It is mid July – and that means that for a whole month Kyoto is in the grips of Gion Matsuri! Even with the Grand Parade having been split into two parades, the Saki parade on the 17th and the Ato parade on the 24th, I would still say that the main event – the Saki matsuri – is happening this week.

In fact, today is the first day of yoi-yama, the three days, or rather, evenings, that lead up to the Saki matsuri on the 17th. I was not planning to go to town tonight, mainly because I am not sure whether there will be the large pedestrian zone during all three nights, or only for the last one. Also, there have been short but heavy rain showers in the afternoon and also now in the evening, and I am still hoping for better weather.

I did go to Yasaka (or Gion) shrine in the late afternoon though, because I know that the food stalls there are open already and I wanted to have something nice for dinner. It turned out that I came at the right time: Just when I arrived, there was a long row of people waiting at the entrance to Yasaka shrine. It turned out that those were the members of the Naginata-hoko group (the one float that will lead the Saki matsuri parade on Thursday) and that they, together with the chigo (the most important boy during Gion matsuri, he will perform a number of rites throughout this month and will ride on the Naginata-hoko) went to Gion shrine to pay their respects to the Gods – meaning that they would go to each and every shrine in the precincts to offer a short prayer. I am not entirely sure, but I would guess that the other groups from the other yama and hoko floats will be doing the same in the next two days.

Of course, this would not be Japan if there would be no big group picture, and I also got a few of my own… In the back you can see the three mikoshi that will be moved from the shrine to the Otabisho on Thursday evening, which is the main event of Gion matsuri, from a religious point of view.

Members of the Naginata-hoko posing before the three Mikoshi


Barely has it arrived last week, it is almost over again: this year’s hanami season. The Japanese manage to take all the excitement of koyo – autumn colours – and yet raise it up a notch or two, which is understandable, after all, hanami takes only one week compared to the several of koyo. pink cherry blossoms

Once again, the masses are flocking to Kyoto to view the cherry blossoms and to take what seems like thousands of pictures. The blooming cherries are everywhere, and everywhere there are groups of people, sitting under them, eating and drinking. I went to Maruyama Park yesterday, and it had a beergarden kind of feeling with all the food stalls and places selling beer. The cherry blossoms the park was full of were nice indeed, especially the large “weeping” cherry in the middle, but altogether I found it too noisy and crowded for my taste, so I did not stay long.

Anyway, when in Japan… Here are a few of the pictures I took:

cherry blossoms in front of a stone lanterncherry trees at kamogawa rivercherry blossoms at kurodani graveyardboat trip for hanamicherry trees at chion-in


Jidai Matsuri

Yesterday was the last of the three big festivals in Kyoto, Jidai matsuri (the other two are Aoi and Gion matsuri). Literally the name translates as Period Festival, but it is better known in English as the Festival of the Ages, and that although it has a history of rather short 120 years only.a female samurai?The first Jidai matsuri took place in 1895, 1100 years after Kyoto had become the capital of Japan, and only a few years after it had lost that place to Tokyo when the emperor moved his household there. Jidai matsuri is – like most of the festivals in Japan – connected to a shrine, and in this case it is Heian shrine (named after the old name of Kyoto: Heian-kyo) , which is a 2/3 scale replica of the former imperial palace, was built also in 1895, and enshrines the first (Kanmu) and the last emperor (Komei) that had Kyoto as residence.mounted samurai with interesting helmetThe idea behind Jidai matsuri is to showcase not only Kyoto’s history, but that of all Japan, and this is done with a long costume procession “back in time” from the Meiji era through the long Edo period of peace until the famous Heian era. About 2000 people form the procession, wearing traditional clothing, not only the well known ones of famous samurai going to war or court ladies of leisure, no, also normal people in their work clothing and straw sandals, are walking the streets of Kyoto from the imperial palace to Heian shrine.lady of the courtOf course, there are additional props that can’t be missing: samurai on horses accompanied by stable boys and soldiers on foot with weapons ranging from the long rifles of the Meiji era to the swords of the earlier periods. Court ladies in lavish kimono comprised of several layers were carried along on platforms or walk underneath large umbrellas. People carrying flowers or offerings for the shrine followed two mikoshi that held the spirits of the two emperors mentioned above, and a large wagon with undetermined contents was drawn by a black ox. And in between, large groups of people were playing music – on seemingly modern flutes and drums at first, then on instruments that I have only seen during religious ceremonies, and finally there was a lone soldier blowing on a horn made from a large shell.soldier with horn made out of a shellThere is an enormous amount of attention paid to every detail of every costume: from the appropriate hairstyle (sometimes accomplished using wigs) to the clothing itself (some of the samurai wore loudly clanging heavy armour) and all the accessories (helmets, jewelry, war fans and weapons, ladles and buckets to water the horses) down to the footwear – boots and sandals made from rice straw. It is a real joy to watch, and it takes – nomen est omen – ages until the procession passes by any one point – more than two hours altogether.detail of the quiver of an archerWhat I found most exciting though was that the participants of the procession gathered on the pathways of the imperial gardens before the start, so you can watch the participants getting dressed, having lunch, or posing for pictures – some of them even selfies 😉 This was different from the Aoi festival in May where the procession started from within the palace and the participants were not seen before. Somehow the fact that they were just gathering “in the open” so to speak, gave me the feeling of a rather relaxed, fun thing – as opposed to Aoi – but maybe that’s because Aoi is more of a religious ritual than Jidai matsuri?Before the "battle" of Jidai Matsuri

