Japanese Culture in the Desert

Photo taken at the Arizona Matsuri Festival

Situated on the edge of Heritage & Science Park in downtown Phoenix, festival attendees sat in rows of white lawn chairs. On the stage in front of them, a traditional Japanese performance was about to begin.

Dressed in white martial arts uniforms and with white bandanas tied around their heads, a dozen performers lined up across the middle of the stage. In synchronization, they each raised a wooden stick into the air in front of them. With close precision, they slammed the sticks onto the surface of the stage and yelled out a chant in unison.

As the performance progressed and the intensity mounted, the audience surrounding the stage nearly doubled in size.

Amongst the crowd and standing tall behind the rows of chairs, a look of earnestness permeated throughout Ryan Leonard’s face. Captivated by the performance, Japanese culture has always been an undying curiosity of his.

“I’ve always been really fascinated by all of the Japanese traditions,” Leonard said. “Somehow I’ve never had the courage to take on martial arts lessons — maybe one day,” he laughed.

For this first time attendee and native Phoenician, the Matsuri Festival represents a glimpse into the culture of a nation that dates as far back as first century AD. Celebrating its thirty-third year in Arizona, the two-day event featured many sights and sounds of Japan, crafts, music and much more.

Maneuvering in and out of the crowded streets, Leonard and his friends enjoyed many Japanese foods and goods. With beef on a stick in one hand and sake in the other, their sense of appetite and color appeared to be renewed.

Photo taken at the Arizona Matsuri Festival

As dozens of men and women walked around the festival dressed in a variety of different colored kimonos, Leonard couldn’t help but make his way to the nearest tent that sold them.

Having moved on to another Japanese beer at that point, he carefully handed it to his friend and entered into the tent.

“Tell me which one you guys like best,” he said.

Defined mostly by the patterns of the fabric and the colors, each kimono that he sampled fell to about his knees and had wide sleeves. Whether it was the beer talking or his sheer admiration for the Japanese traditional garment, Leonard was in no rush to choose just one kimono.

“We’re going to be here for a while,” one friend said. “There’s too many to choose from, they all are worth buying.”

After auditioning at least a dozen different kimonos, he had made his decision. With his Japanese beer back in hand and a fire breathing dragon leaping off the back of his purchase, Leonard flaunted his new look.

With a radiant smile on his face, Leonard and his friends began making their way to the entrance of the festival. On the same stage that first caught their attention, they took in one final performance.

Two men on stage, also wearing white martial arts uniforms and bandanas around their heads, introduced the crowd to traditional Japanese sword fighting.

Leonard leaned over to his friend,

“I’ve got the kimono now, man, I think I’m finally ready for some martial arts.”