Monday, 18 July 2011

Reminiscences of Summer in Japan: Gion Matsuri

One way that Japanese people distract themselves from the fatigue and stifling heat of summer is by going to matsuri or festivals. Many festivals, which often date back far into Japanese history, are held in various locations across Japan during the summer from national celebrations such as July's Tanabata Matsuri celebrating the annual union of two mystic lovers in the night sky to local matsuri like Aomori's Nebuta Festival where huge illuminated floats are paraded through the streets. In Kyōto the famous Gion Matsuri is celebrated throughout July with various events. However, the most popular are the Yamaboko Junko procession and the three festive Yoiyama evenings preceding the parade.

In 2006 I spent the month of July travelling around Japan which included a stay in Kyoto at the time of Yoiyama. During the day the district of Gion was alive with tourists and visitors filing along the pavements of Shijo-dori to the sound of the jangling bells that usually accompany the Yamaboko floats being piped through speakers outside the street's traditional shops and department stores. The matsuri is a busy time for the area's geisha too. During the evening it was easy to spot geiko and maiko in elaborate kimono as they flitted from teahouse to teahouse or bid their guests goodnight in the narrow backstreets of Gion and neighbouring Pontochō. I even managed to spot a young maiko during the day as she shopped, unmistakeable even off-duty in her expensive kimono and lacquered hairstyle, at the Takashimaya department store.

On the evenings of 14th, 15th and 16th (known as Yoiyama, Yoiyoiyama and Yoiyoiyoiyama respectively) many streets in the Shijo Muromachi area are closed to traffic and fill with festival-goers who come to view the Yamaboko floats festooned with lanterns and enjoy the foods like yakisoba  and takoyaki from the many temporary stalls. Most people dress in yukata during the festival evenings especially young girls who crowd the photobooths of nearby games centres to pose with their friends.  It is also possible to see ancient antiques and family treasures as some homes display their heirlooms for passersbys to view as part of the Byobu Matsuri which coincides with Yoiyama. The Yoiyama evenings are so popular that many of the streets were packed tight with people making it difficult to move freely but this is all part of the matsuri experience. Festivals such as this are an excellent chance to experience Japanese traditional culture first hand and witness how it is still celebrated and treasured in the present day.

This video really captures the noise, sights and atmosphere of Yoiyama at Gion Matsuri:

This article has been submitted to Japan Blog Matsuri August 2011 for the theme 'Summer Lovin'.


Very nice, and the photos are gorgeous!

Thank you superhappyawesome! I really enjoyed Gion Matsuri, there was such a festive atmosphere.

Hi, looks great! I was just wondering where abouts the homes are that open their doors as part of Byobu Matsuri? I'm going to be in Kyoto this July and can't wait!

Hi, thanks for commenting.
I couldn't remember exactly where the houses that take part in the Byobu Matsuri were, I think we just happened across them whilst wandering around the stalls, but I had a bit of a look online and the consensus seems to be that they are on Shinmachi-Dori and Muromachi-Dori. Sorry I couldn't be more specific but I'm sure that you'll find them - just head for the streets that are packed full of people!
Have a great time at the matsuri.

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