First, I just want to say that I feel sorry for my school`s baseball team. It always rains in Japan without warning. It will be sunny, no thunder, no wind, and suddenly a cloud rolls over and it starts pouring in great gray sheets. Still no thunder. No lightning. No wind. It rains long enough to get the screaming kids completely soaked. And suddenly the cloud passes and it stops. It`s rather inconvenient. Especially for baseball games.
But at least the rain serves one good purpose. It provides a respite from the blasting heat and humidity. My plans for several weekends in a row were ruined by rain, making me overjoyed to learn it would be sunny for the Gion Festival in Kyoto, one of the three largest festivals in all Japan. Looking back, I might have been better off if it rained.
Friday night I left for my friend Kayoko`s house in Kyoto without even going home first. Already the streets were packed, filled with men and women dressed in their summer kimono, or yukatta, lining up to see the floats that would be paraded through the streets the following morning. I had just bought myself a yukatta the week before and had practiced getting it on and off myself so I wouldn`t have to rely on anyone to help me. Well, a Westerner trying to put on her own yukatta is about as sorry-looking as an Easterner attempting to shake hands and bow at the same time (which is usually what they do and it`s starting to be a bad habit for me too). A Japanese woman actually stopped me in the train station, pulled me into a corner and right there in public stripped off my robe and put it back on me proper. (Fortunately I had shorts on underneath, but no shirt.)
So it was that when I got to the station where I was supposed to meet Kayoko, telling her I was wearing a yukatta didn`t help much. But her telling me she was about the only one not dressed up helped immensely. By the time I got there it was already past viewing time for the floats, but we had dinner in a delicious and cheap (a rare treasure in Japan) noodle shop. Then I spent the night at her house. Here`s me in my yukatta there:
Kayoko and her mom have a beautiful home and are some of the nicest people I have ever met. It`s thanks to Kayoko that I have these pictures. My camera was broken, so she let me borrow hers. Thanks, Kayoko!
The festival itself was amazing. A huge procession of thirty-two ancient floats paraded through the streets, decorated with beautiful tapestries from Persia, China, Turkey, and Europe. The festival got its start in 869AD when a terrible plague struck Kyoto. Young men totted large wooden floats around the city in prayer that the plague would end. When it did shortly afterwards, carrying or pulling floats became a yearly tradition in memory of the answered prayer. Since modern times, there is a competition between different neighborhoods in Kyoto to have the tallest, most elaborate float. Here`s some pictures:
Get a load of that crowd! I`ve never seen so many people in my life. We were packed so tight we couldn`t even move!
This is a close up of the float in the previous picture, probably my favorite one. It`s a ship!
Here`s a float with two fan dancers. Turning the floats was quite the spectacle (hence it was the most crowded spot on the entire street). Whenever it was time to do it, the fan dancers would signal the crowd with a little dance. No video at this distance though; far too wobbly!
In this picture you can see them rigging the float with ropes to do the turn:
The only thing is, I thought it would be cool for me to wear my yukatta again that morning. I figured, well, it`s meant for summer, right? Apparently in name only. I noticed there were considerably less people in yukatta than the night before. Within a few minutes we were lodged within a sea of sweaty bodies so dense there was no way to fight our way out. I had purposely tied my yukatta loosely 1. So I could breathe easily and 2. So it wouldn`t stick to my sweat-slicked body, creating a natural insulator. Well, along behind me pushed this other Japanese lady, considerably older than the one who helped me in the train station, and before I know it she was untying my obi (large decorative belt) right there in the crowd. She gives it several hefty jerks to tighten it (the obi is in many ways, the Japanese version of the corset), readjusts the bow so that it`s jabbing into my back, gives me a pat and pushes me up further away from Kayoko into the sun. I`m sure she thought she was being very nice. I however, could not stand the discomfort, so Kayoko and I shoved and ramroded our way through the throng (with the help of some police directing the flow of feet) to the less crowded byways. Meandering, we found a little shop selling all things related to the festival, including miniature versions of the floats. Here they are, so you can see what they all look like together:
We decided to take lunch at quaint little place that was again both surprisingly cheap and delicious. Do you know the American restaurant Cheesecake Factory? Imagine that, only a third the price, and with parfait instead of cheesecake! The Japanese love parfait, and this store had over one hundred to choose from, including jumbos that would have taken at least ten people to finish! As with all Japanese restaurants, they had plastic models of the food displayed in their windows. Here`s a picture of their monster parfait!
Though it was hard to decide, Kayoko and I both settled on something more modest, coffee for her and chocolate/strawberry for me. We spent a nice relaxing hour there, then headed back to the festival. Just in front of the restaurant we found a much better view with less people. Here`s a picture of the men pulling the float, dressed in traditional Edo period (1603-1868) costume:
And here`s a closer look at the float they were pulling. You can get a good look at the tapestries here. Can you tell which ones are from Europe?
Here`s a weird flying-man float. I have no idea what it`s supposed to symbolize, but it looks cool!
It was so hot we should have just called it quits then, but it takes me over two hours to get to Kyoto, so I stubbornly wanted to get the most out of the trip. So we went to the famous Heian shrine. Well, apparently all the other tourists visiting Kyoto from around the world had the same idea. Add to that the fact that the Heian shrine is the main Shinto shrine in Kyoto, so naturally all festivities begin and end there. We were just in time for the closing ceremony which involved a lot of shouting men walking around in circles in strange costumes. Believe it or not, the crowd was even more dense there!
Here`s a picture of some of the shrines stationary floats:
We decided to escape before it ended. But the crowd coming into the shrine was so vast we couldn`t get out. We were trapped! It was so hot and I couldn`t breathe properly, so I did something that I had never done before in my entire life. I fainted, right there in the middle of the jam-packed street. Not on purpose, of course! (How would one faint on purpose anyway?) Everything just went black and I fell sideways. If I had been in America I probably would have smashed my head on the asphalt, but the Japanese are always very aware of their surroundings and thoughtful to boot, so several strong arms reached out to catch me just before I hit the ground. Fortunately we were right next to a convenience store so the crowd parted to let me in, and after several minutes in the cool air conditioning, Kayoko flagged a taxi and we got back to her house all right. After several glasses of cold water I felt a lot better and was able to go home that evening and to church the next morning. But I had been planning to go to Spain land on Monday (because it was a national holiday) and decided against it. My mother is coming on Thursday and we have tons of travel plans, so I figured I just needed a day home to rest.
All in all it was an amazing festival and I`m glad I went, but here`s some advice to fellow travelers:
1.) In the middle of a blazing summer, yukattas are better worn only in the evening.
2.) Before being pushed head-first into a huge crowd, check to see if there are other areas that are less crowded. In most festivals in Japan and elsewhere, the most crowded spot in a parade is where there is a bridge or where the floats have to turn.
3.) Know when enough is enough. (I probably should have quit after the festival ended.) If you`re hot and sweaty, you`re only going to get more so. Avoid trying to cram a lot of tourist attractions into a festival day because other tourists will have the same idea.
In the future, I will take this advice to heart and be able to have an even more enjoyable time at Japanese festivals, including Tenjin matsuri next weekend in Osaka, another one of Japan`s three largest festivals.
Prayer Requests for this week: My mother is coming to visit me this Thursday! I`m so excited! Together we will see many historical and natural treasures of Japan, fireworks and festivals. Please pray for safety for her and me as we travel all over Japan in the next two weeks! Consequently I will probably not have another chance to write a blog for another two weeks, but I promise I will have lots to report with tons of pictures when we get back!
Until next time, keep loving and keep praying,
L. J. Popp