“What is the difference between yukata and kimono?” someone asked me recently.

I gave them a rather lengthy answer, but somewhere in my heart the answer was, “Kimono are a pain. Yukata are fun.”

Don’t misunderstand, I do love kimono, and you can have a lot of fun with them. A yukata, however, is not bound by all the same rules as kimono. Although it would not be appropriate to wear them in place of a kimono, you can get away with all sorts of traditional and untraditional patterns, and accessories. It’s a little shocking to older generations to see young women wearing their yukata short with their ankles exposed for easy walking, in some ways it looks like the yukata has evolved into outfits one would hardly associate with kimono, like the shirt-and-pants style high schoolers are sporting lately, and the frilly-dress style things for small children that one could argue are not yukata at all. Although you do need some amount of tools for the typical yukata, you don’t need as many as you’d need for kimono (and in fact, you don’t even have to be able to tie a bow because many of them come with pre-tied bows!). Furthermore, yukata are much, much cheaper than kimono.

On my first trip to Japan I really wanted a yukata, so I bought a relatively cheap blue one. Although things did not work out to go to festival during that trip, I wore it to go do handheld fireworks in the park with my high school friends. To my chagrin they did not show up in yukata as planned, so I was the only one while they all wore t-shirts. Still a fun memory, though.

No, I did not take off anyone’s head!

The following year when I returned for a study abroad program, a Japanese friend of mine gave me a nice black and pink one as a gift. Score, one yukata for me, and one yukata for a friend if ever need be!

Fast forward to my life in Matsue, especially while I was working on competitive kimono dressing. I had gone into a chain kimono store looking for something and wound up signing over my contact information for a mailing list and a raffle, in which I won… another yukata! This one was purple with some hot pink.

Fast forward to the following year, when I won second place at the regional competition. What was my prize? You got it, another yukata. I already have a dark blue one, but I really like the breezy material on this one.

So what do I do with all these yukata???

I get lots of friends to dress up with me to and go to lots of festivals, that’s what.

Here in Matsue, there are other festivals at shrines a little further away, but my favorite ones around the city center that are very easy to get to even while tottering around in a properly worn yukata include the following:

Shirakata Tenmangu Natsu Matsuri: “Tenjin-sai”
Tenjin is the god of scholarship, worshiped at Tenmangu shrines throughout the country. This story behind this god is rather interesting, and although Matsue’s Shirakata Tenmangu Shrine is the better known one, Sugawara Tenmangu Shrine towards the southwest outskirts of town is one of many spots throughout the country that claims to be the birthplace of this god.
The festival atmosphere lasts from the afternoon until very late evening on July 24th and 25th, stretching all the way up and down a shopping arcade that’s been in that spot since the Edo period. Although I’ve worn yukata to stroll and watch the bouncing and shouting parade of o-mikoshi (portable shrines), this year I stirred things up a bit by joining in and going for the festival happi jacket look instead.

At many festivals of similiar nature in Japan, the people carrying the shrines shout “washoi! washoi! washoi!,” heaving it in the air on “shoi.” Matsue’s Tenjin-sai started the same way, but that felt a little too slow, so at some point it changed to the people carrying it and the people around them trading off with “Soya!” “Saa!” “Soya!” “Saa!” “Soya!” “Saa!

As cool of an experience as it was, you know what was really unforgetable that night? The colors of the sunset over Lake Shinji as we carried the shrine over the Ohashi Bridge! I wasn’t exactly able to stop and snap a picture, though… oh well, Lake Shinji will always have other beautiful sunsets.

Suigosai: Lake Shinji Fireworks Festival
Again, every region has a big fireworks festival–or several of them–but this is the biggest in the area, with the added appeal of reflections off of Lake Shinji visible from several directions, and sound echoing even as far as the quiet neighbors of neighboring Yasugi City. Usually held on the first weekend of August or so, they usually fire 3000 fireworks on Saturday night and 6000 fireworks on Sunday night, but last year there was a typhoon so they rescheduled it and fired 9000 in one night later on in the month. I had thought that would be the most amazing fireworks display of my life, especially sitting right by the surface of Lake Shinji, but this year Matsue Castle became a National Treasure. To commemorate this, they fired the usual 3000 on Saturday, and then 10000 on Sunday. It looked like the sky had filled with gold.

