Gion Matsuri

I'm just about to leave for a week in Hokkaido (and 6 days on the train going and coming, phew!) so I wanted to write an entry on Gion Matsuri before I left. Matsuri means "festival" in Japanese. This festival protects the citizens of Kyoto from evil spirits for the year. It was started over 1200 years ago. I'm not sure if the festival has been held 1200 times since the first, but that is still a colossal tradition that I am still trying to fathom. The oldest city in America, St. Augustine, Florida, is just 450 years old. So the efforts to produce a living festival every year for so long speaks volumes for the value of traditions in modern-day Japan. It pales in comparison, but the Rose Parade would be the closest equivalent to the Gion Matsuri that I can think of. Americans think, "Wow! 118th Rose Parade, who can beat that?" Well, Kyoto has one ten times as old!

Merchants and wealthy families sponsor floats that are draped in expensive tapestries and are topped with an evergreen tree branch. I think it symbolizes long life, but don't quote me on that! I'm still learning Japanese and that's how I translated it. One of the women from church was involved with advertising for the Iwato Yama float, shown in the picture here, so we got a special tour of it. The neighborhoods around the Shijo area of Kyoto host the floats, which families opening their homes to display heirlooms of calligraphy, tapestries, and second floor access to enter the floats. Here is an example of the special furnishings on display. On the ground, merchants set up stalls to sell food, candy, toys, and souvenirs of the event. With our special host, we were allowed access to some of these homes. It was very special for me to see traditional urban homes because I live in foreigner housing in Nishinomiya. The thin, sliding doors between rooms were open wide to allow the slightest of breezes to cool off visitors.

I was so enamored with the atmosphere of the festival that I returned for a second day, just to see the floats after dark. I waited all day for the sun to go down and the lanterns to light up. With each passing hour, the streets became more crowded. Karasuma and Shijo streets were blocked off to vehicular traffic and the pedestrians took over. There must have been at least a million people walking the streets. Since Japan has no outdoor air conditioning (come on! what's with this country?;) all the big companies were handing out fans to keep people cool. I must have collected 8 of them that day. So as I wander around the area, I'm snapping photos. With all my excitement to take pictures of events leading up to the dark, my camera ran out of batteries! Aargh! I managed to get two pictures of the lanterns. Here's the best one.

There's a special kind of music that is only played during the festival. It consists of flute, drum, and cymbals playing rising and falling tones in an eerie tune. I'm sorry I can't put into better words. I don't write for Guitar World magazine! I took some video of it with sound, but it's going to take too much time to load that up before I go. Here's a parting shot: some of the young chanters playing "rock, paper, scissors (Jan Ken in Japanese) on the Iwato Yama float.

Next post: the trip to Hokkaido!

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