Labor Day weekend in St. Louis has many traditions; the Greek Festival in the Central West End, the Blues Festival and the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens to name an obvious few. This year for the first time in our collective lives, my family attended the Japanese Festival after many years to saying we were going only to be otherwise occupado or having missed it due to weather.
For year’s I have imagined what this festival would be like, particularly since as a kid I was fascinated by Japanese culture, their art and the language. My mind created vivid scenes with Japanese women in kimonos walking in small groups with their feet shuffling along in their wooden geta, faces done in the traditional white with little red lips; Japanese men in toggle buttoned jackets or long hanfu robes. Parades of Geisha and Kabuki actors and Japanese children running with koi kites; Sumo wrestling in a open ring; Tai Chi practitioners in their 80’s, slowly moving from pose to pose.
But you know how it works when you’ve looked forward to something for too long and you allow your mind to create visions of the place or event long before you experience it; the real thing rarely lives up. Instead of my glorified expo of Nippon culture, I got fat anime kids in goofy costumes, dorky old men that obsess over little trees and pale, skinny white girls from South County beating the Taiko drums. While there were some, actually very few, Japanese people there, the vast majority of the performers and demonstrators were in fact American. Ok supposedly the girl that introduced the Sumo was of Japanese decent living in Hawaii, but even the Sumo weren’t Japanese. Two of them were plain old Hawaiians and the really big fat nasty looking one was no Japanese yokozuna but just some big corn feed dude from the midwest that moved to Hawai’i.
After working our way through the crowded Japanese marketplace where vintage and non vintage kimono and yukata were sold as well as koi and Japanese candies, we rushed to the Cohen Amphitheater to see the Sumo. I had forgotten that this was supposed to be semi-educational, but was quickly reminded when the performance was prefaced by 20 minutes of yak-yak about the origins of the Sumo, the rituals and their diets. Actually it was fairly interesting but about 10 minutes too long. Once the yokozuna came out I realized there was no ring, which meant that these guys weren’t really going to wrestle; they just sort of dumped into each other. The crowd enjoyed it though particularly when the giant monster dude came out and picked up his “opponent” and dropped him at the edge of the stage. These guys were big though, the victor in the aforementioned match was 438 pounds, to the loser’s 330.
After this demonstration of fat-smacking, we made our way out the the food court. Here we could have dined on yakisoba, sushi and okonomiyaki or vegetable pancakes, but instead the smell of roasting meat drew us to a tent selling shish kabob pork and crab rangoon. Neither of which is even remotely Japanese, unless you make the stretch that yakitori and shish kabob are the same thing. Regardless they were both pretty good and the lemonade was wet so we were satisfied and ready to head back in to see a traditional Japanese dance called Bon Odori or the bone dance.
My daughter being a dancer, I thought this was something that we should see, so we trekked nearly to the other end of the gardens to the stage where this dance was being performed only to find a pasty white girl with pink hair and a plump ginger beating the taiko to start the show. Then onto the stage walks the biggest nerd in a kimono I saw at the festival to tell us what the bon odori is. It would have been helpful if he had rehearsed his schpeel or maybe they could have found a Japanese guy to explain the meaning. During his explanation all I could think was “where are all the Japanese at?” Shortly after the dance began and the anime chics were playing the taiko, my wife looks up at me and says, “white girls should not wear kimonos.”
That was it. My son, myself and my wife had began snickering like 5th graders after the teacher said penis. We called my daughter back from deeper in the crowd and made our way to our car.
All of this is not to say that we didn’t like the festival because we did. There was a old Japanese man called the “candyman” that was a sort of street performer roaming the festival doing gags and things like cutting a chopstick with a piece of paper or demonstrating how a susuki (sushi rolling mat) can be used to do something similar to shadow puppetry. He was cool and fun to watch and so were all the anime kids running around with bright blue hair and long yellow trench coats or whatever. They were having fun and its fun to be around people who are enjoying themselves.
We came back after dinner to walk the Japanese gardens by candlelight. Very cool. We also adventured out through the rest of the garden in the dark, or low light anyway. Cool place at night, although it could be a bit creepy.
Probably really cool during Halloween.
So next year, maybe the CWE Greek Festival. Even though the Japanese Festival didn’t live up to the impossible vision I had created, we still had fun. It’s definitely a good family thing to do.
If you missed it, you should check it out for yourself. I hear though that Labor Day is the lightest attended day, so maybe check it out then because Saturday was opening day and it was crowded.
With All Due Respect,