Matsue Shinjiko Onsen: Oyukake Jizo Matsuri
On August 24th, people give thanks for the natural spring waters at the north banks of Lake Shinji. And they buy stuff from food stalls, watch stage events, and light some more fireworks. I wrote a little more about this last year.

Tamatsukuri Onsen, on the southern banks of Lake Shinji, also has a summer festivals that lasts for a few weeks, but I have not attended yet (despite how much I always love a good stroll through that onsen area and a dip in the riverside foot baths!).

There are some other shrine festivals I always hear about and have yet to go, and I suppose if I really wanted to dress in yukata for the lanterns floating down the Ohashi River at the end of the Obon holiday on August 16 it wouldn’t be out of place, but I’ve always only stopped by in casual western style clothes.

The other place I’ve been using my yukata this summer is at my tea ceremony lessons. I usually practice in western style clothes, but after accidentally dipping my sleeve in the waste water during this year’s New Year ceremony, I figured I should probably take the chance to practice in long sleeves while I had the chance. Technically yukata are not appropriate for a tea ceremony, but my teacher gave me permission so that I could fit some extra practice in. So far I’ve only dipped the sleeve in the tea cup once, but thankfully it had nothing in it at the time.

Don’t be fooled when people tell you that yukata help you stay cool, though. They are indeed breezier than kimono, but they won’t keep you as cool as lazy western style clothes will! That said, it’ll still be pretty hot in late September when I am planning on attending a private tea ceremony, and I’ll need to be prepared to sweat. Also in preparation for this, I went out to a charming little kimono goods shop a couple weeks ago and found a cheap obi that’ll be pretty useless because it’s okay to use almost any time of year, and because it’s a repeating pattern, it may be easier than my usual obi which have a specific point to center.

To my and my friend’s pleasant surprise, this kimono shop also offered free iced coffee in their cafe area with a view of the garden and soft natural lighting. The coffee–which, even for someone who does not identify as a coffee lover, was delicious–was served in decorative glassware with cute, circular ice cubes. Every detail of this space and the five senses was taken into consideration. It was like being surrounded by aesthetic sense inside and out.

It’s just my observation, but kimono seems to bring out a broad sense of aesthetics, taking into consideration all sorts of surroundings. Season, occasions, company, purpose, age—it pulls all these elements together, it follows certain rules, but expresses creativity within those rules much like you would with a haiku.

But yukata, the rebellious offspring of what we know think of as traditional kimono who is still a good child at heart, is a more accessible aesthetic. Where kimono says “rules and proper sense” yukata says “festivals, fireworks, seasonal junk food, flirting with that cute classmate and hoping you’ll catch him by surprise with your altered look, the chic or sparkly and fluffy finishing touches, and finding your friends in the bustling streets and exchanging “kawaii!” compliments.”

The title is a bit of a mouthful, but the festival itself is quite refreshing–especially considering the free use of onsen facilities although the Matsue Shinjiko Onsen area on the northeast banks of Lake Shinji! The line of ryokan and other facilities all have views facing the lake along the boardwalk.

The onsen are only open for a few hours in the middle of the day, but the festival really picks up in the evening. The purpose of the festival is to give thanks for having the springs in the first place. There is a statue of Jizo, the merciful Buddha often thought of as a patron of children. This is the Oyukake Jizo whereas “oyukake” means that you pour hot water on it, and thus your wishes are granted.

Oyukake Jizo on a sunny day

Oyukake Jizo on a rainy festival night

In addition to the usual street of food and game stalls (as well as toy sales and free sake tastings and what not), there were stage events set up near the line to offer incense and pour water on the Oyukake Jizo. It started raining partway through, but no one seems to mind–umbrellas or not, the crowds didn’t decrease at all.

This festival began in 1974, and it has since become a classic sign of late summer around this onsen area. Besides games and food stalls and stage events and people in yukata everywhere, one of the main draws is cooling off by the lake and watching the fireworks.

The early people waiting for fireworks while the lake is still quiet… I didn’t attempt to take any photos of fireworks this year, but you could always see my Suigosai entry from last year.

Now as for fireworks, I’m afraid they can’t compare to the display put on during Suigosai, the focal point of the summer. This event was supposed to be held August 9~10, but due to a typhoon, it has been postponed until August 30. Usually they fire 3000 fireworks over the course of half an hour on the first night and 6000 fireworks over the course of an hour the following night, but due to this schedule adjustment, they’ll be firing all 9000 of them from 8pm until 9pm!

