Stepping out into a summer’s night in Japan is always a very tangible experience: the humidity is a physical barrier to push through, and the shady relief of a tree comes with its own orchestra of cicadas serenading at a consistent hundred decibels. While “outside” might not seem an attractive environment for romantic encounters in this season, there is one compelling reason to venture beyond the air conditioned abode:
Japanese festivals, or matsuri, happen all throughout the year, but summer brings a particular beauty to them with fireworks occurring nightly across the country in August, and many participants, both native and foreign, donning the colourful cotton yukata. Visitors can expect some standard finger food fare anywhere the yatai food stalls are set up, but otherwise Kansai has a dizzying array and variety of events to enjoy. From the quiet reflection of a candle-lit stroll in Kyoto, to the bombastic carnival-like atmosphere of Tenjin matsuri in Osaka, there is a festival for every place, personality and point in the relationship.
The Many Moods Of A Matsuri
Romantic and Reflective
Candle light and cool water combine into a perfect pairing for couples who prefer a little more quiet and personal space.
Kitano Tenmangu Tanabata, Kyoto
Dates: First two weeks of August
Giant stone torii gates frame the entrance-way to Kitano Tenmangu.
Bamboo branches adorned with wishes line the paths within the shrine.
During Tanabata, people all over Japan celebrate by writing their wishes on colourful strips of paper known as tanzaku. The act of writing down your wishes and hanging them on the bamboo branches is a way to send your hopes and dreams to the stars. It’s believed that on a cloudless 7th of July night, separated celestial lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi, meet and make these wishes come true.
For two weeks in early August, visitors can enjoy a unique Tanabata experience at Kitano Tenmangu: a stroll along a stream with a candle in hand. While ostensibly the ritual is intended to promote good health and general purification, it is also an excellent chance for some cute selfies and to make a wish for equally fun future dates, or even more shared happiness in the future.
Seated but stunning
Summer is hanabi season and these nights are busy! They are great for couples that want more of a matsuri vibe, and the electricity of sharing the excitement with a big crowd.
Hikone and Nagahama fireworks: Shiga prefecture
Dates: Early and mid September
Slightly after the peak of summer has passed, the charming castle cities of Hikone and Nagahama hold their fireworks festivities. Hikone’s show lasts for a full hour, while Nagahama breaks up its entertainment into 15 minute chunks spread out over four days. In both cases, Lake Biwa becomes a giant mirror reflecting the fiery Chrysanthemums, Willow and Starmine bursts. Nicer seats and better vantage spots are available for a slight fee, as well as romantic cruises that promise an even more spectacular experience. However, from any vantage point, the choreographed pyrotechnics in Japan rarely disappoint, so grab your mat and your fan, find a free space and settle in for the show!
Apart from the fireworks, Hikone and Nagahama are wonderful places to visit in any season. The shopping arcades of Nagahama are full of treasures, including hand blown glass ornaments, a massive kaleidoscope, and many cute coffee shops in nostalgic wooden or brick structures.
Hikone has one of Japan’s few remaining original castles and an adorable cat mascot, Hikonyan, who protects it. It also has a diverse offering of events including Birdman, where engineering students attempt to fly their unpowered machines across the lake; the Yukata festival, where visitors wear traditional summer attire as they stroll along Castle Road; and the Serigawa toronagashi, where lanterns float down a shallow stream illuminating the path home for the spirits who visited during Obon.
Locals don some colourful yukata while wandering through the beautifully preserved streets of Hikone.
Extrovert couples who embrace the crush will thrive on the energy of one of Japan’s biggest festivals.
Dates: July 24th and 25th
Follow the crowd across the bridges to see the boats passing beneath, find a spot beneath the leafy sakura trees lining the banks, or plan well in advance to secure a spot on a boat.
Shrines, people, music, lanterns: a colourful procession of boats during Tenjin matsuri.
But the place where people gather most thickly at Tenjin, is where the food stalls or yatai line up, offering that essential aspect of any night out: food!
All the favourites are there! Takoyaki! Grilled things on sticks! Cold cucumbers! Beer!
Takoyaki, or battered octopus balls, are perennial favourites due to their quick cooking time, ease of eating on the move, and of course their savoury umami deliciousness! Only make sure to wait until their molten insides are cooled enough to eat.
So in summer, rather than staying at home with the air conditioner on, get outside and take your date to a matsuri! The upbeat atmosphere helps people feel more comfortable with each other; the noise and bustle encourages a sense of closeness, of shared experience. From relighting your partner’s guttered candle with your own, to sharing yakitori chicken skewers, or exclaiming over a particularly frenetic burst of fireworks, matsuri are an endless source of conversation, both on the night itself and for years to come.
The Japanese tandem bike: a young woman in a yukata perches on the back of her date’s bicycle, making memories even as they cycle home.