Play time

Kitty and Gil came over to play at our new place today, though poor little Gil was sickly (as you can see from his rather unusually non-genki and even tearful face). As there is not really much to do in our house, I took them over to the playground at the corner of Nijo Castle. Surprisingly there was lots to do, including modern swings and climbing frame, and even a pond filled with crayfish. After lashings of doughnuts and ice-candy we spent a good hour making strange faces on Apple Photo Booth, which Kitty loved.

30 07 09 - 07:07 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Lanterns and dumplings

Amongst the more official lanterns of the Mitarashi, there were a few created by children. I especially liked the Doraemon, Pikachu and Totoro designs. They add an air of homeliness to the festival. After drying off our feet we cycled to a famous restaurant nearby and ate warm mitarashi dango (sweet rice dumplings). I remember eating kakigori (shaved ice) here with Etsuyo a few years ago, though tonight it seemed especially busy. Mitarashi dango is a stick of five rice dumplings with sweet sauce in the shape of a man (?). The traditional sweet was originally created at the Shimogamo. Legend has it that when Emperor Godaigo (1288-1339) scooped up a handful of water from the Mitarashi Pond, a bubble floated to the surface and after a short interval four more. Mitarasahi dango was created to resemble these five bubbles. Shinto priests also make offerings of mitarashi dango during this festival.

Coming out of the restaurant we were stopped by the odd sight of city officials practicing traffic organisation for the upcoming visit by one of the Emperor's sons.

22 07 09 - 00:22 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Screens

A selection of Ninna-ji's many painted screens.

22 07 09 - 00:16 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Wading at the Shimogamo

The waters of the Mitarashi pond were very cold, and having hitched up our shorts to wade we found ourselves juggling bags, cameras and candles which refused to stay lit. 200 yen gets you a candle, which you light at one of the small side shrines and then carry to the stands set up before the Mitarashi shrine. Climbing the steps to temporary tents, you pop your shoes back on, wash your hands and drink a cupful of water handed to you by volunteers. The practice of walking in the water harks back misogi, an act of purification and washing away bad luck. Nowadays people wash their hands and mouth out only. Families pray for their well-being at the shrine and depart.

22 07 09 - 00:11 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Mitarashi Festival

Each year, shortly after the Gion Parade has finished, the Shimogamo Shrine holds the Mitarashi Festival. As it is so close to the exhausting Yoiyama, I have never felt inclined to struggle through yet more crowds of people but thought I should experience it at least once. It appears the gods were not on our side, as each attempt at leaving the house brought with it torrential rain and thunder storms, forcing us back indoors. The 21st is the last day of the festival, so despite the gloomy sky and persistent showers Misako and Moko came to pick me up and we cycled through the unseasonably cool city to park in the Forest of Truth (Tadasu-no-Mori) that circles the shrine.

The Mitarashi festival, a ritual of foot bathing, begins on the day of Doyoo-no-Ushi (this year the 18th, though the festival continues through to the 21st), which is 18 days before the first day of autumn (in the traditional lunar calendar). There is a belief that people have good health if they bathe their feet in the Mitarashi pond in front of the Mitarashi shrine which enshrines the God who removes plague and misfortune. The pond is usually dry and is filled especially for this occasion. Mitarashi dates back to the Heian period.

There are dedicated lanterns and many night vendors in and along the approach to the shrine in the Tadasu-no-mori. On the night before the first day of autumn, another summer ritual is conducted. Fifty sticks of sakaki tree (a sakaki tree is generally dedicated to a god) are stocked in the Mitarashi pond, and human shaped paper is place on top of the water. At the same time, naked men jump into the water and fight over the sticks. Since the sticks look like arrows, this ritual is also called 'the taking an arrow ritual', and the sight of the naked men, paper flying in the air, and the splashing water is a very well known and popular summer event.

Yes, I absolutely want to see this!

22 07 09 - 00:10 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Tonbo

Our front garden seems to have become a paradise for dragonflies (tonbo). This one was scared of the camera at first, but after awhile allowed me to creep quite close to the front gate. As I was going inside I spotted a smaller yellow one resting by the kitchen window. A nice change from mosquitoes, dango-mushi and wasps.

