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Gion Matsuri

Kyoto, Japan

The Gion Matsuri spans the whole month of July and various events take place during this time in Kyoto. The main base for most activities is the Yasaka shrine.


The floats: These are the trademark of the Gion Matsuri. Lots of floats are build every year and open for visiting in the streets. There are two types of floats, Yama and Boko, differing in weight and layout. They are up to 25m tall, from the ground to the tip of the tree in their center. The carpets they are adorned with are often very old and from all over the world. They are sometimes called moving museums for their historical value.

At night the lanterns all over them are lit, the traditional musicians take their place and play to the masses visiting.
On the morning of the 17th the floats align in an order decided by lottery, are carried or pulled through the streets of Gion by the local men. After that they return to the place they were built at and quickly disassembled, dispelling all the evil they absorbed on their way.


Chimaki: These are charms that are sold only during the matsuri. People buy them, hang well visible over their entrances and keep them there until they get a new one next year.


Matsuri stalls: Probably THE characteristic element of all matsuri. Tons of stalls line the streets and the area of the shrine, selling all that special foodstuff I wanted to try and more.
I am currently working on a follow-up post about the food sold at such festivals.
Also, there were lots of these guys. They sell a ticket for 300yen with the outlook to win video games and even consoles. Of course there is all that cheap plastic stuff around as well. You buy a ticket, it's either a fluke or a win and you won't get the thing you wanted anyways. Yes, it's the type of thing young boys spend their allowance on. Seemed quite popular.

There are also masks for kids and all kinds of sparkly stuff on sale, from light sabers over kitten ears to necklaces.
The mayor streets where the stalls were where closed on the nights of the 14th, 15th and 16th, which meant lots of pedestrians, lots and lots of stalls and lots of walking.


The folding screen festival: A part of the Matsuri where one can get a precious glimpse inside a Japanese home. Here, the residents open their houses and put their family heirlooms on display, to be viewed by everyone interested.


Kagura: On the evening of the 16th, the Kagura are performed at the Yasaka shrine. Kagura are dances/performances depicting a story or pleasing the gods.
Before the main event started, there was the blessing of the shinsengumi (I really have no idea where they came from or there they went after the 5min ceremony and neither had the Japanese around me) and the crane dance, performed by children.

There are traditional instruments used (Flute, drums, ...) and the dancers/actors are adorned with colorful and rich costumes. I will now give a short description of the Kagura I witnessed on that evening. Taking pictures was quite hard with the light and all those people, they are not really good for the most part, but bear with me.

The bell Kagura is a dance to please the gods and started performance. The moves with the fan and the bells were impressive.

Next up was a story I did not quite get, to be honest. A young man angered a god who called forth lightning and set the man to fight a demon for his live, or something along those lines.

Then the story of a monk and a man of herculean strength travelling together and meeting a beautiful woman who charmed the monks companion. She turned out to be a demon, fooling humans by disguising herself as a girl and eating her victims alive. The monk was able to prevent the worst at first, but they were not able to kill the demon, the nine-tailed fox. Two warriors appeared, however, a master archer and a swordsman, sent out to exterminate the fox, and ultimately prevailed.
The whole thing was more of a comedy and quite entertaining.

The dance of exorcism was next, depicting the story of a ruler who fell very ill until a god appeared in his dream and fought a demon there. After the gods victory the ruler/king woke up and was healed. This one dragged on for some time.

The penultimate Kagura was easier to enjoy, it was an homage to the god of fishing, prosperity and commerce, pictured as an fat man who loves to fish.

The finale was great, a story originally from China: The extermination of Yamato-no-Orochi. The story is as follows. Yamato-no-Orochi is a snake demon, taxing a village with one maiden/princess every year. There were eight princesses originally, but only one remained, and the old folk of the village became really desperate and cried to the gods not to take her away. Susanoo-no-mikoto, the brother of the sun goddess appeared in the village and prepared a poisoned wine, ready to slay the monster.
When the last princess was presented to Yamato-no-Orochi, it drank the wine and fell asleep, enabling the god to cut off its heads (of which is has eight in the version I know, on stage there were four). Of course this couldn't happen without a proper fight, but the good prevailed and the princess was saved. Here some pictures:

The whole thing lasted for three hours and was a great watch. With me standing directly behind the rows of seats (no, I didn't get one, had to stand), the view was good as well.
I was glad to be under the roof, however, others didn't have that luck.


Also, many things to be seen at this matsuri have some special stamps outside and people compete to get all of them. I also saw such stamps at the Eihei-ji temple and the Silver Pavilion. Probably some kind of proof that you where there. Took some of those in my notebook.

That was the matsuri as I experienced it.

Unfortunately it rained quite a lot during this week, but it was bearable. The folks at the shrine where well prepared and had shelters put up really fast as soon as it looked like it would start. The main sidewalks had roofs as well, no problem there.

So long and stay tuned,

permalink written by  JuergenS on July 17, 2010 from Kyoto, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
tagged Performance and Matsuri

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