Everyone, if you can make it to Matsue this weekend, try to find a spot early before everything fills up with people!

And don’t forget, the best Suigosai viewing spots are also around the Matsue Shinjiko Onsen area, and the Ichibata Railway will even be allowing people to view it from a special train car. Well, they’re probably best only next to the view from Matsue Castle, but people had to win a raffle of sorts to get acess to the tower at that hour. Anyway, before or after the fireworks, there is a free foot onsen outside the Ichibata Railway station and the Shijimi Clam Center. The one outside the station has a second Oyukake Jizo to pour hot water on.

I’ve frequently been asked what the first thing I noticed in Japan was. The answer was easy: “It’s humid.”

On more trips that not when I’ve entered Japan, it’s been in summer. While August–considered the height of summer–is said to be hot and relatively dry, I certainly don’t find it dry. Well, I don’t find most of the months dry, except the depths of winter, that’s usually because indoor spaces dry out easily with the artificial heating. Even in winter, however, we have snowfall here in the San’in region, and when it’s not snowing, it’s raining.

Oh yeah. Rain.

This region gets a lot of rainfall. We don’t get as many typhoons because they tend to peeter out after leaving the Pacific shores, but they still have plenty of water to expend when they get here. In response to the amount of precipitation, a common trait of Izumo style Japanese gardens is that the stepping stones will be relatively high so as not the get the tips of your kimono unnecessarily wet.

This is one of the entrances to Kangetsu-an, a tea house inside of Fumon-in Temple which was one of Lord Fumai's favorites.

This is one of the entrances to Kangetsu-an, a tea house inside of Fumon-in Temple which was one of Lord Fumai‘s favorites.

Although people in Japan will proudly declare that Japan has four seasons, you’ll also find that tsuyu–the rainy season, also sometimes called baiu–tends to be declared as a season of its own, so it’s more like five seasons. But even that can get much, much more complex, so you could have 24 seasons instead. In the Chuugoku region at the western tip of Honshu (including both the San’in and San’yo areas), this typically starts on or around June 7. This year it officially started on June 4 according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.

I wouldn’t mind rain if it wasn’t so wet.

There are some upsides to tsuyu here, though. In Matsue, the rain is known as Enishizuku, the droplets that bind us all together in common fate. Or, you know, there are invisible strings in the rain droplets in Matsue that lead you to someone you have yet to meet–who knows who will drop into your life with the rain? I wonder if the En-musubi in the water has anything to do with Izumo–home of the ultimate En-musubi power spot, Izumo Taisha–being “from whence clouds come” (出雲: “emit” “clouds”)?

There are Enishizuku themed drinks at bars around the city only available on rainy days, but you’d be more likely to find me at a tsuyu matcha cafe inside Karakoro Art Studio making leaf boats.

Or I might be at Gesshoji Temple, enjoying a cup of matcha while observing the famous hydrangea or teasing a monster tortoise and slipping on the old stone paths.

Or I might be gratefully dashing through puddles while using a Dan-Dan umbrella. These are part of a program in which they took the umbrellas people forget in public and mark them specifically for public use. I’m certain I’ve contributed at least a couple umbrellas to this program, but I’ve more than reaped the benefits when I’ve been walking around without my forgotten umbrellas. The “Dan-Dan” in the title means “thank you” in Izumo dialect.

Or I might be inside grumbling about how I can’t get my hair to behave in the additional humidity.

Yukata season is starting to wind down now, but there are still summer festivals at which to wear them and play games to take home real goldfish (not that I would want to make the poor things suffer in the heat of my apartment while I’m away!). Despite this feeling like the hottest time of the year, we’re technically already in autumn according to the 24 periods of the old lunisolar calendar!

While wearing kimono comes with a certain amount of financial investment and necessary items to achieve the ideal shape on which to base an array of tasteful aesthetics, yukata do not require so much fuss. Unlike kimono, they are usually made of a breathable fabric like cotton and do not require much–if anything?–underneath them, so they are ideal for the hot and humid summers of Japan. Even in my kimono class and other culture classes for which classic dress is standard, they make special allowances for people to wear yukata instead of traditional kimono for practice.

