Deja vu

Today was the Aoi matsuri, the hollyhock festival that takes place at the Imperial Palace, Shimogamo Shrine and Kamigamo Shrine. When I came to Japan two years ago, this was the first festival I went to, and I have written about it then at length. Today, I had the opportunity – thanks to a friend – to see the parade again, this time from the special seats in Shimogamo Shrine.

It was just as I remembered, almost a deja-vu, but now the beautifully dressed men and gorgeous women on foot or on horses were passing underneath the large trees of Shimogamo Shrine instead of the open space of the Palace, which gave the parade a whole different feeling. I also think that it was a bit more compact than the first time I saw it – whether this was due to the different location or because of different timing, I cannot tell. The weather was nice and warm, but not really sunny, so I still have to wait for my first sunburn this year.

After the parade had passed the long sandy road up to the main buildings of Shimogamo Shrine, my friend and I had lunch at the few food stalls that were permitted at the shrine. We had yakisoba – grilled noodles with bacon and cabbage – and as dessert kasutera – a sort of small sweet buns made of pancake batter – and ichigo daifuku – sweet rice cakes with a strawberry on top.

This year, I did not stay for the horse race as I had promised another friend to see her, but it was nice to go to the Aoi festival again. There is still a part I have not seen yet, the one from Shimogamo to Kamogamo Shrine, so there is something left to explore for next year. I am already looking forward to it!


Yesterday was the matsuri of Yoshida shrine, which I consider “my” shrine, as it is less than 5 minutes away from Ebisu’s. It was a matsuri as many others I have seen before, but on a much smaller scale, it felt almost intimate.

As I got the timing wrong, I was very early and could see the preparations. Some things were ready: The main mikoshi had been prepared and the seats for the priests, the musicians, and the local dignitaries who would be present during the religious ceremony. The three carts that would be carried or drawn through the streets: a large cask of sake, a small mikoshi, and some sort of sacred tree, decorated with paper. Mikoshi of Yoshida shrineOthers were still in the making: Four Taiko drums were set up at the main square of the shrine and carefully covered to shield the skins from the sun before the performance. People who would be participating in some way or the other, would get dressed: the dignitaries mentioned above, the students, both male and female, who had the honor to carry the mikoshi through the streets, the children who would accompany the parade. little samuraiThe two students who would play the important role of the lion got into their costume – and into their role. I could ask them a few questions, they were highschool students and it was not their first time. The lion – shishi – who accompanies the parade is performing a lion dance – shishimai – and part of that dance is to chase and bite little children, in order to bring them luck in the next year. Apparently their parents like that idea better than the kids though… mask of a Japanese lionFinally, the preparations were over, and as a sign that something would start happening, the musicians took their seats. Then, the dignitaries formed a lane through which the priests – five of various ranks, distinguishable by their robes – would walk toward their seats in front of the musicians, then the dignitaries – all dressed in black ceremonial kimono with gray hakama – would take their own seats opposite the priests.

The ceremony started with the usual bowing and consecration rituals. Then the priests got up and went to a small shrine, and, while the musicians played a tune – well, a single tone, actually, that sounded both creepy and hallowed – they transferred the kami of that shrine into a little portable shrine, and from there to the large mikoshi that had been prepared. Then, more bowing followed, and each of the dignitaries made a small offering to the kami in front of the mikoshi. When that ceremony was over, the people gathered for the parade. start of the paradeUnder the drumming of the taiko the parade started out from the main shrine, uphill past four other, smaller shrines (I am never sure whether they have anything to do with Yoshida shrine or not) and then, the parade meandered through the neighborhood, with a drum upfront, the two mikoshi behind – carried by a large group of girls under many washoi-screams – and the lion doing his dance to scare, I mean, bless the children. Yoshida matsuri parade

