Summer is hot and humid in Japan, much worse than in Fort Lee.
Matsuri, summer festivals, are the only relief to the incessantly sticky air, left behind by the annual “tsuyu” intense humidity following the rainy season in June.
Even with modern remote-control air-conditioning, Japanese homes are too tiny to while away a summer night.
Japanese who moved to Fort Lee in the mid-1970s were surprised to find a “matsuri” awaiting them in the Borough: the annual Saint Rocco Festival, which was begun in 1927, by earlier Fort Lee residents who had come from southern Italy.
When I went to Japan in the summer, I had the reverse experience. In Machida, near Tokyo, with former Fort Lee resident, Ikuko Kato, I sawbooths with food, fireworks, and something called a “Mikoshi.”
At first the Mikoshi seemed very foreign: a wooden platform, about 6ft by 8ft, decorated with red and white bunting, was hoisted onto the shoulders of a mostly male group. As they proceeded around the matsuri grounds, they shouted “Washoi, Washoi.”
The members of the group wore white or red sweatbands tied around their heads. They wore Happi Coats, very short cotton kimonos, short pants and tabi, white one-toed socks.
As the Mikoshi drew closer, Ikuko indicated a golden pavilion set into the center of the Mikoshi. “This is the god from the Temple. They carry the Mikoshi through the streets. Some people throw money onto the Mikoshi. Other people throw buckets of water to cool off the men,” Ikuko explained.
I also saw people giving the Mikoshi-bearers sake, beer and soft drinks, the former leading the bearers to shout louder and louder.
Japanese, loved the Saint Rocco zeppoles and fireworks, but two festivals in one weekend take their toll, says Yuko Okada, of Biwanko, a kids taiko drum group from Fort Lee, which is a fixture at the Matsuri.
What awaits at the Natsu Matsuri? St. Rocco has fireworks and rides (In fact I recall a St. Rocco during the "Cold War" 1950s when the sound of firecrackers resounding off the Palisades caused some New Yorkers to report Russians bombing the George Washington Bridge). Natsu Matsuri has taiko drums, almost as loud as fireworks. There are no rides, but all are welcome to join in the Bon Dance.
Taiko drums, almost as loud as fireworks, are a main attraction. These wooden drums, some three-feet –tall, others mounted at the drummers shoulders, are almost as loud as fireworks.
Several taiko troupes, of ten to twenty drummers each, members of the New York Suwa Taiko Association will perform at the Natsu Matsuri, including Biwanko, a childrens’ taiko group from Fort Lee. Also performing is Mitsuwa Daiko (often in Japanese a T following a vowel is changed to a D). These amateur drummers, men, women, and children, have been training for the past few Saturdays with Hiro-sensei, leader of Taiko Masala, which will also perform.
Taiko performances by six different Taiko groups will go on all day, from 11 am to 3 pm.
Kids of all ages can play Japanese games: yoyo scooping (cannot describe this game – come and see for yourself!), quoits, and Omen mask making will go on from 11 am to 7pm.
All day long there will be food vendors grilling fresh seafood outdoors, and preparing Okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake, yakitori chicken, cold noodles, and other Japanese “street food.”
Bon Dance, folk dance performances, begin at 4 pm and continue until 8 pm. Audience participation is expected as the Bon Dance by Momo Suzuki and the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of New York Inc. demonstrates the Japanese tradition.
Concluding the program on the main stage will be a taiko performance by Taiko Masala.
*Special question to readers: what is the similarity between the Feast of St. Rocco? and a Japanese Matsuri festival?