If you have ever stayed at any hotel in Japan, you might have been provided yukata to lounge and sleep in, but there are yukata more proper for wearing in public. They’re cheap enough that most visitors to Japan can afford one, and some fancy hotels in resort areas, like Tamatsukuri Onsen on the south side of Matsue, provide them to the guests to wear around the area anyway. Of course, if you’re just passing through for the day, you can rent them from Himekoromo at the Hakobune Tamatsukuri Art Box. While we’re on that topic, you could always get a brief kimono experience at Karakoro Art Studio closer to Matsue Castle, too.

Just because yukata don’t inheritantly require as much fuss as normal kimono doesn’t mean that you can toss out all the rules of kimono (left side over right!!!), and it doesn’t mean people don’t fuss over them anyway. You see people wearing them all over the place at festivals, and since you can get away with any kind of pattern on a yukata (seeing as the material automatically makes it appropriate for summer, even if its covered in a snowflake pattern), people get very creative with them. It’s gotten very common to see girls with thick make-up, bleach-blonde hair with giant crepe flowers, and sparkly gauze sashes tied over the regular obi (belt). What with the freedom they offer, crafty people are getting craftier and craftier.

For the people just going for a traditional yukata look–the very mental image of which conjures nostalgic memories of summmer, and all the shaved ice, festivals, and refreshing (if infrequent) gusts of wind–there are obi that are tied with strings and have a seperate pre-tied bow that you just stick in the back.

As I call them, “Cheater Obi”–though I’ve happily been cheating for the past six years since attaining my first yukata.

Seeing as I am supposed to be able to wear kimono now, I did take the time to learn how to tie a basic bunko bow. As soon as you master the basics, however, the little creative adjustments you can make–a fold here, a stretch there, flipping inside-out around there–are only limited by your imagination and the length of fabric you have to work with. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of perfectly good, perfectly orthodox ways of arranging it already, though.

I just don’t have enough talent and practice yet to be very orthodox.

Today is officially Tanabata, the one night of the year when the seperated lovers, herdsman Hikoboshi and weaver Orihime, are allowed to meet! These two are otherwise known at the stars Altair and Vega, which are typically seperated by the Milky Way.

“But wait!” those of you familiar with this holiday might say. “That holiday is July 7th! The seventh day of the seventh month!”

Yes and no. It depends on which calendar you’re going by, and for that matter, which part of Japan you reside in.

Japan has a crazy number of calendars they function by. Anyone who has ever filled out any kind of official form in Japan may have run into confusion over whether to write their birthdate according to the Western calendar or according to the Japanese year-keeping system, which changes according to the reign of the emperor (we’re in Heisei Year 25 right now). What’s more, there is an even older year-keeping system which dates back to the founding of Japan and is only used to record dates in very limited circumstances.

When it comes to yearly calendars, there has long since been influence from China and the lunisolar calendar a good portion of the Asian continent was functioning according to (or calendars similar to it). Many traditional holidays were also imported, or at least held on certain days according to the former Japanese calendar. While we’re mentioning calendars and almanacs, there are even ones that cycle more frequently than the days of the week do, and are only used now for determining things like auspicious wedding dates.

When Japan westernized, they adopted the Gregorian calendar with much more vigor than many of their Asian neighbors did. While the lunar new year is still celebrated at the start of the lunar new year in other countries, in Japan, all New Years festivities are timed according to the Gregorian January 1st. That means that while China will still be in the Year of the Snake until January 31st, 2014, Japan will start the Year of the Horse a month ahead of time. I’m born in January, so this causes some confusion when I tell people what year of the zodiac I was born in.

This means that holidays celebrating seasonal changes have also been changed so that they are too early for the season they are celebrating. Hence, Japan instituted the optional tsuki-okure (“month delay”) system. This means that although a holiday may be nationally recognized according to its date on the Gregorian calendar, different regions of Japan may choose to celebrate it one month after that date.

I bring this up because the San’in region practices tsuki-okure. Like the Touhoku region the weather is a bit cooler, so holidays that commemorate warmer and warmer weather are celebrated in appropriately warmer weather. Hence, Doll Day (usually March 3) is April 3, and Children’s Day (usually May 5) is June 5. Instead of delaying the festivities until those dates, what typically happens is that they start celebrating on the dates according the Gregorian calender (since everyone else is already doing it) and just keep the decorations out a month longer. If you are on a trip to Japan and missed the doll displays or carp banners, now you know where to go.