Comb Festival

It was a great autumn day today, 30 degrees, sunny, with a clear blue sky… I celebrated by going to a quite unique festival in Yasui-konpiru-gu shrine: The comb festival or kushi matsuri. Similar to the needle festival I visited last year, here people bring their old combs and hair ornaments to the shrine where a ceremony is held for them. Detail of Japanese hairstyleApparently the idea behind these ceremonies is, that when an object has been used for a long time, they possess spirit – imbued by their owner’s or their own – and it is thus proper to send those spirits back to the gods instead of just tossing the item. Such ceremonies are held in various shrines and temples for a number of things: needles, combs, calligraphy brushes, dolls,… Unfortunately, I could not find out what would happen to the combs and hair ornaments that were brought to the shrine, but the thing in the back of the image below is called the kushi zuka, the comb mound, so maybe they are interred there, or at least, at some former time may have been. used combs before the comb moundJust like last year, there was first a ceremony and afterwards a short dance performance called “black hair dance” as an offering to the gods. The special thing about this ceremony at this shrine, however, is the attendance of about 50 young girls sporting the hairstyle of various periods in Japanese history. Of course, they wore beautiful kimono of the appropriate time as well, but the show piece were clearly the various coiffures. Japanese hairstylesI asked one of the girls in an elaborate Edo period hairstyle whether this was all her own hair. In case you consider me rude: Geisha very often have rather short hair and wear wigs for their performances, so I was curious.Japanese hairstyleShe said her hairstyle was about half-half, that some of the longer parts were hair pieces, made in the way they had been produced in the Edo period. It was very well done, and practically impossible to distinguish the pieces from her real hair, but, taking a closer look, especially from behind, you could see for example pieces of black paper that were used to style the hair.Japanese hairstylingShe also said that finishing her hairstyle would take about 3-4 hours – she must have gotten up very early this morning! After the ceremony and the dance, the girls formed a long procession through Gion, but I did not go with them, I had had plenty of photo-opportunities in the shrine already.Japanese hairstyle

Ato Matsuri

Yesterday was another busy day, it was the day of Ato Matsuri, the second parade of Gion Festival. It has ten floats, somewhat smaller than those of the first, the Saki Matsuri parade that happened one week prior, and although it takes the same route, it does so in the other direction. At the very end of the Ato Matsuri parade, there was a newly constructed O-fune yama, a boat-shaped float that always comes at the end of the procession. It is based on the traditional O-fune yama which unfortunately had burnt down a number of years ago and, as there was already a Fune-yama to end Gion Matsuri, it was not needed for the last 50 years and thus had not been rebuilt. This year, however, it had its reappearance and a new boat was built – for a total of 120 million yen – and decorated with some of the old tapestries that had survived the fire. You could immediately tell that there was something special about this float – you could still smell the new wood used in its construction.The boat shaped O-fune yama ending the procession

Right after the ten floats, there came the floats of the so-called Hanagasa, the flower hat or flower umbrella procession, which starts from Yasaka shrine, goes through the inner city, joins the Ato Matsuri parade for two streets and then returns to Yasaka shrine. In the beginning, there were a number of small children carrying small mikoshi, probably some of the many deities that reside in Yasaka shrine. It seemed that the kids had big fun, and they even tried to emulate the mikoshi carrying of the adults by lifting the mikoshi onto their shoulders. Small mikoshi carried by children

Behind them, there came a number of more serious adults dressed in beautiful kimono or other traditional garb and accompanying little floats decorated with flowers and umbrellas. They were beautiful, but, to be honest, I would have preferred to see real flowers rather than the obviously artificial ones that were used.A float of the hanagasa procession

I met with a friend at 8:30, one hour before the start of the procession, and although there were not so many people as a week ago, we were lucky to still get a place in the third row at one of the street corners. The whole parade took about 2 hours to pass us by, and once again my friend was very taken by the turning of the large hoko around the corner. Unfortunately, after standing in a tight spot for all but three hours, I had developed a terrible backache, and I was very happy that the parade was over and we could go to lunch – sushi again, in the same restaurant as the week before.

My friend then went home to Kobe, until Osaka he planned to ride his bike along the river, I hope everything turned out as he had planned. I went home also, and because of the backache (which lasted well into the night, I am obviously getting old), I did not attend soroban class that evening, and I also skipped the Kanko-Sai, the returning of the three mikoshi to Yasaka shrine in the night.


The last three days were very busy, I was on my feet – literally – for more than eight hours each day… When I came home last night I was so tired, I went to bed at around ten, hence the delay in my report, but here it is, finally:

Wednesday night was the last evening of the yoiyama for the Saki matsuri parade. Just like last year, from 6 pm the streets of the inner city where the floats had been built were closed for traffic, and were turned into a huge pedestrian area. It was very crowded; when I looked from Yasaka shrine over Shijo street, it was filled with people, the heads of the Japanese turning the space into a black mass. It had been a very hot day and it was a lovely night, but because it was so crowded, the feeling was more hectic and much less relaxed than last year.