Gion Matsuri, Part III

Last Wednesday the last main event of Gion matsuri took place – the Kanko Sai festival, where the three mikoshi were taken from their temporary display on the Otabisho, carried on different routes through the inner city, and then returned to Yasaka shrine.

The parade started at 5 pm at the Otabisho. All of the things that can be seen in the picture of Wednesday’s post were removed and the mikoshi stood there for easy removal. The first one to be removed was the centre one. First there was a blessing of both the mikoshi and its bearers in front of the shrine to the right of the Otabisho. The mikoshi was then fixed to two long wooden beams and, amid shouts and clapping, was carried through the narrow streets of the inner city.

blessing the mikoshi

Blessing the mikoshi - note the knots!

The same was done with the other mikoshi, first the “west” one, and finally the “east” one. One of them was carried through the narrow streets of Teramachi, and then through Nishiki food market, and I am still amazed how its bearers could manage to make the very narrow 90 degree turn between the two streets… Each mikoshi was accompanied by a person on a horse – the centre one by the chigo, by the way – and finally, around 9 pm, the individual parades turned towards Yasaka shrine, lead by a procession that carried all the things that were removed from the shrine to accompany the gods in the first place.

through teramachi street

mikoshi carried through teramachi

Once again, the bearers of the mikoshi showed off their strength by turning it around on its long wooden beams whenever possible, always accompanied by a rhythmic shouting of “hoi-tto”, “hoi-sso” or “ri-ssa”, and at Yasaka shrine itself each mikoshi was carried three times around the centre stage before it was placed in there again. The men carrying the mikoshi must have been exhausted at the end, but there was a certain excitement that went through them and the spectators, although I have seen a few with blood stains on their shoulders…

arrival at yasaka

Mikoshi arrives back at Yasaka shrine

All of this took a very long time, partly also because of the fastening and unfastening of the heavy ropes that were used to tie the mikoshi to several wooden beams. Finally, around 11:30, all mikoshi had been placed again on the stage at the centre of Yasaka shrine. Then, all the lights were turned off and only the moon lit the final, most important scene: the return of the gods to the main shrine. A path was made with sacred rope between the centre stage and the main shrine building. Accompanied by music and hidden from view by screens, two priests went from the main shrine to the centre stage and at each mikoshi in turn either perfomed a rite or actually removed something they then brought back to the main building to enshrine there again.

Except for the music, it was quiet, the hundreds of remaining spectators were completely still, many of them had folded their hands in prayer. A palpable relief went through the crowd when the gods were returned to their proper home and the lights were turned on again. Many people then went to the shrine and offered a quick prayer. The scene was strangely touching, even though I am not religious.

It was midnight by then and I had to walk home. About 5 minutes after the gods had returned home, it started to rain. Well, the main part of Gion matsuri was over anyway.



Today is the last major event of Gion matsuri. The three mikoshi which have been transferred from Yasaka shrine to their temporary abode in the Otabisho in the city centre will be moved back to the shrine today. otabisho with the three mikoshiThe ceremony starts with the procession of the mikoshi through the inner city at 17:00 and will end at Yasaka shrine around midnight. It was raining in the morning but hopefully it will clear up until the evening… I shall report on Saturday again.

Gion Matsuri, Part II

Last Wednesday, July 17th, the festivities of Gion matsuri reached their peak. In the morning, there was the Yama Hoko Junko parade through the inner city, and in the early evening the three deities of Yasaka shrine were moved to their temporary residence at the Otabisho.

