Gion Matsuri July 14-17
The Gion Festival (matsuri=festival) is the biggest event of the year in Kyoto, and one of the biggest in Japan. It started in 869 as an appeal to the gods after a plague, according to the official story. The huge pikes that spear the sky are meant to appease the gods, which doesn’t sound logical, but similar pike poles are part of other Kyoto festivals. On the night of July 16th, the pre-parade festivities reach a peak with the Yoi-yama viewing of the “floats” and street revelry on Shijo (Fourth) Street. Many people dress in light and colorful summer kimono called “yukata.”
Citizens and visitors to Kyoto partake of eating, drinking, carnival games, buying lucky charms, viewing, photographing and climbing into the floats to have a look. The floats are large wagons, specifically the 23 big “Yama” (6 meters tall, 1.5 tons) and the 8 mega-huge “Hoko” (25 meters tall, 12 tons). Teams pull them with huge ropes in a big circuit around downtown on the morning of July 17th. The “Yamaboko” can not be steered as such, the wheel positions are fixed on the axles. Slung under the carraige, each wagon carries a supply of split bamboo sticks, and these are laid crosswise in front of the wheels when the wagon reaches one of the intersections. They haul it up onto the sticks, and with some water lubrication, pull sideways to “spin” the giant carts 90 degrees. Impressive teamwork it is, and this is the essence of many Japanese festivals, which more often than not celebrate the communal spirit that used to be required in a communal society to grow and harvest rice.