It’s that time of the year again when warmer days start to hum as Kyoto gears up for one of the biggest and important summer festivals in Japan – the Gion Matsuri. which starts and ends in the month of July.
Although I’ve been travelling to Japan for over 30 years I experienced my first Gion Matsuri in 2012. I was living in Kyoto at the time and despite the incredible build up by all and sundry, I wasn’t disappointed – the festival was stupendous. I particularly loved the grand parade of floats – always held on July 17.
Here’s a link with more information – GION MATSURI
And here’s a little more on Matsuri generally, including the Gion Matsuri, from me over on SBS FOOD.
Just stepping a little to the side for one moment if I may – If you do choose to visit Kyoto during the sweltering, dehumanising summer it’s reassuring to know there are many culturally significant and stunning events taking place to distract you from potential spontaneous combustion. Trust me, it is THAT hot!
And – a word of warning – you won’t be able to sleep without the aid of air con so I’d highly recommend a good hotel or , if doing the apartment thing make sure they are hooked up with a working air conditioning unit. You WILL thank me for this. Kyoto summer nights are as still as the dead, the humidity so strong it’s like trying to breath under water and many AC-less folk wake around 3 or 4 am gasping for breath. I know – why would you NOT have AC? but many traditional homes and some apartments do not .
In one place I lived I’d resorted to sleeping without a thread of cotton between myself and the burning air – instead protecting my delicate skin with a strategic blanketing of icepaks and at my sides, two purposefully directed electric fans.. Beneath me for just a few nights was a foil ‘cool mat’ but when my ingenious ‘cooling system’ transformed the bedroom into a fan- forced oven with me the meat, basting in my own juices and seasoned with the salt of my sweat – I decided to read the instructions on the box. The ‘cool mat’ apparently only worked in sub 30C temperatures – which was NEVER! Let’s talk 40C plus all day and night. If the temperature rose above 30C the mat would start to reverse its cooling effects. My partner joked that ‘all we needed was some olive oil, garlic and rosemary’. I’m yet to find it funny.
..getting back to some of the more positive aspects of a Kyoto summer please find below The Gion Matsuri in all its glory – for your viewing pleasure. (oh and if you go along to the daytime float parade make sure you take sunscreen, a hat, a paper fan and most importantly – a bottle or two of water. . truly – you can dehydrate very quickly ! be warned)
Some of the festival highlights including the building of floats which you can witness for a few days before the 3 night evening festival to show off the finished floats (yoiyoiyoi yama on the 14th July, yoiyoi yama on 15 July and it all culminates in the crush of yoiyama on the 16th) before the morning of the 17th when the floats are paraded through the streets of Kyoto by some very fit and healthy men, of all ages, who do their best not to expire in the sweltering sun.
During the 3 night “viewing parties” the streets are filled with generations of folk, from far and wide, dressed in colourful summer Yukata (a very light “kimono” or long Happi coat like outfit). Many shops are open until late, the streets are lined with stalls of cooling food and drinks, music, chanting, games, souveniers and an energy that is very un-Kyoto in many ways. People aren’t as reserved as usual (let’s remember they have come from all over Japan) and all outwardly happy and excited to be sharing and quite literally rubbing shoulders with one another.
Its a must do if you are in Kyoto however if you don’t do crowds well – choose the earlier 2 of the 3 nights. We went on the 2nd night and I loved it for the first couple of hours but as the crowds swelled and I no longer had any control of the direction I was heading and the heat increased dramatically and the sweat was pouring off me… I’d had enough and retreated to a late night cafe for sustenance and air conditioning. Here’s a taste of what to expect.
Iced cucumber really is very refreshing
Most prominent and patronised stalls of the festival?… anything of the cold beer variety ( not being much of a beer drinker I was happy to stumble across a mighty fine frozen mojito – and for just a few hundred yen ( equal to about $5.00 – they were a steal… I really should have had more than one come to think of it but there’s no chance in hell I could have navigated my way back to that little stand again ….)
The view when standing at the intersection of Karasuma Shijo – above looking south towards Kyoto station down Karasuma and below – looking west along shijo dori – just to give you an idea of how many people were there when it was less busy….
Boy were those cooks earning their yen in that heat…
Kakigori – shaved ice with brightly coloured syrupy toppings was available on every corner – albeit the cheapie, festival variety – a good kakigori is something completely different – there will be a post on that shortly.
An intriguing way to buy a pet…. just catch your own
And one couple who were clearly ready to go home…. I wasn’t expecting to find these beauties on inspection of a small temple
The parade of floats on the 17th is absolutely worth attending – if only for a couple of hours because again, the sun and heat is only bearable for a certain time – remember to do what you need to do to stay cool!