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

Cricket Alarm!

I may have mentioned it before: It’s hot! One side effect of this are the crickets you can hear all day long, starting as early as 7:30 or so. I don’t mind them although we have quite a bit of greenery around the house in which they are hiding and chirping; their sound quickly recedes into the background anyway.

Tuesday morning, however – I had just finished my morning round of kanji study and was sitting down in front of my laptop – a new sound was mixed in with the crickets, with a similar pitch and rhythm, but still different enough to be noticable. Somehow it sounded like it was only a single animal, and soon enough I became quite annoyed by it. After a while it stopped again, and with a thought of “Oh, the others finished you off” I could concentrate again on something else.

image of a smoke detectorImagine my surprise when I finally went downstairs a while later – and discovered a note from one of my housemates, tucked underneath a dismantled smoke detector: “I could find neither smoke nor fire, so I thought it was just an empty battery alarm and pulled it…”


  • Not every animal is what it seems.
  • Our smoke detectors’ alarms are annoying, but not alarming (enough) – checking out the noise never entered my mind.
  • I hope any fire in our house starts when I’m out or at least not home alone.

Edit: I have now found out that the animals making all the noise around here are not called crickets, but cicadae. Sorry about my ignorance, I’m not really good with insects…


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

Hot and Cold

screenshot of today's weatherI like hot weather, always did. I start getting comfortable somewhere above 25°C, whereas everything below makes me reach for a sweater. Very fondly I recall my visits to the Egyptian desert – vast, empty, and hot. Or those two hours I spent in the blistering summer heat at Dante’s View, looking over Death Valley and writing on my travel diary.

Humidity is something entirely different though: When your body is constantly sweating and you’re sticky already ten minutes after showering… ugh. So, this week was trying, to say the least. Air temperature slowly converged towards body temperature, finally exceeding it today with 39°C, all the while with a humidity of at least 60%. People cope with the heat by staying indoors – a majority of the buildings here has airconditioning now – and go out only in the morning or early evening. House owners around here often wet the streets in front of their houses – which does provide some temporary relief at least, but unfortunately does not help with the humidity.

Me? I have changed some of my habits.

Firstly, am taking cold showers now. Cold meaning 37°C instead of my usual 42°. It helps insofar as I am not emerging from the shower giving off hot steam, so I believe it helps with the sweating for a short while.

Secondly, I have to say that I’m not enthousiastic of electric fans, and in fact I am quite happy that Ebisu’s doesn’t have airconditioning. However, when on Tuesday night at 10 pm the temperature was still up at 30°C, I reluctantly retrieved the fan for the first time to help me fall asleep that night, and I’ve been using it ever since. Of course, I keep the windows open now at all times, but unfortunately, as Kyoto is enclosed by mountains on three sides, there is not much of a cooling breeze coming up the hill here.

Finally, I have taken to flee the house in the afternoons. My room faces West, and while this offers perfect views of beautiful sunsets ranging from pale pink to flaming orange, it also means that the sun heats my room like a furnace from about 2 pm until the sun sets. I leave the house at around 2:30 to look for a cooler abode. The university, with its airconditioned lounge and library is only ten minutes away. However, in this weather I prefer to be outside, and thank goodness, just between the house and the university there is Yoshida shrine, dedicated to the university, by the way. Its numerous buildings are dotting the hillside and there are many trees and shadowy spots. It is quiet and comparatively cool, and I go there to read, write, and study until they close in the early evening. So far, nobody has minded me sitting there, and I think I’ll go there regularly as it the closest and most convenient spot.

Cash flow

There is a certain problem appearing on the horizon, and its name is cash flow. No, I’m not out of money and I won’t be for quite a while – benefits of having lived frugally all these years – it’s just that there may be difficulties in accessing any of it. Japan, although so modern and industrialized, is still a cash society. I have written about this before, and also about the problems you may have finding an ATM accepting foreign issued cards.

Adding insult to injury, on April 19th, 2013, the Japanese banks have maestro logodecided to upgrade the security system of ATM’s, thus affecting all non-Asia issued cards with the Maestro logo insofar as it will not be possible to withdraw money. Here is the announcement from Master card’s homepage:

To: Cardholders of Maestro-branded EMV Cards issued outside of the Asia/Pacific Region
Re: Temporary Suspension of Maestro ATM Acceptance in Japan

Thank you very much for patronage with MasterCard. All Maestro-branded EMV cards issued outside of the Asia/Pacific region are temporarily unable to withdraw currency at domestic ATMs, while the regional ATM network is upgraded.

However, Maestro-branded EMV cards issued in the following countries are able to withdraw currency at domestic ATMs.

  • Netherlands
  • Canada

Maestro-branded EMV cards issued within the Asia/Pacific Region, Maestro-branded cards without EMV chip, MasterCard-branded cards, and Cirrus-branded cards are not affected by this temporary suspension of service. Cardholders can continue to be able to use these other MasterCard products at ATMs and merchants across Japan.

MasterCard is working with these customer financial institutions to enable full acceptance of all cards as soon as possible.

Please accept our deep apology for the inconvenience caused.

This means that not a single one of my Europe-issued bank cards will work here on any ATM for an unknown (undisclosed?) period of time. Rejoice, oh gaijin! Slightly panicking, I have contacted my bank. They confirmed the above statement but claimed that highly frequented ATM’s were unaffected, like those in shopping centres.

