Japan Matsuri started strong with unusually welcoming weather which complimented the especially friendly and inviting atmosphere.
It’s easy to expect very little from an event that has free entry but Matsuri’s greatest strengths won’t cost you a penny. Don’t get me wrong, you will likely spend plenty of money, but the things you will remember Matsuri for were a 100% free.
When you arrive, the first thing you will need to do is make the tough decision between staying put and watching all the performances or exploring the stalls that surround the stage. My strategy was a bit of a juggling act, I would explore the stalls but then watch what interested me then repeat. It seemed to work well at first, but at the end of the day I couldn’t help feeling that I missed out on a lot.
I highly recommend watching the opening ceremony; it really helps set the mood with a great opening speech on celebrating Japanese culture within the UK. The performances were always a treat and were also quite varied. You have the pick of the two stages, the main stage has a mixture of performances such as drumming, dancing, choir and much more, while the martial arts stage was a great place to stop and witness various martial arts clubs show off their talents in Kendo, Karate and more.
It was the small things that made Matsuri a big experience for me, simple things like casually watching performances while enjoying the bright blue skies and my lovely bowl of chicken katsu. Speaking of chicken katsu, i think next year I’ll make sure to try more dishes at the food court. I didn’t have much of a appetite while there but what I did try was definitely worth queuing for.
Don’t expect your typical dealer’s room but there was still plenty of great things to buy such as traditional Japanese clothing, tableware, animation cel-ga, kawaii goods and plenty of Japanese sweets. Also don’t expect the magnitude of cosplayers you would get at your average convention. I could probably count all of the cosplayers I saw on both hands. Still, there is a positive to this, it made it a bit more special when you see someone cosplaying as Tetsuya Kuroko (Kuroko’s Basketball anime) after walking through crowds and crowds of people in casual wear. Think of it a game of where’s wally but with cosplay.
What you will see instead of cosplay is a lot of people dressed in Kimonos which really does add to the Japanese festival vibe. I think next year I will be sorely tempted to wear one.
Free entry wasn’t the only freebie to be found in the event, one of the first gifts given to us was Yose-moji Calligraphy which was inked in front of us by Umon Tachibana. Other freebies were more given if you completed questionnaires or like a page on Facebook. One of my personal favourite gifts was a free USB drive that was disguised as sushi; you should have seen my confused face when I saw a tray full of them.
For anyone who is shy and socially awkward like me, you will be surprised just how easy it is come out of your shell at Matsuri. In no time at all, I found myself in full conversations with strangers. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time, but it felt like it was a lot easier to break the ice at Matsuri, often strangers would start up conversations while we were queuing. It wasn’t just attendees who made it a great experience, but everyone I met who was involved in running Matsuri. Every stall I visited I felt welcomed by and yet, not overwhelmed with the pressure to make a purchase.
While your there you should have a go at entering the competitions they hold every year. A few years ago, you would be hard pressed to find someone more cynical than me about competitions, but Matsuri changed that when I won my first competition. Ever since then I’ve seen every competition as an exciting opportunity.
If I had to nitpick something, it would be the crowds. By 2pm it shifted from a relaxed atmosphere to a busy expo feel, which did kill the mood for me a bit. So to get the most out of Matsuri, I highly recommend getting there early.
Overall, I had amazing time at Japan Matsuri. It delivered more than just free entry; it delivered a relaxed, friendly environment to celebrate Japan together.
I look forward to it next year when they will be celebrating their 10th anniversary.
Photography by Kathryn Taylor and Sam Baker