It’s festival time in Kyoto and the city is in full festive mode. Gion Festival is one of the country’s grandest affairs, lasting a month in all, but at its heart is the procession of floats on July 17th, and the three evenings beforehand when the floats are on display and the streets crowded with onlookers. Shops put on special displays for the occasion and the atmosphere is like one huge street party. Tradition mixes with modernity as ‘Gion bayashi’ music pervades the air while girls in yukata shout into their mobile phones and snack on fast food. This year male yukata seemed more prevalent than previously, and as the weather was good the streets were packed. The atmosphere is wonderful, with everyone friendly and in good spirits. Along with the traditonal fare are a few wild surprises….
The festival started out in the early Heian Period (794-1185) to stop a series of plagues. It was put on as an entertainment for the kami, to ask for prevention of the pestilence. Over time it developed into a way for the city’s merchant families and craft guilds to exhibit their goods, with the development of large floats decorated with tapestries, bands of musicians and the opening up of private houses to show their artistic treasures. Large wheels were added to the floats so that they could be moved, and in the fourteenth century a second storey was added for musicians. With the development of overseas commerce in the sixteenth century, artworks from China, Persian and even Europe were added. There are two types of floats: yama consist of pine trees, mikoshi and mannequins, with scenes from Chinese and Japanese history. Hoko are massive structures, nearly ten tons in weight, which are dragged by teams of up to fifty people. Getting them round corners is a matter of some skill…
The festival is all about fun and displaying Kyoto’s heritage to the world, but the Shinto rituals operating out of Yasaka Shrine remain at its heart. Buying protection from evil is a vital component, and teams of neighbourhood locals compete to attract customers….
Away from the crowds, the side streets offer amazing displays which make for a quiet festival of their own. Here are some of the displays one comes across….