As I am not out of cash just yet – and it’s always better to withdraw a larger amount of money when abroad – I have not tried one of those yet, but will have to soon, I’m sure. We’ll see how it goes. In the worst case I can always get cash using my credit card – to steeper fees, of course.




Yesterday was the seventh day of the seventh month, which is the day when the Tanabata festival takes place. The legend tells of two lovers, Orihime (represented by Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair), who have to live all year separated by the Milky Way, and are only allowed to meet for one single night – on the seventh day of the seventh month. A very touching story indeed… The date of course refers to the lunar calender, and in some places (Sendai for example), it is still celebrated then. It seems to be a very local festival, with varying types of celebrations, often even depending on the participating shrine. A fixed part of the festivities everywhere is to write a wish onto a piece of paper and tie it to one of the bamboo trees that are set up at shrines, and pray to the gods for the fulfillment of the wishes. Never short of things I want, I went to Shiramine shrine, because the ceremony there has an extra feature…bamboo tree with wishes written on paper

It was an especially nice ceremony indeed. It was performed by three Shinto priests of different ranks, with incantations in front of the shrine in the beginning. Then, at the raised platform in the center of the precincts, a quartet of musicians (one koto and three types of wind instruments I couldn’t quite make out) began to play a tune that can be described as … odd, at least to Western ears. They accompanied a group of four shrine maidens, elaborately dressed, with fans and headgear, who performed a dance in honour of the deity. I am quite sure every single movement had a specific meaning, but of course, it was completely lost on me.shrine maidens performing a sacred dance

After the dance, the ceremony continued and once again, a small number of (most certainly paying) participants could take part in the ritual offering of paper and green branches to the deity. Some more chanting concluded the ceremony.

The interesting bit here was a person with a microphone telling the spectators – and also the participants – what would happen next, when they had to stand, bow, and were allowed to sit again. It reminded me very much of the priests in our churches who, at weddings, funerals and the like, have to guide their hapless sheep in a quite similar manner…

Anyway, at the end of the ceremony, the fun feature began. Shiramine is the shrine where people go to pray for luck – in various ball games, especially soccer. Usually, a shrine receives offerings for the  gods to grant a wish and when they have done so. And here, there are many footballs of all sizes offered, often with a note or signature written on them, and they are displayed. It gives the shrine an appearance very different from all the others with their large stacks of sake barrels!

So, the fun feature at Shiramine shrine every year at the Tanabata festival is the playing of the ball game called Kemari, where eight players, men and women, wonderfully dressed in old court costumes and black leather shoes, play kick up with a white ball made from deer skin, which had just been blessed in the preceding ceremony. It was very hot and humid yesterday, and the players’ clothing with its several layers and endless sleeves and hakama must have been incredibly hot indeed, but the obvious and genuine fun the players had in the game made it extra fun to watch too. When the game was over, some of the spectators were invited to try kick ups as well, which I thought was a very nice move.kemari ball game

I went home then, bought some sweet bread and a chocolate milk and took a break on a shadowy bench at the river. It was a wonderful day.


I love sweets. Always did. My favourite is chocolate of course, milk chocolate to be precise. My approach is more gourmand than gourmet, but being a woman I can at least point to scientific studies indicating I need it for both my health and my happiness…

Anyway, it seems that Asian people have a different approach to sweets. First of all, the idea of dessert is all but unknown. If any is offered, it is mostly assorted fruit, or you can pick up some candy when paying. Second, chocolate does not appear to be very popular here. Yes, there are a number of Japanese brands, but I haven’t seen anything beyond dark-milk-white unless imported. There are chocolate cookies, chocolate covered nuts and the like, but it appears that the Japanese are more fond of salty snacks. To be fair, eating chocolate in summer is a rather sticky experience, and I am not a big fan of eating it straight out of the fridge, although I will in times of great need. Nowadays there are many bakeries selling bread and cakes, but very often they are of a rather spongy quality which makes them all taste the same after a while.

Of course, there are traditional Japanese sweets, and many a festive occasion is celebrated by making special sweets that are to be eaten only then. For example, New Year’s Day requires eating a rather special type of sticky mochi.

Mochi are little balls of sticky rice dough, mixed with a tremendous amount of sugar and often coated in some as well. They are soft to the touch, have a somewhat chewy consistency and come essentially in three flavours: plain (white), cherry (pink), and green tea (green), where the latter is the most widely available, and I think tastes the best. From this mochi dough, other sweets are derived, and I have recently been given those daifuku, perfectly packed in a beautiful presentation box: daifuku in box and with a bite out to show the anko fillingThey were maybe four centimetres in diameter and consisted of some mochi dough a few millimeters thick on the outside. They were filled with anko, red bean paste, which is very sweet – when enough sugar is added. To be honest, I don’t like the taste very much, but sometimes, when the paste is the smooth one, with the husks of the beans removed, I find it tolerable enough. The ones shown here were comparatively hard on the outside, very different from the unfilled mochi, but the reason could be that I ate them close to the expiration date and all the water that makes the mochi so soft may have been gone already. I had them for breakfast, and it always surprises me how long you are satisfied after only one or two of them.

If you have the opportunity to try daifuku, do so – but be warned of the red bean paste, it’s not to everybody’s liking…


chocolate cakesI had a terrible day yesterday and I’m still not feeling any better. I have no idea what triggered feeling down (it’s not homesickness, I’m sure), but that it rained all day yesterday surely didn’t help.

At least the weather has improved a bit today.

I need more chocolate.