Learning Market and Festival Techniques from Japan

Tokyo's annual Szechuan Pepper Festival in Shinkuku Chuo Park

The pop-up economy is in bloom all over the world! There is so much to learn from practitioners who are solving practical tent, umbrella and crowd issues in real time. Here are some insights from Japan. 

I have spent most of my career beneath the canopy of public markets and festivals. Due to the temporary nature of the pop-up economy, many organizers and vendors make-do with the lowest common denominator. You know the results: The now-ubiquitous white tents that dot almost every farmers market, craft fair and festival in North America. Yes, they're easy to find (and destroy), but we can do better. These pop-up tents do little to protect vendor and shopper from the elements. Moreover, they do even less to make the space feel original.

There are a few good places to turn to for creative insights to transform a temporary location into an imagined community. Darlene Wolnik's Helping Markets Grow is an especially useful one. The Project for Public Space's Placemaking blog is another.

With nearly the rest of Planet Earth far better at making urban spaces more human-scaled, wherever I travel far afield, I return home with ideas and insights to make markets feel more inspired and festivals more permanent.

On the eve of the pivotal Golden Week in Japan, Tokyo's spring festivals and markets are set up with unusual anticipation for the dawning of a new era.

Look Up: Shade and Rain

Sun and rain conspire to undermine vendors and disappoint shoppers. While the pop-up tents are better than umbrellas in keeping products dry in downpours, they do little to tackle the angle of the sun in early morning markets. Worse, when the rains do come, the design flaw traps water. As a result, shoppers often find that they are the unhappy recipient of a tent's overflow deluge. You'll see vendors poking the soggy roof, with brooms and the like, to release the pressure on the tent. This is one reason why tents do not last long.

Angled tenting. I like this technique to address the soggy roof problem, perfect for multi-day festivals and/or markets that remain erect for the season. A smaller version can be erected to-scale for a one-day location.


Seasonal vendors who set up to cook, sell and provide seating to visitors to the Nezu-jinja Shrine have done something very clever. Notice how they are not attempting to keep all rain out. Rather the 45 degree angle tenting (in orange) keeps the worst of the rain off of the vendor cooking and customer seating area. Rain will undoubtedly impact shoppers who walk the aisle; however, with the 45 degree angle, there is no risk of water build-up. Instead, water will move briskly off of the tent and away from the walkway and vendors. 

Shade cloth to cover walkways. This is something you almost never see in America. Is this due to the hyper individualistic nature of farmers markets in the USA, whereby vendors are less inclined to collaborate with neighboring vendors? Are the spaces simply to large to accommodate shade (not necessarily rain) cloths? Or, more to the point, market managers are too overwhelmed and under-staffed to get to this layer of attention to the shoppers' experience? 

I have seen this technique used in the 300-year-old Kochi Sunday Market, with light shade cloth that hangs remarkably low — so low that I had to stoop down to walk beneath it. Here, in Tokyo at the weekend farmers market in Aoyama, the shade cloth are fastened high, stretch across in an overlapping fashion to create interesting shapes and color to the shoppers' experience. 


This sort of set-up requires cooperation from vendors to allow for shade splashes to affix to each tent. When it comes to wind, of course, if one goes flying, they all go flying. Needless to say, the tents appear to be adequately weighted down. 


Look Down

Vendors at the annual Szechuan Pepper Festival (in Shinjuku Chuo Par)k use duct tape to create an orderly queue for shoppers to line up for dishes. The chaos of queues at festivals is one of the most common complaints from attendees. Why bother attending if all of the time is spent waiting to eat. And worse, if the vendors and organizers have not given adequate thought to managing crowds. 

Taped crowd control in queues. This idea could be adapted to Western festivals. The Japanese set-up assumes high expects for managing personal space in tight quarters. However, a version of this is worth exploring. No need for velvet barricades or other pieces of equipment that have to be set-up. Tape it down to a solid surface and put one volunteer or staff to direct/remind crowds of the system. 


Feeling comfortable on the ground. One of the key indicators of a happy public space is the comfort level visitors feel to unwind and put their guard down. At the Tokyo Earth Day Festival, there were plenty of opportunities to get lost in the learning. While most of the available seating accompanies lectures or films, the interest in massage therapy on the ground provides a chance to close your eyes and forget that you're lying down amidst thousands of people walking by.



Notice the light, folding metal benches. While these may cost dearly to rent or purchase, they are far easier for set up than heavy wooden benches. Moreover, they give the tented "room" a lighter feel, since you can see below them. Nice touch.


And finally, thank you to Slow Food's longtime champions, Noriko and Toshiya Sasaki, for introducing me to these extraordinary public gatherings that showcase the inventiveness among the organizers to make a place welcoming, beautiful and mobile — no easy feat.

© 2019 Richard McCarthy


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