Back to Tanabata, yes, that would technically put it at August 7th, which still doesn’t quite match up with the old lunisolar calendar. The one-month delay is just meant to get a little closer to the original date. That said, Tanabata festivals typically aren’t held on any preappointed day; instead, individual shrines (and companies or whatever other entity) will choose a date that is convenient. Theoretically, though the starry lovers only meet for one night, you could say the Tanabata season goes on for over a month.

The basic way to celebrate Tanabata in Japan is to write a wish on a tanzaku (strip of paper) and hang it on a decorated sprig of bamboo. You find this in shrines, in shopping malls, or any other public gathering space. Towards the end of the season, they look a little heavy with everyone’s wishes.

It just so happens that on July 7th, we held the closing ceremony for the 23rd Japan-America Grassroots Summit 2013 in Shimane. As far I saw, it seems the summit was a great success, with at least 80 Americans visiting places all over Shimane for homestay and cultural exchange experiences (just a side note, this is a great way for Americans of any age, occupation, or language ability to visit Japan (or host guests with they go to different parts of the states–you’re next, San Diego and Tijuana!)). As part of the ceremony, we had the Americans take part in this 1200-year-old tradition.

As for what the locals have been writing…

Speaking of summer holidays and tsuki-okure, this is right around when a lot of the country celebrates O-bon (think Day of the Dead, only its three days). The timing varies, but several areas choose to line up this holiday a little more closely with its lunisolar date, usually roughly August 15. (The area around Tokyo seems to have a distaste for tsuki-okure, though, so theirs is around July 15. However, the holiday atmosphere still lasts through August because everyone is gone visiting their hometown then!)

To mark the deceased spirits’ return to their world after a brief visit with their living relatives, it is common to float lanterns down a river or the like, toro-nagashi. In Matsue, this year’s toro-nagashi will be on August 16, at the Ohashi River which bisects the north and south sides of the city.

It’s both a little late to be posting these pictures from last year, and a little early to be posting them now–today marks the first day of O-bon here, so the spirits have only just arrived.

I live and work around the northeast bank of Lake Shinji, right by where it feeds into the Ohashi River (which then continues into Nakaumi by cutting through the middle of Matsue). Here’s a bit of trivia: way, way back when, Lake Shinji wasn’t a lake at all, but part of the Hii River! The ancient Izumo flatlands have quite a history of (and culture based around) flooding out there on the west side of the peninsula. Thankfully I haven’t heard of any recent floods!

The boardwalk around that area is a popular spot for joggers, or picnickers like me and my coworkers. Though it’s usually a quiet place to sit (or stretch) and listen to the waves, watch the Shijimi clam fishers at work, or observe the wildlife, last weekend every bit of dry land was covered with people and food stalls. Major roads were blocked off to make way for foot traffic, and only the luckiest few were able to squeeze their way into a lakeside seat (or be lucky enough to have friends who grabbed a spot, as was my case–getting to said friends amoung the crowd was the hard part).

What was the big draw? Matsue’s Suigosai! Otherwise known as the “let’s set off 9000 fireworks over Lake Shinji” festival.

To be more precise, they set off 3000 fireworks for half an hour on Saturday night, and then 6000 fireworks for a full hour display on Sunday night. Fireworks are nothing new to me and I can’t say I’m an enthusiast or anything, but it was probably the best display I’ve ever been to. Besides being so close and watching the reflections on the surface of the lake and the remaining sparks disappear into the water, it was fun being in such a densely packed crowd and listening to the children shout out the shapes that appeared in the sky: “Heart! Smiley face! Watermelon! Umbrella! Circle!!”

At one point, the fireworks seemed to spill off the boat and the sky momentarily went dark. “Was that a dud?” everyone started asking their neighbors, until we noticed softly twinkling lights of various colors floating on the lake. Nice touch!

Seeing as I only had my phone to take pictures with, I’m not aiming to impress anyone with firework photos, and these don’t show the usual height of the fireworks, just the ones close to the water surface. Photos can’t do justice to being there in person at bustling and loud events, after all (cheap excuses, sure–but I was enjoying myself in the moment!).

That said, on less crowded summer nights, the board walk is a perfect setting for lighting small fireworks and playing with handheld sparklers (just hopefully not in as much wind as we did them in).

We were trying to spell “Matsue”… don’t mind my backwards ‘e’.

Fireworks are nice and all, but when it comes down to it, I prefer starlight. Being at sea level with so much moisture in the air, it surprises me how many stars I’m able to see here. The night we all went to light fireworks, a couple of us were lucky enough to notice a shooting star, too.