Wednesday, 24 October 2012


Monday was Jidai Matsuri, one of Kyouto's Big Three when it comes to festivals. A parade of about a thousand performers march down the streets of the former Heian-kyou, dressed in the finery and not-so-finery of all the various eras gone by. (This does raise the question of when this festival was instituted, and the answer is 1895, when city officials softened the blow of having the capital relocated with an official celebration of Kyouto through the ages.) To somebody as into history shit as I am, this sounds like just about the coolest thing ever. Unfortunately, some location misinformation meant I missed it, and I was pretty choked, but I'm told that May's Aoi Matsuri displays much of the same period dress, so at least I won't have to wait an entire year.

I was also able to take some consolation in a field trip to Kuramayama, a holy site similar to Hieisan, although much smaller and not nearly as significant or interesting. But it's still very much worth seeing and is obviously even more obscure, so if you're ever in town and desire to see the “real” Kyouto I thoroughly recommend it.

Whereas Hieisan was more like temple sprawl, Kuramayama is pretty much a single winding path to the top, and then down the other side. As we made our way up, I was strongly reminded of Yuna's pilgrimage in Final Fantasy X of all things, what with the defined startpoint and goal and all the little stopoffs along the way.

In addition to its general theme, Kuramayama has another, much more tenuous connection to Hieisan, in that both are mentioned in Heike Mongatari. One of the story's pivotal events is the Heiji Rebellion, in which the rival Heike and Genji ran around murdering each other and trying to see who was a worthy second place to the all-powerful Fujiwara. The victorious Taira no Kiyomori was planning on executing the captured Yoshitsune (then known as Ushiwakamaru), youngest son of Minamoto no Yoshitomo, the main Genji guy, but was convinced not to, and the boy was sent into the custody of the Kurama Temple monks. Contrary to their belief that a small child posed no threat, he was raised to take vengeance upon the Heike.

It turns out that Yoshitsune was quite a guy himself, the story of his life being a mixture of legend and historical record spread out across several different sources. He was said to be not only a stabby swordsman but a sharp strategist and well-read to boot. Supposedly he was taught skill at arms by the King of Tengu, who imparted many unusual techniques, though it's unclear where he acquired this knowledge in reality. Early in his career he actually defeated Benkei, the souhei I mentioned earlier, and they became lifelong friends, right up until they were under attack and Benkei covered for Yoshitsune so he could take the time to properly gut himself.

During the Genpei War, the next Minamoto-Taira conflict (whose result was more favourable for the Minamoto), Yoshitsune teamed up with his two brothers whom he'd never met, and afterward joined forces with the Cloistered Emperor to defeat his rebellious and increasingly uppity brother Yoritomo. Eventually he was betrayed and defeated by the son of his patron Hidehira, an influential Fujiwara, where he was overwhelmed and forced to commit ritual suicide. He is now enshrined on Kuramayama.

Not surprisingly, Kuramayama focusses a lot of its tourist information on how various parts of it were relevant to Yoshitsune's time there.
You have to include this severed Tengu head in a Kuramayama blog post. It's basically an unwritten rule.
Yuki Shrine, built to protect the holy sites on the mountain from fire, which it seems they were prone to. The route was established in 770 and the oldest remaining building is from 1949 because they kept burning down. Kind of ironic, since the foot of the mountain plays host to a goddamn fire festival.
This sculpture, 「いのち」 (Life) celebrates 「愛と光と力」 (Love, Light and Strength) and is clearly quite new. Australzealand is of the opinion that it looks stupid.
Though far from the largest building on the mountain, Honden (main hall) is by far the most ostentatiously presented.
 Most people bitched out after the Honden, but Kurukuru and I forged on, making our way up a long, steep path to reach this spot, the summit. It's pretty neat-looking and, according to Australzealand, is the place where a young Yoshitsune "trained with the bird-men." If we'd gone down the other side we could have seen the rock where he measured his height when he was sixteen and the building where he was taught the Art of Fighting.

We arrived around two o'clock, and that ended up being plenty of time to thoroughly explore the mountain before heading back to the bottom to get a good spot for Hi no Matsuri, the real reason we'd come. One of a handful of fire festivals throughout the country and described by the Japan National Tourism Association as one of Kyouto's most “eccentric” festivals, it celebrates the instating of the local god. Large torches are lit, small torches are lit, cairn-looking things are lit, braziers are lit, children walk around carrying fire, adults walk around carrying fire, and people set up fires outside their personal homes.

It is quite cool, I have to say. Unfortunately, the experience was somewhat dampened by two factors: The place was swarming with foreigners, and it was one of the worst-organized events I have ever attended. Far more people attended than the procession route could actually accommodate, so police set up a winding path along which they constantly harangued people to progress, yelling through megaphones “Don't stand and stop, please continue to slowly walk onward,” which mainly fell on the deaf ears of an army of amateur photographers. The foreigners were particularly bad, which is not surprising since they probably didn't even understand (eh, I guess I'm not really allowed to complain about that...) It was actually comical at one point, when we were stopped for several minutes behind a crowd planted to the spot, the police urging them forward.

We at least tried to comply with their wishes, pausing for only a few seconds to snap a quick photograph before moving on. The low quality of this particular set of photos is not entirely my fault, as it's quite a trick trying to shoot moving fire at nighttime, with a long shutter speed, while walking, with dozens of people on all sides jostling you and frequently jumping right the hell in front of you. After a brief period of getting to enjoy the festival, we were routed behind some houses, where the path was far too narrow for the number of guests and there was nothing whatsoever worth seeing. When it finally returned to the main part of the village, we had the option of returning to the station area or taking another circuit. Unfortunately our group had quickly became fragmented and, with our limited means of communication, our various components ended up returning home helter-skelter. We did stop outside a konbini and I enjoyed a tall Asahi Super-Dry while some of the others fed some cats we met, so that was nice.

Anarchy in the UK reports getting to go inside people's houses and at one point see an all-black, 500-year-old suit of armour (!), so it seems pretty clear that I picked the wrong group. Cologne struck out on his own, fell in with a Korean high school girl, and got to see a kami get marched around. For those of you keeping score, it was also Cologne who located Ruridou for me, so I think I'm pretty much just going to stick with him for every field trip from now on.

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