22 07 09 - 00:10 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The gods are here

And with this post the Gion Matsuri marathon is at an end. So back to summer and cooler (though not literally) adventures.

18 07 09 - 02:11 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

32 floats

Moso-yama: The float has an ink textile painting of moso bamboo shuddering in the breeze. It is the only black and white work among all the the festival textiles. The metalwork on the float, depicting 15 kinds of birds and turtles, was completed by prominent Meiji period (1868-1912) artists.

Hosho-yama: The deity of the float, holding the flowering branch of a plum tree, is wooing the woman he favors. One of the textiles is a famous embroidery piece that has been skillfully restored in recent years. A sketch of the embroidery work is incorporated into a folding screen that is shown to the public during Yoiyama. The organisation for this float sells special love knot amulets every year.

Iwato-yama: The float has all the characteristics of the larger hoko floats, including wheels and a roof. A rare statue of a Shinto deity of the founder of Japan straddles the roof of the float. The ceiling is decorated with chrysanthemums, Mongolian flowers and other motifs on gold foil. The float body is decorated with fine carpets from India and China.

Fune-boko: The float looks like a boat. The front of the float is decorated with a famous imaginary bird. The helm section is covered in black lacquer and decorated with shellfish work, and the ceiling has a graceful flower painting. The float has a red and white flag, and streamers that add a sense of festive atmosphere.

Hoka-boko: The float underwent a major restoration in the Meiji period. Starting from 1929 the float stage has featured a dancing chigo (sacred festival child) puppet. The float also has valuable flower motif carpets from India and Persia.

Tsuki-boko: The float is known as the 'moving museum'. Decorated with some of the finest craft work in the festival, the metal decorations are especially noteworthy. It also features a splendid carved white rabbit, a special ceiling painting of a scene from the Heian period novel, the Tale of Genji, and other valuable decorations.

Kikusui-boko: A large golden chrysanthemum flower adorns the top of the float. The float was destroyed by fire in 1864 and rebuilt in 1952. All the decorations were faithfully recreated by skilled Showa period craftsmen. New decorations are added year by year.

Niwatori-boko: One of the float tapestries dates from the 16th century and was made in Belgium. The other textiles include great works by Edo period painters, and carpets from Persia and India. The overall effect is an exotic fusion of Japanese and Western beauty.

Kanko-boko: Known for its elegant tapestry, the float's ceiling also has a realistic painting of a rooster and hen. It is decorated with textiles from India, China and Korea. One of them is a copy of hand writing by the great Buddhist monk and saint, Kobo Daishi, dating from the Heian period. Another of the tapestries is of 16th century Belgian origin.

Naginata-boko: The float is always first in the grand parade. The name of the float comes from the huge naginata pike pole on the top of the float which is believed to drive away evil. The sacred child (chigo) on the float cuts the shimenawa rope to signal the start of the parade. The chigo also performs a special festival dance. The float is decorated with fine carvings, metalwork, paintings on the ceiling and textiles from Persia and China.

18 07 09 - 02:06 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Do not swim here

Rhod, Omar, Kou, Andy and Omar at the Hozugawa.

18 07 09 - 02:06 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The marching gods

Hakurakuten-yama: The main tapestry on the float (of 16th century Belgian origin) shows Troy after the fall. The sides of the float feature textiles from China and France.

Taishi-yama: The float is the only one in the festival to use the Japanese cedar as its symbol. The textile on the front is an embroidered work from a Chinese palace, and the textile on the back is constructed from pieces of formal Chinese court costumes. The float also features Indian embroidery and metal decorations shaped like dragons, rabbits and birds.

Tokusa-yama: The float is based on the play Tokusa by Zeami (1363-1443). The play is about an old man who was kidnapped by his young son. The float deity is a representation of an old man holding a sickle in his right hand and cut grass in his left. The fine metal decoration on the side of the float, showing a dragon in the centre with bats on either side, was done in 1831. The tassel metalwork features figures of rabbits.

