If you want to behold the biggest festival in Japan, be in Kyoto City in July. But don’t go there only for the grand parade – you’ll miss all the fun the night before.
Okay, so I was actually too late for the yoiyama two years in a row (the biggest drawback of teaching English in a cram school). When I got to Shijo Street, the shops were closed, the booths were gone, and the pretty girls in yukata were wiping off their sweat as they got into crowded trains to go home. The streets were already empty and quiet when it was this crowded just a few hours before:
But this post isn’t pointless because, even though I missed the evening festivities, I’ve seen the entirety of the parades to brag about having been experienced Gion Festival. And I was this close to the child of god—
—who is entirely human, of course. But during the whole month of the Gion festival (if I understood my Japanese friend’s live commentary), this child’s feet never touches the ground. He has to be carried around by a male elder, usually his father, because his mother or any other female isn’t allowed to take care of him during the entire month. Don’t ask me – I didn’t want to bring up sexism over a traditional ritual.
Another interesting detail: in order to be chosen as the child of god, the young boy’s parents have to pay at least millions of yen for him to be chosen over other boys. Like I said to my Japanese friend, he must be a child of god – the god of money. It was also interesting how the locals wanted so hard to get a glimpse of him, and even crowded the Karasuma-Sanjo intersection to watch him get carried down the hoko.
Although my American friend was scandalized to hear about someone being tagged a child of god, I found it to be one of the most interesting practices I’ve come across during my stay in Japan especially since Japanese are not devoutly religious.
One another thing that made the locals excited during the two-hour long procession was the turning of the hokos. The hoko is the bigger of the two types of floats in the parade. One hoko is about 25 meters long from the ground to the highest point and weighs about 12,000 kg. During the yoiyama, they add beauty to the streets at night with the lights and add a festive air to the event with the music being played by the men playing traditional Japanese music inside.
During the festival, they have to be pulled forward by at least 30 men. But that’s not what people gather for. If you want to see people applauding, you’d have to go to where the street intersect and the hokos have to be turned. When these gigantic floats get to a corner, bamboos are placed under its human-sized wheels and they’re deliberately and slowly turned with the 30 men working together in synchronized movements. To be honest, it really was exciting to see it turn if only to finally see the parade move forward.
I didn’t applaud like everyone, but I think the parade (both the first and the second one that followed seven days later) were interesting. However, I stopped enjoying the processions before they were halfway done because the yamas, the hokos, and even the men pulling the hokos started to look similar, and I felt like I would waste time if I waited for every single one of the 50-something yamabokos to go through.
That said, if you do get the chance to be in Kyoto in July, join the locals celebrate the Gion Festival whether in applauding their hoko-turning techniques, visiting shrines, or wearing a yukata to the popular yoiyama. It’s a month-long festival and one of the most famous ones in Japan, and I think that alone makes it worth experiencing.