Japan is a country with something for every season: the pink sakura of spring, the changing leaves of autumn, and the chilly snowfall of winter. And in summer, there are festivals.
When I say “festival”, I’m referring less to the Coachella variety and more to the type with fireworks and street food, of which there are many. So many, in fact, that you can find a festival going on during any day of the season.
Gion Matsuri is the peak summer experience in Japan. Centered around the Yasaka Shrine, the festival has had a place in Kyoto’s heart for the last 1200 years.
Locals wander the streets of downtown in the warm evening while navigating through a sea of kimonos and shaved ice vendors. Small children wave fans while perched on their parent’s shoulders. Charcoal grills waft smoke into the night sky, offering up assortments of takoyaki trays, dango skewers, and piles of yakisoba. The smell of fried gyoza and fresh squid tease the senses. Vendors stitched together down Shijo and Kamakura Dori shout specials at passers-by. Students stumble through the streets, giggling and sipping on flavored chuhai, smoking cigarettes at tables outside of the closest Family Mart. The energy in the air is palpable.
Does it feel like summer yet?
Yoiyoiyoiyama, Yoiyoiyama, & Yoiyama
We planned our first night in Kyoto to coincide with Yoiyoiyoiyama, or the eve-eve-eve of the main festival celebration. While Gion Matsuri is technically a month long event spanning all of July, the central festivities take place on the day of the main parade (the 17th) and the three days proceeding it.
The first night offers a chance to view all of the Hoko, or largest floats, that reach several stories in height. Flutist line the main cavity of each structure and play traditional music in matching yukata.
The next two nights, Yoiyoiyama and Yoiyama, provide a rare opportunity to sample Japanese street food. Unlike its Asian counterparts, the closest thing you’ll get to street food in Japan is a stand-up Udon shop (it’s actually considered rude to walk around while eating). For a few nights in July, however, locals put their table manners aside and get lost among hundreds of street stands.
The final night is by far the most packed. Several of the smaller alleys travel at a glacial pace, and foot traffic is rigorously controlled in various directions. But dealing with crowds isn’t so terrible when you have a chicken skin skewer in one hand and a can of Suntory in the other.
The morning of the Yamaboko Junkō, the streets of downtown Kyoto fill with eager spectators. Over 30 floats parade through, the largest of which weigh over 24 thousand pounds and require a team of 50 men to carry it. They rise up so high that road workers are called in minutes before the procession to move traffic lights out of the intersection.
It’s a quarter past seven and while Shijo Dori is still filling up, the intersections of the parade loop are packed with people. This is because one of the most anticipated events is watching floats turn the corners. Because the floats are so massive and lack steering mechanisms, the men pulling them have to follow a special ritual to turn them safely. Strips of bamboo are layered in front of each wheel along the pavement and then splashed with water. Men at the front of the float wave fans and shout something in Japanese that I assume is some version of “Ready, Set, Go!”, and a small army of men heaves the float forward at a sharp angle. This process is repeated over and over again until the float has turned a full 90 degrees.
The morning carries on with floats marching down the street amidst clapping and cheering, each depicting various scenes from Japanese history and mythology.
Gion Matsuri is an event unlike any other in the world. If you ever find yourself on this side of the world in the middle of summer, consider taking a trip to Kyoto for a taste of Japan’s biggest festival.