The magic of the yukata: Memories of Hiroshima’s Toukasan Festival

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Toukasan girls. (Photo by Gail Cetnar Meadows)

By Tanya Carter

I discovered Hiroshima’s famous Toukasan Festival last year, when my students’ journals suddenly became peppered with desperate pleas for new yukata. Before long, Japanese teachers and students alike were asking to dress me up in yukata and eagerly telling me all about Hiroshima’s huge annual Toukasan Festival. Downtown, the stores on Hondori were bursting with colourful yukata, lightweight summer kimono. Instantly, I was hooked!

By the time this year’s Toukasan Festival began June 5, I was the proud owner of four yukata, and a veritable master at strapping myself into one, so I simply could not wait for the festival weekend to begin. A new yukata! The onset of summer! Baseball! Beer! Crazy Japanese food on sticks! I mean really, what more could you ask for?

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Now, I have to admit some bias on my part. This is, after all, my favourite festival. But there is just so much to love about Toukasan weekend. There’s always a home Carp game. There are traditional events held at Itsukushima Shrine. And for three days and nights, rain or shine, hundreds of thousands of people fill the streets of central Hiroshima. There are dancers and musicians in the street, and stalls line Chuo-Dori and the surrounding areas.  Wherever you turn, you find random food on sticks, goldfish in bags, giant inflatable Stitches, and someone, anyone, old or young, male or female, decked out in a yukata and looking gorgeous.

Like last year, the AJET Carp Event was planned to coincide with the festival weekend. And, like last year, the Carp were well and truly destroyed 11-1. But wearing yukata made the loss more bearable. And the yukata had the added benefit of making us impervious to thunder, lightning and torrential downpours, a definite plus since the game was rained out in the seventh inning. Yes, yukata are just that good. They bring out the girly-Japanese-ness in everyone, even the most un-girly of girls. And yes, even the boys.

guys pose

So, what is this “Toukasan”, you might ask?

The Toukasan Festival actually dates back to the year 1619, when Nagaakira Asano, a samurai, arrived in Hiroshima from what is now Wakayama Prefecture. He built Enryuji Temple on its current site, just off Chuo-Dori. That’s right, kids! Next time you’re stumbling around the narrow streets of Nagarekawa for yet another Shack ‘n’ Mac adventure, keep an eye out. There’s a temple tucked away in those streets, and for hundreds of years, the people of Hiroshima have been making offerings at it during the Toukasan Festival.

The Enryuji Temple celebrates the god Touka Daimyojin, Touka being an alternate reading for the kanji Inari, meaning ‘deity of grain’. And the Yukata Festival, Toukasan, is his summer festival, held during the first weekend of June every year, and marking the beginning of summer in Hiroshima.

A yukata, of course, is a kind of cotton kimono, traditionally used as a robe after bathing, or as bed-wear. Hiroshima residents’ tradition of wearing yukata at this time can be traced back hundreds of years to a time when the city held big tent parties and dances, and only people in yukata were allowed to join in the dancing.

So there you have it. Three-hundred-ninety years of partying, Hiroshima-style. And boy do we know how to party! So, if you missed it this year, put it in your diary now, and we’ll see you — and your bathrobe — here in 2010!