July 20, 2012

Gion Matsuri 2012

It seems like the second we got back from Korea, summer decided to unleash itself on Kansai. While this means sticky, uncomfortable heat all day and night, it also means summer festivals, or 'matsuri', with plenty of opportunities to dress up in traditional Japanese summer clothes, gorge on festival foods such as yakisoba and candy apples, and enjoy float processions and firework displays.

Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is one of Japan's most famous festivals, said to be over a thousand years old. It lasts all through July, but the festival climaxes on the 17th with the grand parade. The three nights leading up to this parade are known as yoiyama, which are pre-parades. We went to the Gion Matsuri yoiyama on the 16th, which was the hottest day of the year so far.
Shijo-Karasuma, Kyoto, on night of Gion Matsuri Yoiyama
Traditional musicians playing on naginata-boko

For me, one of the best parts of the festival was getting to see lots of people dressed up in yukata and jinbei. Especially the girls - the colours and patterns of the yukata were so bright, the obi bows were so cute, and hairstyles were immaculate. I decided to wear a jinbei, which consists of a top and shorts - usually men wear them, but I found a very girly version, and thought it was kind of funky. On the way to Kyoto we got some funny looks on the train, and even heard two old men loudly appraising our outfits. It was a relief to finally meet up with the other exchange students, and see them also looking awkward in various states of Japanese dress (one student had rather creatively paired hiking boots with his yukata).
Rocking the jinbei.
Girls in yukata
We spent about an hour walking up and down the streets, listening to the music of the men sitting in the naginata-boko, watching the police meekly try to organise the crowds into two orderly lines, and complaining about the heat. Then someone suggested we check out the food stalls, and I'm not ashamed to admit that the rest of the night was spent eating everything from chocolate ice bananas to fried potato curls.
Food stalls (shaved ice in the front)
Yakisoba stall
Festival atmosphere
Going to a matsuri in Japan is one of those must-do cultural experiences. Even if you're not really interested in the history behind the festivals, it's worth it just to party with the locals - whether it be being handed a container of yakisoba at a street vendor by a heavily tattooed man, scooping up a goldfish at a stall with a little kid, or sitting in the gutter drinking chu-hi with a group of drunk university students.


  1. Man that sounds so awesome! Your days in Japan just seem to be getting better and better. When I read that you were wearing a yukata, I though this was going to be a 'I suddenly don't understand and hate Japan' post... With our local native festivals, having a non-native dress up in a festival outfit is very bad...

    It might be a different circumstance however, I never actually bothered to research the history of Japanese summer festivals. I just thought they were fun times with stalls, masks, yukatas, and fireworks.

  2. I would love to go to a festival and your post made me want to go even more. Sounds fun :]