Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Events

Tampa Natsumatsuri serving up a taste of authentic Japan

Scooping a goldfish out of a pool with a paddle made of thin paper isn't easy, but it's one of Bahia Simons-Lane's favorite natsumatsuri games.

"I wouldn't say I'm good at it. I've only caught one or two," said Simons-Lane, 32, a graduate student and employee at Florida International University. "But I like to play."

She'll get her chance again on Saturday as she travels northwest for the ninth annual Tampa Natsumasuri — a local take on the traditional Japanese summer festival.

John McGee IV founded the festival with a friend when he returned from teaching English in small town of 5,000 as a part of the JET Program.

"We kind of missed the culture," said McGee, 37, a environmental scientist for Hillsborough County Department of Public Works. "The festival is really about the community getting together and having a good time."

Traditionally, people dress up in their yukata and jimbe (lightweight historic Japanese clothing) and go to the festival to play games, eat treats, buy trinkets and watch the fireworks. It's a community bazaar aimed at besting the doldrums of summer.

McGee loved attending these festivals in the year he, his wife and son lived in Japan, but they never imagined they'd be putting one on for the public.

"The first year it was under a shelter at Lowry Park and about 100 people showed up," said McGee. "I was wondering where they all came from. You never see these people."

Every year, the participation grows. A few years back it got too large for park shelter and moved around before landing at Christ the King Catholic Church in South Tampa.

"It's a covered pavilion, so that helps with the summer time heat," McGee laughed. "And the parking is free."

A host of volunteers come together to bring the games, food and crafts with an authentic Japanese feel. ­Renny's Oki Doki food truck has become a crowd favorite.

Still the festival remains intimate. Last year's crowd topped out at 500, McGee said. This year, he's hoping to grow it even larger to bring it as close to a traditional summer festival as possible.

"We'd love to have it at night," he said. "Right now, what we need most is people. People to volunteer to host games and people to come out and enjoy the festival."

JETAA, the alumni association for teachers from the JET Program, is fully behind making Tampa's Natsumatsuri a fixture for years to come.

Simons-Lane is the president of the organization's Florida chapter and she plans to come up from Miami Saturday to serve, Coffee Jelly, a sweet coffee-flavored gelatin snack served with half and half and whipped cream.

"There are not lot of ways for people to experience Japanese culture in Florida," she explained. "In Japan, every little town has its own summer festival. Trying to recreate it here helps people who are from Japan relive that experience and shows people who never have been or never will go there what it's like."

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