I'm going to admit a shameful fact...until Sunday evening, I'd never been to Japan House. Even though I attended school here, even though I've lived in this town for 20 years, I've never ventured over to this bit of international culture on the southeast side of campus. However, I can't think of a better way to be introduced to Japan House and it's beautiful grounds than through their annual Matsuri Festival, now in it's third year.
My daughter and I spent a lovely late August evening taking in all that the festival had to offer. While entry into the event itself, including performances, was free, we purchased tickets to partake in some of the food offerings and activities. With $40 we were able to experience both of those things as well as come home with some Japanese candy.
As with any festival I attend, food is the number one priority, and this one did not disappoint. Several local food vendors were on hand offering specially selected items that reflected an Asian flair. Food trucks such as Pandemonium and Chester's BBQ included such items as matcha green tea donuts and pork fried rice, respectively. But our first stop was for some actual matcha green tea at Japan House.
Though the seaweed green color may seem a bit off putting, the tea was deliciously sweet, creamy, and refreshing. For our savory portions, I couldn't pass up a chance to snag some sushi from Sakanaya, and I was thrilled to see that they had chicken wings on the menu as well. I'd heard rumblings about their deliciousness, and holy cow, they were wonderful. Crispy and just the right amount of spiciness. Bacaro was there with a melon and pork belly skewer, and since it's a general rule of mine to eat pork belly whenever it's available, it was an obvious choice. The sweet and savory combo was amazing.
We tried a couple of sweet options as well. I've recently discovered the greatness of taro buns, and found a couple of Japanese style buns to try. Cream and Flutter had anpan rolls with various fillings, and the lemon one was delicious. The Magic Bento Bus, which seems to be a new snack truck popping up on campus, had some packaged mochi, a doughier bun with red bean paste inside.
There were several booths scattered throughout the festival ranging from the Bonsai Society of Central Illinois, to Japanese calligraphy artist Seiran Chiba, to a booth where you could try on yukata and cosplay outfits, to local artisans selling their handmade items. I tried on a yukata, basically a more casual kimono...great for posture, bad for breathing...and got a calligraphy tattoo.
Perhaps the best part of the evening was the live performances and demonstrations. Right in the center of the action was The Candy Man. It's a bit hard to explain exactly what he does (you can see him in action in this old YouTube video) but part of his act is taking melted down taffy-like candy, and creating mini sculptures using what looks like glass blowing. He playfully interacted with the crowd, particularly the young children, and encouraged audience participation.
The performance tent hosted various acts throughout the afternoon and evening, and we caught a few fantastic performances. Special Ops, a UIUC Chinese Yo Yo team, thrilled the crowd with their tricks.
Seiran Chiba, the calligraphy artist, created super sized artwork as Ho Etsu Taiko, a Japanese drumming ensemble from Chicago played. Then the drumming group took to the main stage and entertained with their lively pieces. Their name means Joy of Dharma, and they certainly exuded joy and energy as they played.
This was one of those experiences that reminded me why I love living in C-U. The event drew a large swath of the community and really had something to offer anyone and everyone. I saw several familiar faces as we wove our way through the crowds, and the backdrop of the sprawling grounds around the Japan House and absolutely gorgeous weather made Matsuri the perfect cap to the weekend. My two regrets were not getting tea ceremony tickets early (though these are offered throughout the year, so now I have a good excuse to come back), and that we had to jet before the fireworks finale. Such is life when your kid has homework to finish.
Photo credit: Addison McClure