Note: The Azabu-Juban Matsuri was cancelled in 2011 due to the sensitivity of having a happy festival after the March 2011 Earthquake. In 2012, the festival will be held from August 25-26 but will be severely reduced in scale. Please visit their official site, Japanese only, for information on this event and future events.
Azabu-Juban (Azabu) is not a place you would normally want to visit. It’s generally an upscale residential neighbourhood. It is an area that is immediately next to Roppongi that has many festivals and activities all year round. If you are a resident of Tokyo, Azabu is a very good place to visit during the day and enjoy a nice coffee and a little shopping. There are only a few main streets in Azabu, and they are lined with shops. In the middle is a small park where you can relax on most days. The far end of Azabu is actually Roppongi Hills, so walking from Azabu station to Roppongi station is a very nice way to spend a day. You are guaranteed to see many interesting things that are unique to Azabu. Azabu, as it’s next to Roppongi, is also a hub for foreign embassies, just like Roppongi and Hiroo.
The main reason I’m writing about Azabu is because of the Matsuri. Matsuri is literally translated into English as “festival”. Every year, in the heat of summer, Azabu is transformed for one weekend. It becomes an extremely busy place where people gather. The station is situated close to a highway and canal, and this is the best starting place if you visit the festival. This area traditionally has the most open space with many food stalls selling foreign foods. You can sample food from almost all over the world. There are very few places to actually eat, but if you don’t mind standing or sitting on the street, you won’t have any problems. There is also a nice set of fountains that make for good picture opportunities. One warning though, being the summer festival, you’ll have a tough time getting that perfect shot. You’ll have to do a hit and run. Another warning is to be patient. Often, each stall has a long line-up. The workers can barely keep up with the demand. Be patient and you’ll be able to eat a lot of different foods.
The main attraction has to be the regular festival stalls. If you have never been to a Japanese festival, this is the best one to see. You’ll see all of the regular foods and games that can be played. Starting with the food, there are plenty of places you can get good Japanese fare. The most popular food must be yakisoba. For 500-700 Yen, you can get a small box full of fried buckwheat noodles in a teriyaki sauce. If you call it teriyaki in Japan, people will probably look at you a little funny. They just call it sauce and it’s very easy to find, but it’s never labelled “teriyaki”. The other major food to eat is okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a traditional Osakan food. Some will call it a pancake, and others a pizza. I generally choose a pizza. The basic okonomiyaki is cabbage and batter with “sauce”, Japanese mayonnaise, and dried green onions on top. Often they add eggs, bacon, and anything else they can add. Okonomiyaki is literally translated into “as you like it”, so there isn’t any set recipe. You will find that kansai (Osaka, Kyoto, and the Nara area) food is very popular at any festival.
Takoyaki is the other essential food. This is similar to okonomiyaki, but without the cabbage, and instead of a pizza, it’s a ball. Be warned, takoyaki is EXTREMELY hot. While the outer crust of the ball is cool, the inside is still very hot. Tako is octopus in Japanese, and you’ll always find a large piece of octopus in the middle. Some places outside Japan make takoyaki, but they don’t always put a big piece of octopus in the middle. It makes a BIG difference. Other than that, you can get grilled fish and squid, and anything else that can be cooked on an open fire or flat grill. For desert, you usually have only two choices. Chocolate dipped bananas or kakikori (Japanese style snow cone). If you are thirsty, you can buy soft drinks, or beer. Yes, they have beer. Unlike Canada and America, you can actually drink in public. The price of beer is a little expensive, but you can get any brand you wish. If you need to save money, there are a few convenience stores in Azabu and beer is regular price.
Games are also part of the festival. Generally, the most famous game is a fishing game. You don’t get a fishing rod, or even a fishing line. You get a kind of “net” that is made of rice paper. It looks like a paddle, and it’s very fragile. After one or two tries, it will break and you have to stop. You generally pay for a few paddles and you try to scoop small goldfish into a bowl. Whatever you catch, you can keep. The festival also sells a few goods that are popular as souvenirs. If you aren’t interested in the games, the park is an excellent place to visit. At night, they start the bon odori. This is a traditional Japanese folk dance. They usually have a big taiko drum that is played by various people while music is played over a speaker system. People form a big circle and start dancing. It looks very much like line dancing, but in a large circle, and each dance tells a story. Don’t worry if you don’t know the moves. You can easily learn them by watching them. If you don’t know, one of the older ladies are usually happy to teach you. Many Japanese people don’t even know some of the dances, so don’t be afraid.
If you are in Tokyo during the Azabu-juban Matsuri, I highly recommend that you go to this festival. It’s probably one of the best in Tokyo. There are other festivals held throughout the summer and into late September, but this is one of the biggest. You’ll be able to see all of the other smaller festivals in one place. Make sure you are prepared for the heat, and buy lots of beer.
Azabu Juban Matsuri Official Website (Japanese): http://www.azabujuban.or.jp/event/event.html