Aburatenjin-yama: The float features a red torii gate and an auspicious red plum tree and pine tree. The metal decorations on the side of the float, in the shape of oxen and plum trees, were made in 1833. There is also a painting dating from 1815, that depicts members of the imperial court at leisure. In recent years, textiles featuring auspicious red and white plum blossoms have been added to the float.

Ashikari-yama: The deity of the float is an old man wearing a reproduction of the oldest clothes of the entire festival (the originals are no longer used). Most of the textiles feature Japanese dye work. The main textile, based on a haori jacket worn by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) was recently added.

Hakuga-yama: The deity on the float looks angry, but is actually sad. The entire structure is Chinese in style. The textiles depict scenes of ancient Chinese people in natural scenes.

Kakkyo-yama: The float has an unusual structure featuring chigakushi (decoration on the rim of the floorboards) and a unique hi-oi shoji roof. Most other yama floats have umbrellas or shrines, but this float has a roof said to date from the mid Edo period.

Araretenjin-yama: Rebuilt in 1714, the side walls and back wall are see-through fence structures decorated with relief work (narcissus flowers and mandarin ducks). Inside the fence stand young pine trees, a pair of sacred sakaki trees, and two auspicious red plum trees. The front tapestry (16th century Belgian) shows a scene from the Iliad.

Yamabushi-yama: The float shows how intertwined Shinto and Buddhism became in Japan. The deity of the float is a legendary yamabushi (Buddhist mountain monk) who straightened a leaning pagoda at Hokan-ji Temple. The float has excellent textile decorations. The tassels in this float are unique because they hang from the centre of the textiles.

Urade-yama: The deity of the float is the ancient goddess of safe child birth. If the float appears near the beginning of the float order, it is said that children in that year will be delivered easily. The deity is said to have a large wardrobe as so many costumes have been donated by people who have had her blessing. The textiles decorating the float show the three most famous scenic spots in Japan.

18 07 09 - 02:01 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Hozukyo

The Hozu Gorge is incredibly beautiful, filled with dragonflies, giant tadpoles and blue-tailed lizards, but the latest visit has made me think that soon the curve in the river may be threatened. Never before have I seen so much litter from Summer visitors, nor so much erosion from the trampling feet of the white water rafters. Abandoned barbeques and camping equipment give the impression that the area is becoming far too easily accessible, decaying in the most human of ways. For a country as neat and tidy as Japan, there is a shocking disregard for mountain areas. Out of sight out of mind you might say. Long the dumping ground for the more odious of our kind, I genuinely feel that the government should be putting more effort into conserving the area and less money on keep out signs and barbed wire. There are clearly double standards at work here. It is ok for white-water rafters to do as they wish, but bathers are unwelcome. At the root of this I believe is money and money that should go back into beautifying a magnificent valley.

18 07 09 - 02:00 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Cymbals, drums and flutes

In no particular order, over the next few posts I will describe the various floats using 'Kyoto Gion Matsuri Festival Photo Collection' by Mitsumura Suiko Shoin Publishing Co., Ltd. (Shimada Takashi) as the reference guide.

Hachiman-yama: The Hachiman shrine is covered in gold foil. It was built between 1781-1788. The shrine torii gate has a pigeon on it. The decorations on the side of the float date from 1838. A valuable folding screen showing the festival in ancient times is displayed where the float is based.

Suzuka-yama: The female deity of the float, wearing a gold eboshi hat and mask, holds a large pike pole in her hand. There is a sacred pine tree on the float decorated with many wooden ema amulets. Various auspicious symbols (jewels, torii shrine gate, etc.) are painted on wooden ema votive boards. After the parade the amulets are sold to the public (they help prevent theft).

Ennogyoja-yama: The float has three deities and two large red umbrellas. The metal decorations on the corner tassels and sides of the float body are unique. The textiles are from China.

Kuronushi-yama: The deity on the float, made in the Edo period (1630-1867) and wearing valuable Edo period costumes, is looking up at cherry blossoms. Many of the textiles are from China. The artificial cherry flowers decorating the float (given away after the parade) are said to have the same properties as the chimaki amulets the festival is famous for.

Jomyo-yama: The float features a reproduction of a famous battle scene from the Heike Monotagari chronicle. To hold the dolls, it has a special arrangement of pins. A rare set of armor that one of the dolls used to wear is now preserved. The float also has valuable carvings of wave-motif patterns and velvet textiles.

Koi-yama: The float is based on the Chinese legend about a carp that attempts to climb a steep waterfall to become a dragon. The float features an amazing wooden carp and wave decorations. The textiles all come from a single large, 16th century Belgium tapestry.

Hashibenkei-yama: The float shows the famous battle between the child warrior Ushiwakamaru and Benkei on Kyoto's Gojo Bridge at the end of the Heian Period (794-1185). A reproduction of the bridge in black lacquer is used as the float stage.

Minamikannon-yama: Always the last float in the parade every year. The textiles show flying nymphs, dragons and other mythical creatures. A precious silk carpet from Persia and many valuable costumes also belong to the float.

Kitakannon-yama: The float has an array of gorgeous textiles, metalwork and roof decorations donated by a rich merchant in the neighbourhood where the float is based.

Shijokasa-boko: Known as the kasa-hoko, the float has one of the oldest designs, last rebuilt in the Showa period (1923-1988). The float features sacred paper decorations and a young pine tree. Eight pairs of children (music conductors and players) accompany the float and perform music and dance (the Kenketo folk dance which developed in Kyoto in the Muromachi period 1336-1568).

Toro-yama: Toro is the old word for mantis. Called kamakiri in modern Japanese, a wooden windup praying mantis stands on the roof of the float. The heads, arms and wings move. The colorful decorations are all exquisite examples of yuzen (hand painted) textiles, famed in Kyoto.

Ayagasa-boko: The float has two big umbrellas, musicians, and a conductor, called a bofuri, wearing a fantastic red shaguma wig. The vigorous action of the conductor keeps evil away. Some of the people accompanying the float dance to the music (bells, drums and whistle). The float was not part of the parade for a long time but was restored and has appeared since 1979.

18 07 09 - 01:54 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Taking the plunge

Who would have guessed it? A year after disappearing from these shores, the Rhodrivocous has been spotted yet again, floating in the shallows of the Hozu River. As the creature star-jumps playfully from the rocks, it seems most interested in the tourists and paddles out to greet them. Bathing on the rocky shore, it is a welcome sight and gives us hope that the species may yet thrive here.

18 07 09 - 00:35 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Oike-Shinmachi

You guessed it...more photos of the parade. The turns are undoubtedly fun to watch, but frustratingly slow. As the men have been pulling and turning the floats for more than three hours they are clearly tired by the time they reach us. The music drills so far into my head that I will be singing it for days! But sweet relief, the weather is cooling down as rain approaches. Kana thinks the rain is a bad thing, I never leave the house without a mini umbrella so think 'bring it on'. Good times.

18 07 09 - 00:33 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Don't you rain on my parade

As seems to be typical of parade day, the skies were grey and the air muggy, so the photos are less than brilliant. After about an hour of standing (pushing and complaining at rude tourists pushing in front of us) we managed to get a seat on the curb which made taking photographs easier and our legs happier.

18 07 09 - 00:27 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Introducing the gods

On the day of the parade (17th July) the chigo* child of the Naginata-boko departs from Shijo Kawaramachi at 9am and cuts the shimenawa rope with a sword to start the parade at Shijo Sakaimachi. A little west of Shijo Sakaimachi, the Kuji Aratame (confirming the order of the floats) is held and the area seethes with people.

From about 9:40, the first of the amazing tsujimawashi (turning the floats around corners) begins. Tsujimawashi, with Gion bayashi festival music played loudly in the background, takes place at Shijo Muromachi, Shijo Kawaramachi, Kawaramachi Oike and Oike Shinmachi. The huge carts have no steering mechanism so turning corners is a major operation. The front wheels are bound tight so that they jam, after which the cart is pulled sideways over wet bamboo slats. This is both a time-consuming and dangerous operation.

Kana and I joined the crowds at the corner of Oike Shinmachi. As the last turn before home, it is one of the better places to view the parade. The floats squeezing down narrow Shinmachi, where many traditional houses still stand, is quite something. It is at this intersection that the chigo is carried from the Naginata-boko to much frantic ceremony, his role now finished. There are, however, three hours of parade remaining.
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18 07 09 - 00:22 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The curve in the river

The curve in the river below the Hozukyo station has become a steadfast summertime friend. The bank has eroded since last we were here, and the rain seems to have brought more rubbish into our midst, but the scenery is as beautiful ever and if it is not entirely quiet, it is at least refreshingly cool. The kudari boats shoot down the rapids, tourists waving with surprise to discover this remote place filled with bathing foreigners, and every hour dozens of white-water rafters come to a stop in the bend so that they can climb the muddy paths to waiting vans.

As ever there is no swimming, but it hardly stops anyone. For a few moments -without mobile phone waves or a shop in sight- we are about as far away from the UK as it is possible to be.

18 07 09 - 00:22 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Paving the way for the gods

Yep...more pictures of floats. If you have not fallen into a coma with Gion overload, I swear the next posts will concern the parade.

17 07 09 - 23:13 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The shrine of the exile avenged

Kitano Tenmangu enshrines Michizane Sugawara, who because of his great learning during his lifetime is worshiped as the patron of learning. He was at first especially favoured by Emperor Uda, who bestowed great trust in governmental affairs upon him. But later, because of slander, he was exiled to Kyushu died there in 903. After his death severe earth-quakes and thunderstorms did constant damage in the home provinces, and it was thought commonly that these were the result of his wrath. Because of the increasingly large number of his slanderers and their families who met with unexpected disaster, Michizane's power was more and more feared by the Court and the common people. In an attempt to appease the angry spirit, the Imperial Court granted him the post-humous title of Karai Tenjin, or God of Fire and Thunder.

The process of divinization of Michizane was greatly assisted by sympathy with his misfortune of having died in exile, by admiration for his unchanging spirit of loyal service, by the mute judgment of the masses against their rulers, and by the social unrest caused by the ever-continuing disasters. Because of the prophecies spoken in 942 by Tajihi-no-Ayako, who lived in Nishi-no-kyo Shichijo, and in 947 by Taro-maru, a child of Hirano Yoshitane of Omi, a shrine was built in the present location and was known as Tenman Tenjin. In 959, the Udaijin (Minister of the Right) Fujiwara-no-Morosuke enlarged the buildings. On the fifth day of the eighth month of 987, the Kitano Matsuri was celebrated for the first time; this festival continues to the present day.

In 1004, Emperor Ichijo paid the shrine its first Imperial visit, and later the shrine was included, with the other great shrines such as Kamo and lwa-shimizu, in the numberof the great 22 shrines. The shrine was often the object of Imperial visits, and the regents, shoguns, and common people of all ages since have paid it extraordinary reverence. The many plum trees in the shrine precincts are due to the fact that Michizane was fond of plum trees in his lifetime

*The information about Kitano Tenmangu can be found on the official website.

17 07 09 - 23:04 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Day before the parade

I spent a few hours in the morning walking around the float streets while the sky was clear and the thousands of visitors had not yet arrived for the day. It was the perfect chance to get up close and I would advise anyone with the opportunity to take the time and come as early as possible (from nine to ten is when the floats are decorated, before then many of the yama are just bare skeletons).

17 07 09 - 22:57 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Koi lips

Shinsen-en garden was once part of the extensive Eastern Pleasure gardens of the Imperial Palace (in its original location), and is the only remnant left of this time. Famous for its part in the origins of the Gion Matsuri, it is now a picturesque pond filled with hundreds of dark koi. Buy a wafer at the small vending machine beside the shrine and watch the water broil with slippery bodies and pink, sucking mouths. Rhod was surprised to discover a turtle trapped in the maelstrom, floating in desperation!

17 07 09 - 22:52 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Before the crowds

History of the Gion Matsuri Part 2: The floats depicted in the festival developed in the 14th century. In early years the mikoshi and floats were paraded around the city together, but later they were separated. In the Muromachi period (1333-1568) new floats were added, the decorations became increasingly elaborate, and specific neighbourhoods began to preserve different float traditions.

During the Onin civil war (1466-1477) most of Kyoto burnt to the ground and the festival did not take place until 1500.

By the end of the 15th century, Kyoto's smaller sub-neighbourhoods (machi-gumi) had become even more organised and those in the Muromachi kimono district began to profit from trade with foreign lands. Between the Azuchi Momoyama period (1568-1600) and the Edo period (1603-1867), trade between Japan and China, Persia and Europe flourished. Kyoto's Muromachi area is considered to be the Eastern end of the legendary silk road. For more than 500 years, the neighbourhoods in this area have continued to rebuild and preserve the 36 floats (four have subsequently been lost or are no longer in use) that are closely identified with the festival today.

As the Kyoto kimono merchants fortunes grew, they began to compete against each other to see who could build the biggest and most beautiful floats. During this time, the floats grew in height making space for musicians on the upper level of the largest floats. Gorgeous textiles were woven locally or acquired from Silk Road trade to decorate the floats.

During the Edo period (1603-1867) and Meiji Restoration period (1867 on) the floats and the neighbourhoods that took care of them were badly damaged by fire on several occasions. Each time the citizens worked hard to rebuild everything and the festival continued to grow in size and fame.

Many of the floats are called moving museums, incorporating an astounding variety of decorative elements: elaborate ceiling paintings, roof carvings, metalwork, dolls and textiles of all kinds.*
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17 07 09 - 22:48 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Holy cow

Tanabata was clearly going to be a wet affair this year, which is fairly sad as the story claims that the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi can meet only at this one time in the year if it is fair weather. I picked up the camera while it was still sunny and cycled over to Kitano Tenmangu where the preparations were underway for the festival. A tent had been erected in the outer precinct, encircled by hundreds of bamboo branches and thousands of wishes.

As is usual the place was bustling with school kids on tour, come to pray for success in their studies, and the sun made a welcome appearance as I snapped away. Lucky for me, a Shinto ceremony prior to the festival was just starting. Taking time to look at the Odoi for the first time (the ancient wall that Toyotomi Hideyoshi constructed about the city as part of his regeneration of Kyoto) I was a little disappointed to realise that it is closed outside of spring and autumn (when you are charged to walk beside it) and that actually it looks like an overgrown embankment. The wall was never completed, and the city has completely swallowed most of it. It is still visible in a few places, such as Rozan-ji and Kitano.

17 07 09 - 22:39 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Yoiyama

Formally Yoiyama only refers to the festivities on the night of July 16th (the day before the grand parade) but each float neighbourhood lights its komogata lanterns and displays various treasures around the float from the 14th onwards. The various float organisers decorate the area around their floats in unique ways. Seating for the hoko floats are upstairs and the seats for the yama floats are usually set up on the ground floor of a house on the street close to the float. In each float area, children sell chimaki* and gofu amulets while singing traditional songs. The deities of some floats can be viewed from the street.

Yoiyama is also called the Byobu Matsuri. Byobu are folding screens, and in the front of many houses along Shinmachi Street, Muromachi Street and Ayakoji Street, valuable screens are on display.
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17 07 09 - 22:35 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The nation's greatest street party

In 869, a plague raged through the capital and the citizens of Kyoto believed the sickness was the vengeful act of an angry ghost.* In desperation, the reigning Emperor Seiwa decreed that special prayers be said at Gion Shrine (now known as Yasaka Shrine), and that the country's 66 provincial hoko (halberds) be paraded through the city. A ceremony was held in the Shinsen-en Pond (part of the Eastern Imperial gardens) in which the provincial halberds were brought and dipped into the waters in order to purify the city (and by extension the country) and appease the gods. The supplications were successful, and the festival became a permanent fixture of the city from around 970. The month long festival (July 1st - July 29th) is one of Japan's grandest, and although it is unrecognisable from its original form, the Naginata Boko (the lead float of the parade) still carries a halberd on its roof in reference to the festival's roots.**
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17 07 09 - 22:29 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Omi-Jingu

I spent the day on a rather whistle-stop tour of Otsu, kindly driven by Kana. After a stupid mistake on the confusing JR line I was an hour late, frustrating as there are only 5 stops in total from Nijo to Otsu-kyo (including a change at Kyoto Station). We lunched up in the mountains at an ethnic restaurant that allow pets (food delicious, the idea of dogs dining with their owners irritating) and then had coffee beside the quiet lake.

Before going home, Kana drove up to Omi Jingu and we had time to walk around while the sun was still up. None of the photos are great because of the cloud cover and time of day. Contained in a 20 hectare woodland, Omi Jingu was established in 1930 to enshrine Emperor Tenji whose reign over Japan was conducted in Otsu City from 667 (having moved the court from Asuka, Nara). The watch museum inside the shrine houses a model of the water clock made by Emperor Tenji, said to be Japan's oldest, as well as watches from all over the world.

17 07 09 - 22:22 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Fortune mantis

The Toro-yama float has to be one of our favourites, and a steadfast winner with visitors. Its success is in no small part down to the mechanical praying mantis that sits atop the float and the smaller wooden version that helps give out fortunes. Turning a handle brings the creature to life. It spins, collects a ball and returns it to your hand. The assistant will then hand over your paper fortune. Although temperamental, it is quite captivating.

Akko won the fortune stakes, followed narrowly by Misako and lastly Moko (saaaaaaaaaaaaaad!). They were still building the float when we arrived, which cut our waiting time down to a bare minimum. Later in the evening it would not be possible to see the fortune mantis for people.

17 07 09 - 22:16 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Kamakiri

As Mitsuko and I were about to bid farewell to each other at Nara Station a bemused salaryman crept up and pointed to her leg. Slightly fearful that he might be some sort of pervert, it turned out he had spotted a kamakiri (praying mantis) clinging to her jeans for dear life. The poor creature was near death and after planting it safely under a bush we had to leave it. Perhaps she was merely full after eating her husband! Who knows.

17 07 09 - 22:07 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

Out with the old

Recently Misako (and by extension poor Moko-kun) has been doing a brisk business at flea markets across the city. Today we went to help (well play around and generally laze in the background) at the tiny Taishogun Shrine on Yokai Street (Ichijo). There were a dozen stalls and on the hour amateur shamisen players performed short pieces. A nice way to spend a Sunday morning and reminiscent of the car-boot sales I went to as a kid with my parents.

She made about 60 pounds today. Not bad going.*
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17 07 09 - 22:06 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

What the heck is the Gion Matsuri?

What is the Gion Matsuri? Well in its most basic form it is one of the world's largest street festivals and perhaps Japan's most famous. In an attempt to ward off an epidemic, the gods of Gion (Yasaka) Shrine were carried through the streets in portable mikoshi. The parade of yama and hoko floats was essentially a celebration welcoming the gods into the city. It is a far more complicated story than that, a courtly festival which was eventually hijacked by the citizens and allowed to burgeon into something gaudy and celebratory.

For most people nowadays the parade is secondary to the Yoiyama, evenings where the streets around the newly constructed floats are awash with food stalls and entertainment. Not a shop or restaurant fails to make use of the crowds, setting up trestle tables to sell everything from beer to cost-cutting yukata. Each float is a bustle of activity, presenting their priceless treasures and doing a brisk business selling good luck charms and souvenirs. As evening falls the cars are stopped and once more the people claim back the city, literally flooding the thoroughfares until it is impossible to breathe in the crush.

Yoiyama is difficult to like, though impossible to hate. Marking the beginning of Summer proper, the Gion Matsuri -though often wet- is as hot as an oven and the soupy humidity only worsened by sweating bodies and cooking food. As you stumble up and down the streets, everywhere is a cacophony of noise, most coming from the piped out music of the matsuri itself, an unintelligible mix of clashing cymbals and shrieking flutes. Many of the hoko (the larger of the floats, with a space below the pitched roofs for musicians when the day of the parade comes) are open to the public, though many for men only, and at designated times musicians pour out in yukata, emblazoned with the twin emblems of the festival and their own floats ideogram to practice.

As darkness consumes, so the float lanterns are illuminated and the stalls become ablaze with bright lights showing off their wares. Your nose is assaulted by a thousand different smells...sizzling frankfurters, steaming takoyaki, sticky toffee apples and hissing noddles. Cooking oil fills the air until you feel you cannot bear anymore, but a few seconds away from the float streets the city is quiet and dark, allowing you to recharge before once again throwing yourself into the heady atmosphere. You rub shoulders with every imaginable person, in fact the sea of faces is dizzying, most people smiling and rudely pushing their way forward as manners are irrelevant.

In three nights time the madness ends and the parade closes the main part of the month long celebrations. There is far, far more the festival than gobbling down chocolate bananas and beer, but for most the festival is about these three evenings of unashamed gluttony.
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17 07 09 - 21:31 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The lovers separated once more

Tanabata is held on the seventh day of the seventh month, the one time in a year that the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vega and Altair) can meet. Fronds of bamboo are decorated with coloured strips of paper and people hang up their wishes in the hope that they will come true.

Orihime (the Weaving Princess Star), daughter of the Tentei (the Sky King), wove beautiful cloth by the bank of the Amanogawa (the Heavenly River - Milky Way). Her father loved the cloth that she wove and so she worked very hard every day to weave it. Orihime was sad that because of her hard work she could never meet and fall in love with anyone. Concerned about his daughter, Tentei arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (the Cow Herder Star) who lived and worked on the other side of the Amanogawa. When the two met, they fell instantly in love with each other and married shortly thereafter. However, once married, Orihime abandoned her weaving and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to stray all over Heaven. In anger, Tentei separated the two lovers by placing each on one side of Amanogawa and forbade them to meet. Orihime became despondent at the loss of her husband and asked her father to let them meet again. Tentei was moved by his daughter's tears and allowed the two to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month if Orihime worked hard and finished her weaving. The first time they tried to meet they discovered that they could not cross the river because there was no bridge. Orihime cried so much that a flock of magpies came and promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata (as it did today), the magpies cannot come and the two lovers must wait another year to meet.*

The festival originated from the Chinese celebration of Qi Xi, adopted by the imperial palace from the beginning of the Heian period. Tanabata had spread to the general public by the early Edo period, mixed with various Obon traditions (Obon originally being held on 15th of the seventh month). In the Edo period girls wished for better sewing and craftsmanship and boys wished for better handwriting by writing wishes on strips of paper. At this time, the custom was to use dew left on taro leaves to create the ink used to write wishes. Obon is now held on 15 August.

The name Tanabata is said to have come from a Shinto purification ceremony that existed around the same time, in which a Shinto miko wove a special cloth on a loom called a Tanabata near waters and offered it to the gods to pray for the protection of rice crops from rain or storm, and for a good harvest later in autumn. Gradually this ceremony merged with Qi Xi and became Tanabata.
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17 07 09 - 21:25 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

The Hoko and Yama come out to play

Stretching from the beginning of July to its closing days, Gion Matsuri all but dominates the city on the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th of the month. The gods are brought from Yasaka Shrine into the heart of the city in preparation for a parade in their honour, and from the 14th floats both large (hoko) and small (yama) are constructed about the Muromachi district. Thousands come to view the floats, eat their fill of food and buy a slice of good luck in the form of amulets and charms, before the grand parade essentially ends the most spectacular part of the festival.

Over the next few posts I will try my best to explain the Matsuri, but if the blurb becomes tiring please just look at the pretty pictures. I am no great editor, but trust me there were hundreds and hundreds more that I have reluctantly discarded. Each Gion post is sandwiched with other adventures.

17 07 09 - 21:15 - kieren - Photostory| No comments - §

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Rhod and Ki's tour of life in Kyoto, Japan.

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