The procession in the morning was beautiful. In total, there are 32 floats, nine of them called hoko and the others yama. Both types date back to the 17th century or earlier, their wooden base is constructed without any nails or screws, only heavy ropes are used to tie the timber together. They are finally draped with tapestries – replicas of the real ones by now of course – which have been imported from as far off countries as the Netherlands, and thus sometimes depict strangely un-Asian scenes like camels, lions, or the departure of Ulysses from his wife. The originals are exhibited in the respective community houses during yoiyama, from July 14th – 16th and can be visited together with the more or less finished versions of the floats. Constructing a float – even the big hoko – takes only about two days, and this takes place from July 10th – 14th, after the Mikoshi Arai purification rite.

owl tapestry and pulling ropes

owl tapestry and ropes for pulling a hoko

Anyway, back to the two types of floats: A yama is essentially an elevated platform on wheels, maybe four metres high. It is covered with tapestries and shows a well known scene from myth or real history on the platform. The almost life-sized wooden figures used for that are also exhibited during yoiyama, in fact, they are often placed at the centre of an altar and I have seen people placing offers in front of them and praying to them before they are moved onto the platforms. I am not entirely sure, but it seems that the figures used are really the originals, different than the tapestries.

ashikari yama with lion tapestry

ashikari yama with lion tapestry in front

The second type of floats are the hoko. They are enormous things resembling mobile war towers, on man sized wheels, with a roofed platform on which musicians (drums, flutes, bells…) sit and play throughout the procession. On the roof sits a long wooden pole, making the hoko up to 25 metres high in total, and the pole is decorated with straw and paper in the lower part and bears a special type of tip which gives the hoko its name. A hoko can weigh more than ten tons and it is pulled by 40 – 50 men with two thick ropes fastened to the front. Some of the hoko carry wooden images together with the musicians, and all of them are hung with beautiful tapestries.

The procession starts at 9 am, goes along three main streets of the city centre, and has to make three 90 degree turns on the way. I was at the intersection where the first turn would take place at about 8 am, and luckily enough I could still find a spot in the front row – it was surprisingly crowded all the way. Police lined the already empty streets and and many of the shops in this otherwise busy shopping arcade were closed. The people waited patiently, until, as final act before the procession, the overhead traffic lights and signs were folded away. Soon after, you could hear the tune of the musicians, and the very first hoko came down Shijo dori and reached the intersection.

naginata hoko

naginata hoko - and official photographers

The procession is always headed by the naginata hoko, which has a Japanese halberd, a naginata, on top of its pole. It is the one that has the chigo on board, a child performing rituals from the hoko, to drive evil spirits away. He is chosen among the 10 year old boys of Kyoto’s best families and wears heavy white makeup, golden headgear, and an orange robe with long sleeves.


chigo on naginata hoko

Recall that a hoko is a 10 ton affair pulled by 50 men. They can only go straight and cannot be steered. So, any large change of direction – as the 90 degrees necessary at any of the three curves of the route – is an interesting spectacle. First, the hoko’s front wheels are placed on bamboo poles, slit in half lengthwise, while the back wheels are held in place by large woodblocks. The men standing in the lower part of the hoko, close to the wheels, shout their commands, wave their fans, and then the hoko is pulled to the side in a swift effort. One hoko was turned with only two strong pulls, the others needed more, so the whole operation can take a while. In any case it was very exciting to watch every time, and the musicians on top never ceased to play or even missed a tone.

turning the kikusui hoko

turning the kikusui hoko

Turning a yama is less of an issue as they can be simply lifted off the ground, although some groups made an effort to show off their strength and made one, even two full turns with the yama – to the great satisfaction of the spectators!

After the naginata hoko come all the others in random order as drawn by lot on July 2nd. The whole procession of all 32 floats takes about three hours to pass any one point. There are many breaks in between though, clearly because of the time the turning of the hoko takes, which cannot be predicted. All in all I found the procession very interesting, but also very tiring, especially as my front row spot meant I had to sit on the hard street with folded knees all the time. I now understand why people bring little folding stools with them – even those who accompany the hoko on foot take a break to sit down during the turning.

