No matter the task or request, the Japanese will inevitably apply themselves to the very best of their ability in order to provide an optimum experience for those on the receiving end. Take one Matsuri and throw in a couple of directives from “high above” requiring an event “culturally significant, energetic, colourful and fun” and the audience is guaranteed an extraordinarily good time.
Since its official inception in 970, one of Japan’s most famous festivals, Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri has been celebrated annually in July. During the three-day apex of the month-long purification rituals, many thousands of spectators line the streets in blistering heat for the chance to catch a glimpse of the grand parade. Valuable Yamaboko (apartment-sized floats) decorated with restraint in gold, tapestries and intricate artwork are pulled through the city’s main thoroughfares by 30 or 40 proud locals in hope of preventing fire, earthquakes, plague and flooding by appeasing the gods. Stalls selling refreshing summer sweets and iced matcha cool the system, preventing heat exhaustion.
Many of the festivities take place in the slightly cooler, but still incredibly humid, evenings. Over the three nights leading up to the parade, hundreds and thousands of people journey from all points of the country to admire the float-constructing process. Yukata (a light cotton summer kimono) is worn by all and sundry, historic private homes are opened to the public, ice-cold beer and syrupy shaved-ice drinks are guzzled, fans are fluttered at racecourse pace and kids, small and large, are treated to music, dances, balloons, glow sticks and water-related games. It is top-notch entertainment, by lantern light, with a deep message of camaraderie and community.
The only downfall to a major Matsuri is a curious one – without fail, stodgy okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) and takoyaki (octopus dumplings), bland yakisoba (fried noodles), greasy hamburgers, super-sized yakitori and other stick snacks of the same calibre (and cult status) as the Dagwood dog, are churned out to the masses – dumbfounding considering Japan’s predisposed respect for cuisine but understandable considering the crushing crowds.
There are countless local festivals Japan-wide, with most shrines hosting their very own in celebration of everything from foxes to fertility (complete with phallus lollipops). Stumbling across a Matsuri at any given time will provide one of the finest opportunities to experience a very real, joyous and engaged Japan. Just avoid the hotdogs!
Photography by Jane Lawson