there are people frantically shovelling goldfish into their bowls, but if you aren't gentle the net will break immediately. 11 goldfish between the two of us and not much oxygen for all of them, we booked it to Donki for a small tank and then raced home in a taxi. Well actually my mind was racing but the taxi, not so much. Two of them looked like they weren't going to make it and I considered CPR in the taxi but ultimately decided against it. Time of death: 20.30 and 20.33.

So now I've got a tank of goldfish in my apartment, how very Sakuran of me I know, and I've got to worry about whether they are going to fry in the heat every day. What would I be doing now if I had gotten that puppy?!

No comments: