July 17th is festival day in Kyoto – “Gion Matsuri”. It’s the biggest festival of the summer and one of the biggest of the year. The guide book says it dates back to the ninth century when it originated as a ceremony to stave off plague during the summer months. Well, it’s not every day you’re nearby for the biggest Kyoto festival…
Last night’s arrival wasn’t the best: it took ages to find the hotel (even though it was just 10m from the east side; there is an art to exiting Japanese train stations which I haven’t yet mastered), the hotel had no information on the festival and – the last straw – the hotel did not have broadband (a first in Japan) to allow me look it up.
Eventually, I figure it starts around 9am somewhere near Yakasa Shrine. Lucky for me really: it could have been 5am (like in Fukuoka, where the bed of the Grand Hyatt was so much more appealing) or 5pm, in which case I needn’t have bothered coming to Kyoto an evening early and staying in that crappy hotel.
Anyway, in a Herculean feat of …sleepiness, I arrive at Yasaka Shrine at 9.15; there is no activity. I ask a passerby; I wish I hadn’t. Eventually, I wander out and the friendly shopkeeper asks if I want the parade rather than the shrine? Correct!
There’s one or two people there already.
It’s a little St. Patrick’s Day (from March 17th to July 17th) but with less girl guides, brass bands and more…rustic transport in place of the tractors. I never quite work out what these floats are: they’re almost like street-cars (trams, in Europe) but really crap street-cars that are too tall and lurch about all over the place and require twenty men to turn them round to take a corner.
This, in fact, is the main thrust of the parade: watching them turn these contraptions: they’re pulled by about twenty young men and to take a corner the wheels have to be placed on planks and brakes applied and ropes pulled…it’s very complicated. A bit of an art form, like so many things here.
I don’t understand the significance of anything (a recurring theme on my trip) but it is good fun, probably in much the same way that St. Patrick’s Day is fun for a while too.
One last observation: it’s very nice being the tallest person in the crowd…but some resourceful locals are prepared for that…