It’s Gion Matsuri time in Kyoto. There is no doubt that this is worth attending despite the heat and crowds. There is simply nothing like it. And I’m very grateful I had the opportunity so many years ago to soak it all up.
And soaking it up is exactly what I did. I never took a single shashin (didn’t even own a camera back then… gasp). It makes me wonder whether people are experiencing it now or photographing it. I love looking at the photos of Gion Matsuri and watching videos. But I wonder how it is for the person behind the camera. How does filming it impact their own experience? Another thing I wonder about is the commercialization. Some of it is traditional, some of it is promotional, and a lot of it is just plain old fun. For example, a Chinese restaurant has a shimidare nikumanfor just three days. You can only get it at that time. Are there lines out the door for them? You bet!
How about the people of Kyoto? Are they avoiding it? Are they enjoying it? I’m sure there are both types of Kyotoites though I think that after a few years of COVID, they are happy to be free to celebrate without fear, albeit wearing a masuku… still… for many of them. But there are those Japanese who attend with a specific purpose.
If you have a gakusei at home and they have an important entrance exam coming up, you may want to visit the Hakurakutenyama [float] and purchase one of their souvenirs. In fact, I recently read about a family that simply purchases a pair of 500 yen chopsticks at this season and then the student uses them everyday until the day of their exam. It is meant to bring academic success.
Now, that’s personal. Maybe that’s just as Gion Matsuri should be—at least for the locals.
shashin – 写真 -photograph(s)
shimidare nikuman – しみだれ 豚まん A kind of dumpling literally called a stained dumpling. The stain is soy sauce. In this case it is a speciality of a certain Chinese restaurant and is only served a few days a year.
masuku – マスク mask, a face mask. Ubiquitous in Japan even before COVID.
gakusei – 学生 student
Hakurakutenyama – 白楽天山 That’s a mouthful, isn’t it! It’s one of the floats of the Gion Festival. Read more here.
You hear about the New Yorkers who have never been to the Empire State Building. Possibly my parents fell into that category. And even though I live in Amherst, famous for being the home of Emily Dickinson, it took years before I visited her home/museum, and then just once was enough.
This month there is a very famous festival in Kyoto called Gion Matsuri. It is literally celebrated the whole month with the highlight being a procession of floats held on July 17. On the two nights before the 17th, downtown Kyoto becomes something of a street fair and if you’re young, you do want a date for that night. Girls and boys alike will be wearing yukata. The procession is certainly worth seeing. Ikkaidakedesu. It will be hot as hell and humid as hell and crowded as hell. Total jigoku. I know I went at least once or twice… and then I know I skipped it, unless I had a visiter who had come especially to see it. I do love the accompanying hayashi that is played and just the sound of it makes me smile.
I am a reader of a bulogu that is written by a grouchy old Japanese man who is a native of Kyoto. Kinō he wrote that he would not be going to see the procession and rather testily said that the natives of Kyoto didn’t go because most Kyoto-ites only attend their kinjō festivities. Neighborhoods are of utmost important in Kyoto. There will be neighborhood jinja and otera for your everyday needs. (Of course there are also some famous places for specific and special needs; if you are taking a college entrance exam, you’d want to pray at Kitano Tenmangu.) But basically, he says, the festival is for both Japanese and foreign tourists at this point, unless you’re one of the neighborhood folks who hold it.
So, if I was in Kyoto, this year, would I go to Gion Matsuri? To be very honest, unless the weather felt much much cooler than usual, I would not. But during the month of July I’d be sure to walk through the back streets where preparations were being made and catch some of that action. The back streets of Kyoto are where all the good stuff happens!
Gion Matsuri – 祇園祭 One of the three big festivals that happens in Kyoto. This is a summer festival. Google it.
yukata – 浴衣 cotton kimono that is worn in the summer or for sleeping
Ikkaidakedesu – 一回だけです “Just once.” or “I’ll do it just once.”
jigoku – 地獄 hell
hayashi はやし – the flutes, drums and bells of Gion Festival
bulogu – ブログ blog
kinō – 昨日yesterday
kinjo – 近所 neighborhood
jinja – 神社 Shinto shrine
otera – お寺 Buddhist temple, i.e. don’t use this word for a synagogue.