Though I enjoy it when people, especially family, come to visit, I occasionally have trouble when showing them around Kyoto and Seika. By this point I have seen pretty much every famous temple, shrine and sushi bar this side of Osaka. So while my guests are all in awe of the beautiful Japanese architecture and culture, I’m wondering where the nearest all you can eat place is. However, this past week, my mother was kind enough to come when one of Japan’s biggest festivals, Gion Matsuri, was being held. As I’ve never been, this seemed like a good chance for both of us to see something entirely new.
The festival was started in the 800s, when a terrible plague was devastating Kyoto. Deciding that the gods were miffed about something, the emperor decreed that 66 halberds, one for each prefecture, be raised at Yasuka Shrine in the Gion district to appease the gods. This practice was repeated every time a plague hit, and the festival became a yearly event in 970. Over time Gion Matsuri gradually changed into a kind of parade, where portable shrines were carried throughout the town.
Gion Matsuri lasts the entire month of July, and has more events than you can shake a stick at. The most popular and famous has to be Yamaboko parade, a parade featuring giant floats known as Yamaboko that goes down on the 17th of July. The Yamaboko floats(technically two distinct styles, one called yama and one called hoko) can be huge, towering over 25 meters and weighing in at near 12 tons and requiring a team of near 50 men to pull them. All the floats are decorated with beautiful tapestries, some woven in areas like Persia, Belgium and Turkery.
However, as Mom and I found out, the three days leading up to the parade are a blast too, and in some respects, the real “festival” part of Gion Matsuri. The floats are set out for people to see and even go into, and thousands of people wander up and down the streets of Kyoto. Food vendors open up and start selling friend chicken, pineapple, and nearly every corner had someone hawking cold drinks and beer. Almost every girl was decked out in her yukata, and it was clear that the Japanese folks were getting just as much fun having a “Kyoto” experience as my mom and I were.
The parade itself was quite something, if just for the fact that the guys pulling the floats didn’t pass out from heat stroke. The sidewalks were packed with people and despite the fact that progression of the floats was slow (you wouldn’t move fast if you were dragging 12 tons either), watching the huge floats moving through the city was kind of like seeing ships sailing through the city streets. Musicians followed every float, and some had dancers or performers following along, swinging staffs or hopping around.
Gion Matsuri was exciting not only because we got to watch huge floats rolling down the city streets, but also because I got to show it to my mother, and be just as excited as she was about it. Hopefully it’ll be just as fun next year.