After visiting the 9th annual Japan Day @ Central Park in NYC this past May, I was excited when someone handed me a flyer for Japan Day Chicago at my local Japanese grocery store.
Finally, Chicago was following suit.
Sadly, from the time I was a teenager until now, it seems more and more Japanese stores and businesses have been shutting their doors and moving out of the Midwest. Sure, we have a few Japanese festivals here and there, but for the most part they’re small and nothing compared to their East or West Coast counterparts.
I could never really understand why, especially considering that Chicagoland is home to nearly 30,000 Japanese residents– many who live near Arlington Heights, which is home to Mitsuwa Marketplace and the Chicago Futabakai Japanese School.
I wasn’t surprised at all when I saw Japan Day Chicago would be held at the Arlington International Racecourse, also in Arlington Heights.
For the first time, six local Japanese and Japanese-American organizations came together to form an executive committee in order to put on this event. With the overall goal of fostering friendship between Americans and their Japanese neighbors, harsh storms almost foiled their plans.
Still, 11,000 people braved the rains to take part in this two-day celebration of Japanese culture.
The event turned out to be a nice mix of Chicagoland residents who wanted to learn more about Japanese culture and local Japanese who wanted to celebrate and share theirs.
Arriving at the racetrack the skies began to quickly turn grey and before we could even get out of the car it started pouring. The rain was so bad that you couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of you. It was just a sheet of white.
So we sat, and sat, and sat– waiting for that opportune break in the rain to run inside. Not knowing whether the entire festival was scheduled to be outside, we debated turning around and heading home.
Luckily for us that break came and I was relieved to find that half of the festival was taking place indoors.
The indoor stage featured most of the traditional dancing and koto music performances. We didn’t stick around to watch too much because we were more enticed by everything else going on around us.
Kinokuniya, a popular Japanese bookstore, had set up a pop-up shop in the middle of it all. Uniqlo passed out flyers advertising their first Chicago store opening, and people lined up hoping to win as they spun a prize wheel.
Tables were set up around the premises that showcased traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana (the art of flower arranging), chado (the art of tea) and and shodo (the art of calligraphy).
While most of them were just informational displays with people there to teach you about them, some were a little more interactive.
The kind ladies at the calligraphy booth were writing people’s names in Japanese for them. And for a small fee they would write them on a shikishi (色紙), which is handmade paper that’s been affixed to a hard board.
Across the way they had a table swarming with children eager to learn origami.
The patient women had a long list of things they could teach ranging from very beginner to advanced. It seemed the most popular with the children were shuriken for the boys and simple star boxes for the girls.
There were brief intervals of sunshine that let attendees enjoy the other half of the festival outside. We ran back and forth a bit, trying to avoid the rain whenever it started again.
The marketplace had all sorts of goods on sale from Japan. From incense to jewelry to art– I was surprised to see the selection.
Around the corner they had a kids section where they could play kingyo sukui, a popular festival game that involves catching a goldfish with a rice paper scoop. They also had yo-yo sukui, a similar game that involves water balloon yo-yos, and traditional Japanese toys.
Food booths featured freshly prepared okonomiyaki, gyu-don beef bowls, and lots of different ramen noodles.
As hungry as we were, we decided to skip the long lines in favor of watching the performances take place on the main stage and in the winner’s circle.
The Midwest Buddhist Temple Taiko Group put on various performances throughout the afternoon, as did multiple martial arts troupes.
The main events on Saturday evening included a J-Pop concert by the Japanese band FUNKIST, who is known for singing anime theme songs, and an Awa Odori performance.
There was even a cosplay party down the street at Mitsuwa where prizes were awarded for the best costume– but we didn’t see any of that.
What I was most excited for was the the Awa Odori performance.
Awa Odori is a folk dance that dates back to the 16th century involving colorful outfits, amigasa hats and parading through the streets to the sounds of instruments and chanting. It is part of Obon, a three day celebration where the souls of ancestors are said to return to visit the living each July or August (depending on the region on Japan).
The dance uses the same basic, but irregular steps; however, the poses are different between men and women.
Unfortunately, right as the dance was about to begin the storm rolled through again so they had to move things indoors. Everyone still had plenty of fun dancing around the building though!
Spectators were encouraged to join in the fun as they were shown the steps to follow along.
I really enjoyed Japan Day Chicago and am glad that this is finally a thing. I’d say it’s definitely one of the best Japanese festivals in Chicago.
It’ll still take a while to catch up the level of New York’s Japan Day, but I’m excited to watch this event grow and develop over the years to come!