Asia 8 – Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri (2)

The parade

Try not to overdo it on the evening of the 16th, because you’ll want to be up early the next morning for the parade, which starts at 9am and begins to wind down after noon, with the last of the hoko and yama rolling off the streets by 2pm. You’ll hear it before you see it, the distinctively monotonous kon-chiki-chin of the Gion-bayashi, the festival music, wafting ahead of the floats.  One of the best – if most congested – places to be is the intersection of Shijo and Karasuma,  where the parade begins, and where the chigo, the young boy chosen to initiate the parade, gets things going by cutting a rope hung across the street with a samurai sword. (The child doesn’t do the actual cutting; rather, he is manipulated by adults like a puppet, sparing countless generations the inauspicious start of accidental dismemberment.) The other good – and subsequently popular – spots are the corners of Shijo/Kawaramachi or Kawaramachi/Oike, where the floats turn. Watching this is quite something, as the hoko are built not only without the use of nails, but without the benefits of steering devices, and turns are effected by laying bamboo poles out in front of the wheels, and dragging the hoko on top. Water is thrown on the bamboo to make it slippery, and with a huge heave-ho, sixteen men jerk the ten-ton cart around, eventually making it to a ninety-degree angle and proceeding up the street.

If you don’t like crowds, your best bet is to make friends with someone who works in one of the office buildings on Shijo-dori, Kawaramachi-dori or Oike-dori – a second- or third-floor window is an ideal vantage point. Or set yourself up on Shinmachi-dori: the hoko and yama split up at Oike/Shinmachi, heading back to their respective districts, and a number of the floats head down Shinmachi-dori, a small street that’s probably the best place to get a closer view of some of the more interesting floats, including the giant mantis.

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