Gion Matsuri (1)
Japan can be a weird place, at least to the uninitiated. Sometimes, it’s the epitome of modern, urban life; at others it’s as if the country is stuck in the Middle Ages. Nowhere is this more evident, or perhaps more jarring, than in Kyoto, and there’s no better time to be here than during the annual Gion Matsuri – a series of events dating back over a thousand years that culminates in a massive, full-on procession through the modern main streets of the old capital. Thousands of people of all ages line the route: youngsters in colourful summer kimonos, wobbling precariously on wooden sandals while they pose for pictures or chat on mobile phones, and tour buses full of middle- aged country folk, videocams out waiting to capture the moment when the floats – some of them two storeys high, and dragged by locals in loincloths – come by in a compelling drone of drums, bells, voices and flute.
The origins of Gion Matsuri date back to 869 AD, when a great plague raged through Kyoto. To appease the angry gods, a priest led a procession of 66 men, one for each of the provinces of Japan, through the streets of the city, carrying halberds (Hoko, the word for the larger, wheeled floats, originally referred to these halberds.) The tribute was a success, and the ritual was repeated frequently, developing into an annual event by the end of the tenth century. The festival was suspended during the Onin War of the 1460s, and when it was revived the nature and purpose of it had changed – developing from a ceremony of the nobility to more of a street festival and spectacle, and a chance for the merchants to show off their wealth and wares. Gion Matsuri continued to gain popularity throughout the Momoyama and Edo periods, and was an annual event until it was interrupted again by the Second World War. It re-emerged afterwards, on a new route along the major thoroughfares (some say for the benefit of the occupying forces and other foreign tourists), and is now one of the country’s biggest annual events, drawing visitors from all over the world.
Gion Matsuri actually encompasses almost a month of events, but the first ones of interest to visitors happen on July 10, when the construction of the holto and yama floats for the parade begins. Starting at 7am, the pieces – which weigh between 1.2 and 1.6 tons each for the 23 yama, and from 5 to 12 tons for the nine huge hoko – are fitted together, then tied with rope, to guarantee that none of them falls and squashes a spectator. The piecing together of these giant jigsaws continues every morning until July 13, after which the hoko are on view until the parade on July 17. The easiest place to get a view of this process is on Shijo-dori, near Karasuma Station, but the construction and display actually occur all around the city centre, with each district having responsibility for its own yama or hoko. You can pick up a map in the tourist office at Kyoto Station, detailing where to see what floats. Or you can simply wait for the parade, and watch them all go by. The floats are often exquisite structures, hand carved and painted in vermilion and gold with scenes from the mythology, history and courtly life of a culture that has all but disappeared in modern-day Japan. Among the most elaborate are the fune boko, in the form of a massive ship, and the toroh yama, topped with a gigantic, moving mantis.
The mikoshi arai, or purification ceremony of the portable shrines (mikoshi), also takes place on July 10, at 8pm at the Shijo Ohashi bridge. Arai means “clean” or “purify”, and the mythical purpose of this ceremony is to prepare the mikoshi to receive the gods again after a year of gathering dust. The three shrines are brought down to the river, where a priest performs the cleansing ritual. The festivities continue on July 15, when in the early afternoon there’s dancing and theatre – and large crowds – at the Yasaka-jinja, a focal point of the festival, at the easternmost end of Shijo-dori. There’s more dancing the following afternoon, at Yasaka-jinja, where, in a performance popular at many Shinto festivals, a male and female white heron dance to please the divinities of the shrine. But for most Kyoto-jin, the heart of the Gion Matsuri is the evening of July 16, the yoi-yama, when crowds of teenagers, dressed in yukata (summer kimono), tottering on wooden clogs, come out and stroll in mobs down Karasuma-dori and Shijo-dori. Street hawkers sell all manner of useless items, from Hello Kitty masks to Star Wars light sabres, and, for a price, you can climb inside a hoko. More interesting, and for free, walk a couple of blocks west of Karasuma to Shinmachi- dori and Muromachi-dori, where a number of merchants’ homes, many dating from the Edo period of the early seventeenth century, have their front rooms open to the public and are stocked with gorgeous kimono, wall hangings and painted screens – a rare chance to see inside a sumptuous, traditionally furnished Japanese home.