2014
07.30

GION MATSURI

SYNOPSIS:  About one of the three high festivals in Kyoto and the nights before and in between.

 

There are three key festivals in Kyoto, and I had planned my stay in Kyoto to experience one of them, the Gion Matsuri.   It is the largest of all festivals and activities are concentrated in nearly a ten day period, and culminate in two parades known as Yamaboko Junko, exactly one week apart, which symbolically welcome and then return spirits to the spirit world.  With my luck of living so far outside the city center it was hard get the full festival atmosphere each day, but I tried to catch some of the evening fun and at least one of the two parades.  Also, during the entire period of the festival you can observe the mikoshi (portable shrines for the deities) in their temporary places in town.  This is where you will see people behaving as if they were in a temple — that means, they will throw coins into a box, bow, and pray before these floats; after all, these boxes contain the gods.

What it boils down to especially for young people, is to dress up in traditional garb, to stroll the streets of Kyoto, which are blocked off to traffic after dark, to eat and drink, to collect stamps and souvenirs at each and every one of the floats, to see and be seen.  This time is known as the Yoiyama.   That kind of activity is obviously more fun when you are not traveling alone, so a little of it stretched quite far for me.

To fill in some of the history of the festival, you’d better check online.  But here is a brief run-through:  most other festivals in Japan are harvest related and take place in spring or autumn.  The Gion Matsuri is one of the few urban festivals that originated 1100 years ago when Kyoto was affected by the plague.  It evolved into a festival praying for the protection from urban disaster.  Since the 1960’s it developed into a tourist attraction  but despite that twist, it never completely lost its original meaning to the locals.  But as a tourist attraction it had changed and merged into one big, flashy show.  This is the first year that it has been revived in its original two-part form as a two-part parade with the saki-matsuri (welcoming) and the ato matsuri (sending off) of the gods to the city.

For me the most interesting parts of the nightly events were the street musicians and dancers.  At various parts of town, stages were set up and dance groups as well as bands were performing traditional music.  I wonder if later in the night when I had already returned to my suburb, this would turn a bit more “rocky” or not.  Some of the music and dances I saw take quite a bit of getting used to.  They are extremely monotonous for Western ears and performed in very slow motion.  But the costumes and the overall flair are fascinating.

The parade itself was something else!  Of course the one I attended was on a hot, hot, hot day again.  Already by  9 AM the thermometer had been rising above 90 degrees and if you wanted any glimpse of the parade you had to accept to be squeezed into a five to ten row deep stack of humanity which stretched for miles on end.  I got lucky in a way that I chose a spot at a corner.  Here, the parade turned a 90 degree angle.  This was the place to watch the most fun part of the parade, the turning operations of the large floats.

These floats…  there is definitely a float cult in Japan!  Every one of these floats has a name; as I mentioned, you can collect stamps proving that you visited each and everyone of them, and there are float related souvenirs, even DVDs!   There are two general types of floats: the hikiyama — huge four-wheeled floats pulled by 40-50 people, and the wheel-less kakiyama.   And then there are a whole lot of subcategories.  All the floats are on display days before the festival in various small streets.

Each float in the parade is accompanied by a crew of dressed up young men.  A few men pull the float along.  But it is at the corners, when things get tricky.  Even the small floats can’t be easy to turn.  Some have wheels, others don’t;  but all are turned at the corners solely by muscle power.   The large ones require dozens of men, called yocho.

When a corner in the parade is approached (there should be about four), the float is brought to a halt and then the operation starts: grease the roads with water, put rollers under the front of the wheels, prop beams against the back of the wheels, get the crew lined up and upon command:  how-dee — 1/3 of the turn is done.  Then the operation starts again and:  how-dee — 2/3 of the turn.  And then the final turn and the float is rolling again to the cheers and the applause of the lined up audience.  This 3x how-dee takes a full 20 minutes!  That is for one large float.  Why?

The largest of these floats weighs as much as two tons.  Hundreds of men have to accompany that one.  At any given time 50 men have to shoulder it; they are taking frequent turns.  That means these men carry as much as 40 kg symbolizing through the actual weight the enormous responsibility it takes if they were really carrying the gods.  As you imagine, a parade like this takes hours.  I mean hours!   After I had seen the second large float turn and even my loose fitting pants were soaked from all the water my body was exuding and from all the wet people squeezing against me, I had enough.  There was a total of 23 of those large floats in the parade…  I could not imagine standing and sweating through all of them.

The music that accompanies this all to my ears is mainly the same high-pitched line of flutes played by a line of men sitting on the left side of the top of the float and bells being rung by a line of men sitting on the right side of the top of the float.  It is memorable and distinct music but there is no variation to it.  Well, that’s what I say.  I read that each float has a repertoire of up to 36 different tunes.  As the music was playing on the days before after and in between the parades over loudspeakers in town, it really always sounded the same to me…  Between the larger floats, small ones come around.  And boxes and umbrellas are carried that surely all have some meaning.  Hundreds of dressed up groups of people walk along and some of them stop at corners like ours to perform a dance or two.  That too, goes on for hours.  And I mean hours!

After I broke loose from the crowds, I strolled through town people watching.

And before you know it, the day was over.  What a fun ending to the time in Kyoto!

Good night.