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Arizona Matsuri seeks 'harmony' in the Valley, in person, for the first time since COVID-19

For nearly four decades, the Festival of Japan, better known as the Arizona Matsuri, has celebrated the “Land of the Rising Sun” in “The Valley of the Sun.” 

But, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the celebration to an online-only environment in recent years. 

Now, the festival welcomes you back in-person this weekend at Steele Indian School Park in Phoenix.

One of the most popular attractions is the exuberant sound of taiko, the Japanese word for “great drum.” There’s nothing quite like hearing them live to fill up your entire body.

“Exactly,” said Emma Sansone. “The physical impact of the vibration on you is something you can only experience live.” She’s a festival steering committee member who also belongs to Fushicho Daiko, a dojo and performance group, which is a festival favorite.

Sansone said, “During COVID everything was virtual, so we were recording. But, it really doesn’t have the same impact as when you’re just attending Matsuri and you hear the drums in the distance and you go, ‘Oh, what’s that?’”

The barrel drums have two skins strung tautly on either end and can be played upright, or turned on their side for two performers.

Sansone is also a judge for the annual haiku contest which is inspired by the festival theme. This year, it’s “Wa” (和), the Japanese word for “harmony.”

She said some of the more surprising entries came from young poets. “We’ve received some haiku from elementary school students that are just stunning in the way they hit you in so few words and you think, ‘Yes. That’s absolutely the way it feels.’”  

Many of the entries will be on display for the haiku exposition and a digital e-book containing hundreds of them  is published each year

In addition to drumming, there are numerous other entertainment offerings, according to Cinnamon Covey, one of the stage coordinators for the festival who helps choose what will be performed.

“The only criteria we have is that it needs to be from Japanese origin,” said Covey. “There’s modern dances that are in Japanese that we do. There’s traditional Japanese dances. There’s all sorts of martial artists. But, it needs to have a key tie to Japan.”  

All of the entertainment on the various stages is free. 

“The main stage this year is the taiko stage and it has at least 10 different performances that are happening on Saturday, and another 10-15 done on Sunday. Cultural stage has probably ten each day and martial arts, nine,” said Covey.

While many enjoy music inspired by more traditional sounds and instruments, Matsuri offers a wide range of tones including Japanese psychedelic surf music from the 1960s covered by Surfing Godzillas on tracks like “Black Sand Beach.”

The instrumental was written by Yūzō Kayama, an 85-year-old former Japanese musician and actor who just retired last year after a long career. 

Another attractive aspect of the festival is role-playing, better known as cosplay.  

“The Matsuri is more of a classical Japanese culture event. So my panels don’t technically fall into those guidelines, but I’m going to be doing a cosplay contest because cosplay is actually a very large portion of what Japanese culture is. In fact, that’s where it comes from,” said Yuhki Kaneta.

He uses the stage name Uncle Yuhki for performances and host appearances at various events, including the Matsuri.

He said, just have fun with your cosplay and enjoy being with others who do as well. “Everybody can come and participate if you have a cosplay you want to show off and there’s prizes involved. The criteria is simply going to be what we lovingly call the ‘cheer-o-meter.’ If you really love this costume, cheer your loudest for it. It’s extremely popular, extremely fun to do, but it’s no pressure.”  

Kaneta also said to think of the contest like a “walk on” in theater terms–a bit part with no, or just a few words like "domo arigato," or "Thank you very much" in Japanese.

“Do itashimashite,” he replied.

Translation: “You’re welcome.”

Hear Yuhki Kaneta's interview with KJZZ's Tom Maxedon


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Tom Maxedon was the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition from 2017 to 2024.