Like all major cities in the world, Tokyo has a vibrant and cosmopolitan edge. Yet it can be difficult for some newcomers (and some older politicians) to see the city’s multiculturalism.
One of my favorite ways to experience other cultures are at Tokyo’s many international festivals. Whether you’re looking for Brazil or Myanmar, Tokyo has a festival for it, where you can eat the food, hear the music and watch the dances of people from around the world. I sometimes even attempt a few dance moves myself — to the horror of my tween and teen.
We love Japan’s traditional matsuri (festivals), but it’s also important to expose the brood to cultures further afield. Here are a few international festivals around Tokyo that we recommend. They’re all fun, free and full of opportunity.
Despite some changes over the years, our main place for cultural festivals in Tokyo is a small patch of concrete near the NHK Broadcasting Center. The Yoyogi Events Square is the setting for dozens of international events. Here you’ll find stands selling food, drinks, clothing and other items from the country or region being celebrated. On the stage, musicians, dancers, DJs, storytellers and more perform. It can get crowded and hot on the pavement, but the stage is also only a footbridge corssing from Yoyogi Park, so a shady patch of grass is only minutes away.
One of Yoyogi Park’s most popular festivals, the Thai Festival, happened a week ago. It’s a perennial favorite, but if you missed it, Thailand’s neighbors are quick to follow. The Vietnam Festival took over the venue last weekend, while the next one (May 26-27) will be the Laos Festival, with Taiwan and Sri Lanka taking their turns later in the summer.
The Okinawa Festival happens in June, and we’ve always enjoyed this one for the food and performances. Expect lots of drumming, dancing, shamisen, and sanshin (traditional three-stringed instruments). With July comes the seventh installment of the Ocean Peoples Festival. The people behind this event hope to raise awareness of the environmental problems that oceans face. They also encourage ocean-based activities. In previous years, pools were set up for swimming and scuba lessons, while more than 50 stalls sold swimwear, snorkels and other beach gear. This year, the market will grow to over 70 shops, with around 30 food stalls. Among the music acts to perform is headliner Donavon Frankenreiter, a pro surfer turned touring musician.
Yoyogi isn’t the only place to find international music, food and culture. In mid-June, part of Ueno Park will give way to the Salsa Street Festival. This is a great place to try a little salsa dancing and hear the music of Latin America and the Caribbean. A few weeks later, the Africa Hibiya Festival takes place in Hibiya Park. There you’ll be able to hear music, take part in crafts and sample delicacies that originated on the continent.
Last but not least, I mention one of our family’s top picks of the year: the One Love Jamaica Festival. One of Tokyo’s longest-running festivals, this August event celebrates Jamaica’s rich musical heritage, food and dance. Once a fixture of the Yoyogi Park calendar, it now it finds itself east of Tokyo near Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture.
If you plan to visit any of these festivals with kids, we have a few suggestions. First of all, make sure to bring your own shade, or cover up. Combined with the crowds, the heat and sun will wear you out, and fast. Shaded space is limited. Pack some sunscreen, an umbrella or a floppy hat.
Second, carry some of your own snacks and drinks when you can. We love sampling the variety of dishes, but the lines can be long and the menus aren’t usually cheap. If you’re there for the food, I recommend arriving early, when it’s less crowded and the temperature is cooler. Unlike somewhere like Tokyo Disneyland, the crowds here don’t show up in force until mid-afternoon.
Finally, I suggest breaking up the day. All of these venues have some shaded green space nearby. Be sure to walk away from the crowds for a snack or a nap. Cultural education like this is fun, but it can be exhausting.
Spend an international summer in Tokyo
If you are looking to experience different cultures this summer, here’s a list of some of Tokyo’s upcoming events. For more information, visit the websites.
May 26-27: Laos Festival (Yoyogi Events Square), laos-festival.jp
June 9-10: Okinawa Festival (Yoyogi Events Square), okifes.tokyo
June 9-10: Salsa Street Festival (Ueno Park), www.facebook.com/events/1868247813185785
June 23-24: Africa Hibiya Festival (Hibiya Park), africah.web.fc2.com/e-index.html
July 7-8: Ocean Peoples Festival (Yoyogi Events Square), oceanpeoples.com
Mid-July (date to be announced): Brazil day (Yoyogi Events Square), www.festivalbrasil.jp
July 28-29: Taiwan Festa (Yoyogi Events Square), twfes.com
August 4-5 Sri Lanka Festival (Yoyogi Events Square), www.facebook.com/events/599953593530860
August (date to be announced): One Love Jamaica festival (Makuhari), onelovejamaicafestival.jp
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5