Matsumoto is a large city in Nagano Prefecture, home to the famous Matsumoto Castle, and one of the most popular summer festivals in the region, Matsumoto Bon Bon. This festival involves groups of people getting together to form teams and dance from early evening to late at night, along to the famous Matsumoto Bon Bon song. This article tells of my first experience at this energetic summer fest, and advice for people who are planning to go in the future.
This time of year is unbearably hot (Matsumoto Bon Bon took place on August 1st this year), even in the cooler north of Nagano. Add in a mix of alcohol, dancing and thousands of people on the streets, and you’re in for an extremely sweaty afternoon. My first piece of advice would be to wear something cool and comfortable (assuming you’re not dancing, in which case you’ll be wearing the team’s uniform.) Shorts or a skirt and a thin shirt will be just fine.
If you’re hoping to stay overnight in Matsumoto afterwards, book a hotel way in advance. Either that or join a team where one or more of the members is offering accommodation! I didn’t have a problem as I caught a train home in the evening, but the city is presumably extremely busy during Bon Bon, so plan in advance so you won’t be up all night waiting for the first train.
The Bon Bon dance is fairly simple to learn, and includes two hand fans and moving along with your team as the song goes on. There were dozens of teams to see, all wearing their own colours and sometimes adding their own clothing style, such as hats, belts or specific hairstyles. The ages ranged from Elementary School children to old ladies – everyone was having fun in their team and brought their own style to the festival. Take a look at this video for a guide to the dance.
Drink and food stalls had been set up all over Matsumoto. Transport by car was impossible that day – try to avoid travelling by car, if possible. The first few stalls could be reached just minutes from Matsumoto Station. We saw beer, kebabs, wraps, okonomiyaki and lots of fried stuff that I didn’t know the name of. One stall sold a very delicious meat-on-a-stick for 600 yen – thick, seasoned beef that practically melted in my mouth. The usual convenience stores such as Circle K and Family Mart are open as usual, if you’d prefer to buy your drinks there – they can be very crowded, though.
Watching the dancing was extremely entertaining. You could hear the Matsumoto Bon Bon song everywhere you went, and see all the different teams dancing, sometimes offering their own chants or moves to stick out from the other groups. Sometimes supporters of the teams would give out free hand fans, which were a Godsend in the humid weather. Everyone looked happy, drinking beer or eating ice cream. At one point in the evening, professional dancers took to the stage and performed urban-style dancing, which was added entertainment and something for the teams to watch on their break.
It looked fun to join in the dancing, but it was also good to be able to walk around, buy food and relax and enjoy watching rather than having to carry on dancing in the hot weather. To experience it fully, you would have to join a group, but it’s worth remembering that it is just as much fun watching, so don’t feel pressured to join in if you don’t feel like it. When we bought our kebabs, we took a break and relaxed outside Matsumoto Castle, which looked beautiful in the sunset.
Many people were dressed in Yukatas, as is Japanese custom when attending a festival. However, this isn’t mandatory, which is one of the nice things about the festival – you can join in as much or as little as you want to.
Matsumoto Bon Bon was an extremely fun festival that I would recommend to anyone travelling in Nagano during the summer. Other summer festivals include the Taiko Festival in Okaya (13th and 14th August as of 2015) and the Suwa Fireworks Festival (15th August 2015). If you’re in Japan in the hot months, definitely check these festivals out for some unforgettable memories.