Pairing Japanese street food with barbecue sandwiches, Taiko drums with bayou music and happi coats with hot air balloons, the Daikin Festival has become a staple of the north Alabama scene — as iconic to Decatur as the Alabama Jubilee, Point Mallard wave pool and barbecue white sauce.

“I think there’s a fascination with the Japanese culture," said Forrest Keith, Daikin America’s community relations and general affairs manager. "People enjoy watching the dances with the Japanese folk music, they enjoy watching the Taiko drum team performances and they enjoy the Japanese food. It’s just a fun event."

Asian-inspired dances, music, activities and food will highlight the 25th annual Daikin Festival on Friday at the Morgan County Fairgrounds. Gates will open at 6:30 p.m. and close at 9 p.m.

“It’s all free. You don’t have to bring anything. Leave your purses and wallets at home. Everything is free from the admission to the food to the hot air balloon tethers. Just come and enjoy the evening,” Keith said.

What started in 1994 and attracted 500 attendees has grown fortyfold over the last 25 years. Organizers expect more than 20,000 guests to attend this year’s free event, which the Japan-based Daikin America created to celebrate the opening of the Decatur plant and to share the industry’s culture.

For the milestone festival, the Daikin Taiko drum team will unveil a new routine. For the past three months, the drummers gathered at the end of their shifts to prepare for the performance, which will feature standard favorites, such as "Genghis Khan," "Sweet Home Alabama" and the "Tanko Bushi."

A Japanese folk dance, the "Tanko Bushi," also called the "Coal Miner’s Dance," mimics the movements of a coal miner. A former Daikin engineer at the Decatur plant choreographed the routine based on a children’s TV show in Japan. Every year, Daikin employees volunteer to teach the dance to elementary school students in Decatur and Morgan County. This year they reached 1,300 children.

Led by Eriko Ellis, a 21-year veteran of the team, the Taiko drummers will perform several times during the festival and feature guest musicians from Decatur Youth Symphony’s percussion ensemble.

Along with the taiko drummers, the Cajun rock ‘n’ roll group Lee Benoit and the Bayou Stompers will perform.

“There is the music, the food, the dances, the slides and games for the kids, and the hot air balloons," Keith said. "That’s another big draw. People will stand in line all night long just to get the opportunity to float 30 feet in the air in a hot air balloon basket. There is truly something for everyone, even a surprise ending and giveaway.”

For first-timers to the Daikin Festival, here is a guide to help navigate the event.

Where to park

With parking at the fairgrounds limited, guests can park at the Decatur Mall or Austin Junior High School and ride free shuttles to the fairgrounds.

Guests should leave bags, big purses, strollers, wagons and backpacks in their cars. Security will check bags brought into the festival.

What to do

Activities include tethered hot air balloon rides, if the weather permits, carnival games, face painting, inflatables and slides.

On the educational side, guests can learn how to write in Japanese calligraphy and about Daikin’s homestay program for rising high school seniors in Decatur City, Hartselle City, Lawrence County and Morgan County schools. Since the program started in 1994, 300 students and 40 teachers have taken part in the 10-day international experience.

What to wear

“If you’ve got a happi coat, please wear it,” Keith said. “We want to see a lot of the happi coats from years past in the crowd.”

The first 5,000 guests not wearing a happi coat will receive one.

What to eat

Yakisoba, a traditional Japanese street food, ranks as one of the most popular dishes at the festival. Come early to sample the Far East delight of stir-fried noodles mixed with chipped roast beef, shredded carrots, cabbage, soy sauce and Asian spices.

Other popular dishes include barbecue sandwiches made from Boston butts and smoked onsite and jambalaya created using a family recipe from an employee with roots in Louisiana. Daikin engineers will oversee the all-day cooking affair to create the jambalaya featuring a roux, vegetables, Andouille sausage, Boston butt and rice. Other food options include hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and ice cream.

What to bring: A Happi coat from a previous festival.

What not to bring: Money. or 256-340-2441. Twitter @DecaturLiving.
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