I had fun though, trying out new street food: pancakes made from takoyaki batter, rolled up and then topped with all sorts of condiments. I had one with mayo, parsley, dried fish flakes, and ketchup, thus each bite tasted differently. Altogether, there were at least four different types. For safety reasons I did not try the one with the fried egg on top: although seemingly delicious, the yolk still looked rather runny… Also, I have to admit that I succumbed to shopping and bought a tengui, a traditional, thin Japanese towel, that was sold at the stand of the boat-float, which always comes last in the parade. I bought this one because I really liked the phoenix on it, what do you think:Japanese Towel called "Tengui"

The biggest novelty – and one that my inner treehugger is especially happy about – were the ECO-stations placed at exits and large crossings of the pedestrian area. When I bought the pancake, I received it in a little dish made from very sturdy plastic and I already thought it was a shame to throw it away after single use. Only then did I discover the ECO-stations, where one could return these dishes to have them washed and reused directly. What a wonderful idea! I hope they’ll keep it up and they can be seen at many matsuri to come!

Thursday started very early and ended very late… A friend of mine came up from Kobe and because we wanted a decent spot on a corner to watch the parade, we met at 8 am – and were still about 30 minutes late for the perfect spot, which was reached by the parade only at 9:30… My friend was amazed by the big fuss that was made to turn the naginata hoko around the corner. However, she was not quite as patient as I had been the year before, and so we gave up our front row spot after about an hour of watching, and we walked along Shijo dori towards the other floats of the parade. I showed her my favourite one (topped with the praying mantis), and she was especially excited about the boat-shaped Ofune hoko, traditionally ending the parade, because it looks so different from all the others.

We then had sushi for lunch, and when we left the restaurant at 12:30, we could still see the last floats leaving Kawaramachi street. We then went through Gion to my favourite temple where we relaxed a little before she went to the station where she had booked a tea-ceremony, and I headed back home.

After a nap that felt hardly longer than 10 minutes, I was up and about again to go to my soroban class – it was the big exam day, remember! We conducted it almost like we do a normal class; first a short mental calculation warmup, then the test. It went well, no big surprises, although I was a bit nervous. I could leave right after the test was over as I was so tired, it must have shown. I think at that time my sensei already knew whether I had passed or not, but he said I would get the result only next Tuesday. You are thus still allowed to keep your fingers crossed!

Yesterday, on Friday, I went to a friend’s place at 10:30. She had an invitation for the opening of the summer exhibition at MIHO Museum and had invited me to come along. Miho museum is about a 90 minutes drive from Kyoto, situated in the middle of mountains. it is a privately owned museum, founded by and named after what was at that time the richest woman of Japan. The special exhibition centres around two large tapestries (probably two metres by one), depicting a Kwannon – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – and a sitting, pensive Buddha. The tapestries were hand-woven for the museum after two old images, and you can see the original paintings as well as statues and other related objects of art.Flyer of MIHO museum

The permanent exhibition is exquisite, albeit small. They have a beautiful little statue of Horus, made from silver, gold, and lapis lazuli, that apparently was once the main deity of an Egyptian temple. There was also a standing Buddha statue, some 2.5 metres high I guess, upper body leaning forward just a little bit. It gave me the impression of a father stooping down a little to his children. I really enjoyed the trip although it took much longer than I had expected. The museum is certainly worth a visit, even though it is a bit far from Kyoto.

Now, those were my last three days. Today I had planned a rest day; from Monday on there will be the second yoiyama before the Ato matsuri parade. It should be much more quiet though, but I hope the friend with whom I will watch it will like it too.


I have just returned from the last evening of yoiyama where I – and approximately 10.000 other people – went to the city to have a look at all the floats that will be presented in the big Saki matsuri parade tomorrow. I went around through the city for about 6 hours and I am very tired right now…

Tomorrow, I will meet a friend to go and see the parade, and I’ll have to get up quite early for this one, hence, I will not write much more tonight.

You will get a big summary of this year’s Saki matsuri and preceding yoiyama on Friday. Good night!


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.