In the evening, the second part of the festivities take place. All three mikoshi of Yasaka shrine – and with them their deities – are moved to their temporary residence at the Otabisho, located at the intersection of Shijo and Teramachi. Once again, young men dressed in white carry the mikoshi through the streets of Kyoto to their destination. There are three routes through town, and the atmosphere is light again, with lots of encouraging shouting by the carriers and spectators as well.

three mikoshi before yasaka shrine

Blessing the Mikoshi before their departure from Yasaka Shrine


I just came home from the big party in the inner city tonight. The whole inner city where the floats are standing is a pedestrian zone, and there are thousands of people on the street. The atmosphere is light hearted and relaxed, I’ve taken tons of pictures of lovely Japanese in Yukata and with an extra broad smile on their faces…happy people at yoiyama evening

Today, there is the main parade of Gion matsuri, where the 32 floats that have been constructed in the last week will be drawn through the city – by manpower only, mind! I will have to get up early to claim the best spot for pictures, so to speak, so I’m off to bed now. I will report on Saturday.

Marine Day

Today is a national holiday in Japan, called Umi-no-Hi, translated as “Marine Day”. It takes place every third Monday in July and is meant to celebrate the ocean surrounding Japan in general. Many people take some time out to go to the beach.

Kyoto, however, is land locked and has no beach – although you could go a bit further North and visit lake Biwa. But, there is still Gion matsuri going on. In fact, the three days – yoiyama – from July 14th through 16th, leading up to the great procession on the 17th are the liveliest days of Gion matsuri. The floats for the procession have been finished and can be visited, some can even be climbed by spectators, for a fee of course. At each float people can buy special charms that are somehow tied to its history, and the original tapestries that cover the floats are on display, many of them dating back to the 17th or 18th century.very young seller of charms

By now, the back streets where the floats are located are closed for traffic, and there are numerous stalls selling toys or clothing or various kinds of food (it’s amazing what you can put onto a stick, although I have to say the sausages and cucumbers look a bit … you get the idea.) Many spectators of all ages can be seen wearing yukata, the gorgeous light cotton summer kimonos of all colours that I find so attractive, especially on the sexy young men around here, they are so my kind of … but, I digress. The whole thing is an enormous party, in the evenings even the very big streets become pedestrian zones, and the whole atmosphere is light and cheerful. Tomorrow, the evening just before the procession of the floats is traditionally the biggest evening, and I will be there again, enjoying the lights and the atmosphere and in general … the views. street scene with food stalls and float in the background

Gion Matsuri, Part I

Gion matsuri is one of the three greatest local festivals in Japan, together with the Kanda matsuri in Tokyo and the Tenjin matsuri in Osaka, but it is said to be the largest and gayest of the three. It is also one of the three most important ones in Kyoto, together with the Aoi matsuri and the Jidai matsuri. It starts on July 1st and ends on July 31st, and there are many different events taking place throughout the month and throughout the neighborhood of Gion and the inner city. The two most important events take place on July 10th and 17th.

Gion matsuri is the festival associated with Gion shrine, the old name of Yasaka shrine. It started in 869, when the country was stricken with a plague and the emperor dispatched his messenger to Gion shrine for pray for the end of the plague. The brother of the sun goddess is inshrined at Yasaka, and in order to relieve the sick, his spirit was carried, in little portable shrines, through Kyoto. As this proved successful to end the plague, this ritual is still performed today.

July 10th is the day of Mikoshi Arai Purification, a purification rite in which the Mikoshi, a small portable shrine in which the principle deity will be transported, is taken to the river and cleansed with water from the Kamo. The preparations are extensive, and the whole ceremony takes several hours.

First there is the Omukae Chochin, a procession of children dressed in various costumes and accompanying adults with lanterns and musicians playing flutes and drums, which leaves Yasaka shrine at 4:30 pm. They welcome the other procession of the Mikoshi later on.

part of the afternoon processionAfter a break, at 7 pm, a second procession leaves the shrine, goes to the river, and then returns to the shrine again. It consists of young men dressed in traditional white clothes, Happi, carrying an enormous torch with them, the fire and smoke of which is meant to cleanse the path for the Mikoshi.

bearing the torch for the purificationThis portable shrine, fastened onto long, heavy wooden beams is carried on the shoulders of the same young men to the river in the final and largest procession of the day. Two or three of the same massive torches as before are carried in front and at the end of the procession, in the middle of which is the Mikoshi. Here, the men are shouting, rhythmically encouraging each other to greater efforts. At times they stop and the men carrying the Mikoshi start jumping up and down, rocking the little shrine, and then, as a final move they lift it up high over their heads.

