Holy crap! That was without a doubt the biggest festival I’ve seen since I came to Japan. And I got to be a part of it. Awesome.
To start off, I should mention that although the Gion Matsuri’s main event took place this Sunday, there are actually smaller events held for nearly two weeks both before and after. That being said, this weekend was pure insanity.
Starting off on Friday night I headed downtown with the intention of studying for finals, figuring I might peek my head out every now and then to see what was going on with regards to the festival. I figured that there would be little more than music being played from those gigantic mikoshi until Sunday’s parade.
Oh, how wrong I was.
What I found was that somehow enough people to occupy Tokyo managed to pack themselves into the streets of downtown, which had been completely closed off to all through traffic. The baiten (“street stalls”) that are so characteristic of Japanese matsuri, usually filling up the small area inside a shrine, went absolutely as far as the eye could see. And not just along the main streets either, but onto every little side street and alley. The energy was amazing.
On top of this, a huge percentage of the people were fully dressed in kimono or yukata. And I’m not talking about the plain kimono that little old ladies walk around in from day to day, I’m talking the bright, expensive ones, hair done all up, make-up, the works. And even those who weren’t dressed in traditional clothes were definately dressed to impress. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many gorgeous women in such a short span of time.
When I first arrived I spent nearly 30 minutes trying to find a place to park my bicycle – all of the usual spots were swamped. Assuming that I could leave it in a small alley, I kept on venturing further and further south of the main area. But no matter how far I went or how small of a street I looked down there were always vendors calling out “irasshaimase” and groups of people enjoying cold beers or sake along the sidelines. Eventually I carried it down to the kamogawa riverbank and parked it under a bridge. I decided that this would be a good time to contact the other guys back at the dorm and convince them to come down too. Everyone had been planning to spend the evening finishing up their kenkyuu projects, but with a single text message I convinced them to head down for “No more than an hour.” It was a good four hours before they could tear themselves away.
But even when they all took off I still couldn’t bare to leave, so I met up with Naomi and walked back to the now fully ornamented Iwatoyama mikoshi (the one we helped build) before finally starting the ride back home. It’s amazing how tiring it is just being outside in this extreme humidity. Naomi said that right around now, the time of the Gion matsuri, is as bad as it gets. I sure as hell hope so, because it-is-intense.
Now, fast forward to Sunday. We woke up at 6am to find that the weather was as perfect as it could be for a day of dragging several tons of wood half way across the city of Kyoto. Our float, one of the “yama”-class mikoshi, is among the largest sixteen of the ninety-something shrines that would participate in the Grand Procession, and one of the most famous. We quickly got changed into our traditional garb and rice-grass sandals and the pull was underway.
The act of pulling itself, while far from easy, was not nearly as difficult as I’d expected due to the fact that over fifty people were working to move the wooden behemoth. More interesting was to see how it turned – for small adjustments a wooden wedge would be shoved under one of the front wheels causing it to “skip” a bit to one side or the other. I would’ve been freaked if I were one of the people riding on the roof – such adjustments provided quite a jolt, and those guys were well over two stories up.
For 90-degree turns the process was a bit more difficult. First, the shrine would be pulled out into the middle of the intersection. Smooth bamboo husks are placed in front of the wheels to form a semicircle marking the turn-path for the front wheels. The shrine is then pulled forwards onto the moistened husks, the pullers swing the huge ropes around to the side, and drag it over the husks, sliding the front wheels sideways to complete the turn. It’s pretty amazing to see such a massive structure being dragged horizontally with a deep creaking moan, followed by the applause of thousands of spectators.
That was perhaps the coolest element of being a part of the procession. In truth, the procession itself was insanely slow and taxing due to the humidity, but everywhere we went, every turn we made, every time we started or stopped the shrine, people around would applause and give us cheers of “ganbare,” ask us for pictures, even offer us cold drinks while we made our short stops to wait for the ceremony to take place two stories above. Geisha were everywhere, and those who weren’t geisha might as well have been considering how they were dressed. It was great.
And speaking of Geisha, today’s festival offered another entirely unexpected surprise. Prior to starting the parade, I met a couple of other gaijin who I chatted with for a bit before separating to our pulling positions. As soon as we had done so, Dylan taps me on the shoulder. “Dude, you know that guy you were just talking to? That other gaijin? F*CKING PETER MACINTOSH!”
Peter Macintosh is a legend among those with an interest in Japanese culture. Since 1993 he has become the only gaijin to ever gain full access to the secret world of the geisha. He works with them, lives with them, socializes with them, and is the only one ever to be allowed to escort one out of Japan. He was issued a special license from the Japanese government to do so. When he showed up this morning, he smelled of alcohol and was complaining about a hangover from the night before. We later learned that the drinking took place at a party with his friends, the geisha. Such an experience would cost the average person, Japanese or not, as much as $1,500 for a few hours (not an exaggeration: check out the price list on his website). All day, whenever the parade would pass a geisha or maiko, he would greet them by name and they would do the same. He knew them all. Wow.
After the procession ended we were once again provided with fabulous obento, beer, and Nihon-shuu before beginning the ride home. I write to you now at 10pm, having just woken up from an hour-long nap and receiving an e-mail from one of our teachers saying that she saw us on a live TV special about the Gion Matsuri.
What a day.
Late Addition: Here’s a video of Friday night’s festivities, AND Sunday’s procession (including official footage of yours truly).