While I'm making you all wait for a recap of my Zen experience (which should come tomorrow), here's another blast from the past.
Natsu Matsuri! Or "Summer Festival," if English is your language of choice. Japan has a glut of festivals - even the most rinky dink village tucked away up in the mountains has at least one special festival to call its own, and more often than not has such a celebration for each one of the seasons. When you first get here, you think, "oh boy, festivals! I must go to ALL of them!", but after awhile, you realize that they mostly sport the same offerings. Food stands, a few dances, and maybe some drums. This isn't meant to suggest that the festivals aren't worth going to - it's just to say that they aren't worth going out of your way to get to. (Except for big crazy festivals, which we'll get to sooner or later)
As hot dogs are to America, so squid/chicken/octopus-on-a-stick stands are to Japan. They sell these things in abundance with a price tag you'd expect (ie. high, but barely not high enough to prevent you from buying it). Also in attendance are shaved ice stands, which aren't quite the same as the sad little sno-cones you get in the States. Asian shaved ice is usually grated to smaller, finer chunks, and the syrup selection can be intimidating. Now that fall is quickly giving way to winter, these stands are becoming a memory... but they are absolute godsends in summer.
I had to take a picture of these guys because their sticks looked too much like some kind of double-ended battle-mop, which invokes nostalgia of the funniest sort (note: If you were not my friend in high school, you will probably have no idea what I'm talking about. But just roll with it and pretend you do, then everybody wins). The Japanese really do make it a habit to clean up after themselves, so I guess translating your primary cleaning utensil into some kind of weapon is a logical step in the fight against dirt.
Aside from the street shows, there was also a huge stage on which a variety of groups performed to traditional Japanese music mixed with the occasional guitar or synthesizer. Some of the dances got pretty complicated, but that didn't stop me from losing interest and idling elsewhere.
Back on the subject of things you can buy at a Japanese festival, these huge beetles can be found in the strangest of places. During my first trip to Japan, there was a claw machine (or UFO Catcher, as they're called here) in which little plastic cages held live beetles for you to catch. At the matsuri, there were at least three stands offering the big black critters. It's a favorite pastime for kids here to catch the beetles in the wild and raise them over summer. Sometimes the kids will have the beetles fight, as I think there's something of a stag-complex in the horned insects. Regardless, the owners were more than happy to let me take pictures of their bounty. Also note that next year I hope to capture and train one of the bugs of my own. I'll take suggestions for a name when the time comes.
Last on the agenda: fireworks! I remember hearing a lot about the marvels of Japanese pyrotechnics in the States, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed. There were the occasional surprising bursts of color and different patterns, but it was nothing I hadn't already seen in America. I guess it's important to note that Saga is not what most people think of when they hear the word Japan, and thus probably has hanabi-lite (hanabi = firework(s)), but something was better than nothing, and it made a good way to cap off the evening.
Well, that was the summer festival, which I think was somewhere around August 5th, 06. Sorry for the big delay - expect the next update soon.