young men carrying the mikoshiWhen they – now merged with the childrens’ procession of the afternoon – arrive back at the shrine, the Mikoshi, after circling the centre stage and being lifted and rocked one last time, is then placed onto the platform of the stage at the centre of the shrine and covered again with gold cloth, metal mirrors, and red rope.

dressing the mikoshi in gold againMeanwhile, there are dances performed by the four groups of children that walked in the afternoon procession. In the picture below, the little ones with the red wigs are between three and five years old, and the boys dressed as swans are six. The whole ceremony was finished and the Mikoshi redressed in its usual golden splendor at around 10 pm. Once again I am sorry that I neither understand the details of the ceremony, nor the significance of the costumes or the dances. But then again, I wonder how many of the Japanese spectators do.

little girls of age 3 - 5 watching the swan danceboys of age 6 dressed as swans dancing

Aoi Matsuri

Last Wednesday, I visited the Aoi matsuri. It takes place every year on May 15th, and is thus the first of the three main matsuri (festivals) in Kyoto (the others are the Gion festival in July and the Jidai festival in October).

Aoi matsuri dates back to the 6th century, when the emperor sent an emissary to the shrines to perform rituals to end a famine caused by ceaseless rains. The name derives from the hollyhock (aoi) leaves all participants wear on their garments, but officially it is named Kamo matsuri, because it involves rituals at two shrines in Kyoto.

Rider with attendant

A rider with his attendant

Essentially, Aoi matsuri is a procession of more than 500 people – all dressed in elaborate Heian-era costumes –  35 horses and two large ox carts, which starts at the imperial palace, stops at Shimagamo shrine for the first set of rituals (that take about two hours), and then moves on to Kamigamo shrine for the final rituals.


An archer - check out his boots!

Among the 500 people participating in the procession, there are two main figures: Firstly, the imperial messenger, who leads the procession on horseback and is responsible for presenting the emperor’s offerings at the shrines. Secondly, the Saio-dai, a young unmarried woman from Kyoto (in former days a close relative of the reigning emperor) who dedicates herself to Shimogamo shrine. She has to undergo a purification ritual before the festival, and she is the eye catcher of the procession, as she wears the most elaborate of all garments (a so called 12-layer-robe junihitoe, which essentially consists of 12 kimonos word on top of each other) and is carried along in a palanquin. The procession starts at 10:30 at the Imperial Palace and arrives at Kamigamo shrine at around 15:30, so the festival takes all day.

The Saio Dai in her palanquin

The Saio-Dai

I went to the palace about an hour before the start of the procession, and I was lucky to secure a spot in the second row of spectators. It was a perfect day for the spectacle, with bright blue sky, but not too hot weather. Once the procession started, it moved relatively fast, the whole thing had passed me within one hour. It was fascinating to watch…

Decorated Ox Cart

Decorated Ox Cart

As I said, there were about 500 participants; men either on foot or on horseback, dressed as warriors, courtiers, priests, acting as attendants or carrying various types of offerings to the shrines or simply responsibility; women, all dressed in multiple layered kimono, some underneath large umbrellas, others on horseback, some on foot, as attendants to the Saio-Dai; and a number of young girls, also representing attendants of the Saio-Dai. Then there were two large ox carts, with man-high, creaking, gold-leafed wooden wheels, pulled by an ox and pushed by maybe 10 men. The whole procession was an explosion of colour, everything was heavily decorated, there were flowers and the hollyhock leaves… it was beautiful.


Ladies of the court - notice the hollyhock leaves

After the procession had passed, the crowd dispersed surprisingly quickly. Although I had not intended it, I went along to Shimogamo shrine after all. Unfortunately I came to late, so I did not see any of the offerings done at the shrine itself. I was, however, lucky enough not to miss the big thing: the horse race. At Shimogamo shrine, there is a short racetrack, where five horses competed in three races. They rode consecutively and were timed individually – unfortunately I had no way of finding out the winner. Again, both riders and horses wore Heian-style attire, and it did not seem easy to stay in the saddle at full speed… Once again I was lucky to get a good spot there as well to take some pictures of the action.

Horse in the race

Horse racing at Shimogamo shrine

However, after the race I decided not to go further to Kamigamo shrine, as it is quite far outside, and also as I would again not have been able to arrive on time to secure a good spot from which to see the offerings. Now I know that there is apparently some archery – from horseback – involved in those rituals… Oh well, next year.

In any case, it was an exciting and beautiful day (I have the sunburn to prove it) and I’m already looking forward to the next matsuri.