Summer in Japan is a fever dream—literally.
On my latest natsu-no-ryokō, this came into sharp relief as I stood at the Osaka Tenmangu shrine one sweltering afternoon. In the hall at the front of the temple, priests and other seemingly spiritual leaders were making last-minute preparations for the nascent Tenjin Matsuri festival.
I was just a few meters back behind it all, half-shaded and half-in-the-sun, as soaked-to-the-bone as the floats set up all around the shrine would be once the groups of men hoisting them around the streets of Osaka lowered them into the Ou River, and at the same time as withered as the fronds of sakaki stapled up all over the shrine; the aesthetic was giving Palm Sunday.
Not that I had the knowledge to assert that, semantically: I was concerned first with taking in the visual spectacle of the matsuri; I would figure out what it all meant later.
As I stood there feeling more like a voyeur than a spectator, I couldn’t help but see trepidation in the eyes of every local person who saw me. Maybe trepidation is too harsh a word—I guess they were simply as curious about what I was doing there as I was about why they and their kin continued to perform a choreography mapped out so long ago no one can say for sure what it means, like when you hear a riff in a piece of classical music and know it but can’t name the song or the composer.
Like me, they would eventually reach some conclusion about it all. Or they wouldn’t.
This process of understanding, of course, is a microcosm of why I travel in the first place. Far more than the cliché about the journey being more important than the destination, it’s that the journey is the destination. The meditation is the manifestation; the lesson is the test. It is not about succeeding, but enduring; not transcending but simply being.
Certainly, this was the case as I swam through the thick soup that is the summer air in Japan, the gaseous sustenance so viscous that you can’t simply walk through it, even though your feet are on the ground. I had a road map—matsuri in Kyoto and Osaka as one bookend; those in Aomori and Akita as the other; various treks on the Kii Peninsula and in the Japanese Alps, the pages between them—but although I always knew what I needed to be doing, I didn’t know exactly where my steps would lead me.
This was my fifth or sixth summer trip to Japan, depending upon how you count it, although it was my first and only one thus far to focus so explicitly on the cultural glue that holds the country together during its hottest season.
While some Japanese, of course, escape the heat on the paradise beaches of Okinawa or with ice cream served in melon halves amid the lavender fields of Hokkaido, most lean into the the heat and humidity, whether by singing and dancing their way through through the sweltering streets just south of Osaka Tenmangu, or rubbing elbows with gaijin like me, both of us and everyone else involved wondering what the hell the other is thinking.
I may one day update this post—or, more likely, write a new one—in order to relay some more substantive deductions. But until then, all I can say is that I hope you follow the breadcrumbs I’ve hidden in the ether via these pictures, which are mostly from July and August of 2023, but are in some cases half a decade older than that.