A Japanese Summer

13th August 2018

Over the last eight years, The J-Fest has become something of a tradition in Moscow. This year, however, is special as this festival of Japanese culture will be held in the open air. Ogoniok has more details.

Lightweight yukata kimonos, taiko drums and traditional dances all play a key role in the Natsu Matsuri Japanese Summer Festival.

j-fest in moscow

Nikita Aronov

Bon odori is a dance performed under the glow of paper lanterns, around a special raised platform designed for musicians and known as a yagura. All this is part of Obon, the ancient festival of remembering the dead, which has now all but lost its mystique and become a national summer festival celebrated throughout Japan in July and August. This year, for the first time, Japanese visitors will be able to meet Muscovites and other visitors, when, on 15-16 July, Gorky Park hosts the open-air festival J-Fest, the J, of course, being short for Japan.

The capital’s main park will also host a yagura, and the famous dancer Mao Aska will be holding a master class in bon odori, so that anyone who wishes can take part in this ancient but relatively uncomplicated dance routine. Meanwhile, on another platform there will be continuous contests of the Nintendo Wii game ‘Just Dance’. This is the plan for the great Japanese festival in Moscow; a mixture of ancient traditions and contemporary mainstream culture.

It is just eight years since it first began with the Japanese Pop Culture Festival, organised by the Japanese Embassy in a Moscow film-theatre and featuring anime cartoons, manga comics and singers wearing the checked skirts of Japanese schoolgirls. “Almost 5,000 people attended this one-day event”, recalls Olga Monakhova, Director of the International Chodiev Foundation, the festival’s main sponsor over the years. “The queue of people waiting to enter stretched right back to the Sadovoye Koltso road. The festival subsequently became a yearly event, but it has steadily grown. Now, it’s hard to imagine our capital city’s cultural life without the J-Fest.”

“Once, while in Moscow, I visited the traditional Bunraku puppet theatre and was amazed to see the hall full of a very informal and youthful audience: lots of brightly dressed young people with colourful hair and zany handbags”, said festival producer Yukiko Kase. “In Tokyo, you only see more formal adult visitors at these shows. It was once like that in Moscow; traditional Japanese art generally only used to be of interest to the older intelligentsia. Russia, however, now has a new generation that has grown up with anime films and they are fanatical about J-Pop and manga. More specifically, the passion for this Japanese subculture has led to a desire to learn more about this culture’s country of origin and its traditions, history and language. For me, this interrelationship was a veritable revelation.

Since then the festival programme has included more and more traditional Japanese components and the coming festival in Gorky Park will combine award-winning contemporary Japanese media art displays with bonsai and ninja workshops. The festival soon outgrew its closed environment, with 20,000 visitors last autumn, and as a result it has now been decided to turn J-Fest into a free open-air summer festival.”

“It will be a completely different kind of festival. For the first time in Russia, we are holding a traditional Natsu Matsuri summer event. These festivals are held all over Japan in July and August. It’s a time of mass celebrations, national dances, summer yukata kimonos and the preparation of special dishes”, Yukiko Kase told Ogoniok. We want to create the unique Natsu Matsuri atmosphere in Moscow so we are putting together a programme that makes people feel as though they have really experienced a traditional Japanese summer.

The Natsu Matsuri in Moscow will be visited by Japanese celebrities, including, for example, the world-famous Aska-Gumi drum troupe. A master class in the Japanese cup-and-ball game (kendama) will be taken by the Master Yusuke Ito, holder of several Guinness World Records. The organisers have promised that this Japanese summer in Gorky Park will surprise even the most demanding guest with its range of opportunities to become familiar with Japanese culture; it will stage not only origami, ikebana, martial arts and magna, well-known to the Russian public, but also lesser known arts such as temar embroidery, pottery and many others. There will be opportunities to study Japanese art and the Japanese language, have a hieroglyphic tattoo, enjoy traditional food and buy typically Japanese goods.

Most notably, not only guests from Japan but also our compatriots will be involved in staging the wonders of this festival. The ikebana workshops, for example, will be held by Tatyana Kuzmina and Larisa Rumyantseva, professors from the Ikenobo Institute in Russia and the CIS. Lessons in the game of Go will be given by Alexei Kozhunkov, who taught many Russian and European champions how to play this ancient game. Workshops on Noh theatre masks will be given by Maxim Mikhailov, a renowned mask artist and student of the master Akira Kurabayasi.

J-FEST is a place where we will come to realise that the impact of Japanese culture is far more widespread in Russia than it appears at first sight.

The festival soon outgrew its closed environment, with 20,000 visitors last autumn.