Kyouto, if you don't know, is home to three major festivals. There are many others, of course, within both the city itself and the metropolitan area, but this trifecta is by far the largest and most important, and, for some reason, all three prominently feature some kind of parade. One is Jidai Matsuri, featuring dress and paraphernalia from all periods of Japanese history. It's an enticing draw for a history enthusiast like myself, but I couldn't go for some reason. Earlier in the year we also had Aoi Matsuri, a highly officious Shintou event of great religious import, involving something about the royal family and some other stuff no one cares about. Mother Russia had to go for Culture class. She described the experience as “Boring.”
But both are small potatoes compared to Gion Matsuri, the vast majority of which takes place nowhere near Gion. Instead, for a few days, Shijou, Muromachidoori, a bunch of associated thoroughfares, and innumerable alleys and side-streets are closed to vehicular traffic and lined with rows upon rows upon rows upon rows of food stalls, stretching for blocks and blocks, nearly all selling one of about five products. The masses don yukata and converge on this locus, and even with all the space afforded them the resulting flow is thick and slow. It is noisy. It is crowded. It is nearly unnavigable. And it's awesome. And best of all, tourists are scarce, or at least they were when I went. How is that even possible? I have no idea, but I'm certainly not about to argue the point.
The festival actually continues throughout July, with various ceremonies and such taking place within the vicinity of Yasaka-san, but when people tell you they're going to “Gion Matsuri,” this stretch is almost certainly what they're referring to. Clad in our summer jinbei, Shiga and I met up with two of the girls from our earlier goukon and spent a couple of hours wandering the lanes, enjoying the street food, and playing Super Ball, a game where you're given a little net that basically disintegrates upon contact with water, with which you gather as many floating bouncy balls as you can. If you gather over a certain number, you can win larger balls, otherwise you just get to pick five smaller ones to take home with you; I was just off winning a big one. I'd never played before, but I'd seen it any number of times in dramas, except in those it's always with goldfish for some reason.
After seeing them off, as both had a test the following morning, Shiga and I continued to stroll idly, taking in the sights, for another couple of hours. The scope of the festival was startling; we ended up getting slightly lost in the back ways, and this is an area that we actually know. Towards the end of the night we hooked up with a big group of English Club cats by complete chance, and then we all sort of haphazardly made our respective ways home together, in gradually shrinking groups.
Let us pause here for a moment to appreciate the striking beauty of a young Japanese woman in a yukata. To me, it is abundantly clear that in a perfect world, J-girls would wear only yukata, seifuku, and suits. I also saw one gyaaru-looking girl wearing an elegant, immaculate yukata...with one bare shoulder. That palm's worth of skin was somehow a hundred times more erotic than the most revealing bikini. One of my English Club kouhai told me that such was a common sight in Shinbabashi. Man, I can't wait to move to Oosaka.
Looking over these last few paragraphs, the reader would be forgiven for thinking that Gion Matsuri is kind of unexciting. And she'd be correct in her conclusion that nothing especially dramatic or life-changing transpires. There are, really, three essential elements to enjoying a Japanese festival: The food, the atmosphere, and the friends you bring with you. You can have fun by yourself, of course, but it's hard. To me, it's all about spending time with the people close to you, and, in the process, also feeling the current of humanity itself flowing not only through, but all around you. Basically, I'm trying to say that if you don't know how to enjoy a festival, there's something wrong with you.