Lights, gods, and Gion Matsuri.

This past week in Japan life has been a whirlwind of going and seeing and doing and it’s not likely to stop. Since yesterday my schooling is basically over and fun and traveling awaits. It started off with my friend Sarah’s visit to me in Kyoto this weekend.

Sarah’s been doing an 8-week research program in Hiroshima and was eager to stop by Kyoto and see nearby Osaka too. Her blog can be viewed here.

When she got here Friday night I took her downtown for some Indian curry, a stop by our regular hookah bar, and a bit of riverside local night life. This is the same river spot featured in my documentary, and this weekend saw tons of people, Japanese and foreign alike, mingling, drinking, and enjoying a Japanese jazz band that really knew how to play.

Insane weekend continued by hopping on the train to Osaka the next morning. I’d planned a slew of cool things to do and see, including a trip to Spa World. It’s a 6 story indoor theme park dedicated to bathing. They have a ton of elaborate baths, separated into European and Asian style, and rotate which gender can visit each monthly. This month the girl’s side was European style. We bathed and tried all the tubs and saunas for two hours before moving on to shopping. Sarah seemed to enjoy the experience too, her first shot at asia-style public bathing. I happen to love Japan’s public bathing, and had a good laugh when Sarah later declared, “I just realized I was naked for two hours today!”

The fun continued seeing Osaka’s prime shopping sights and watching the lights come on and some sort of boat festival from the main bridge.

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We finished off the day with a trip to Umeda Sky tower and I was completely dazzled by the twinkling view of the city, and found myself missing my fella back home terribly.

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Sunday I brought Sarah to church and then from there we went straight on to the classic Kyoto sights, Kiyomizudera and whatever other shrines/temples we happened to run into. The streets were full to busting and the bus got stuck in the first traffic jam I’d ever seen here. Why? It was time for Gion Matsuri to begin.

Gion Matsuri is a festival in Kyoto that’s been going on since 859 AD, and lasts all month but it’s peak is this week. Streets are shut down, and old families and companies open up and display their ancient treasures, including golden statues, jade, suits of armor, and all manner of ceremonious Shinto stuff. Sarah and I didn’t have time to goof off and do festival stuff, so we headed south to Fushimi Inari shrine as the sun set.

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This is a rather famous and out of the way shrine dedicated to the Kitsune foxes, the guardians and messengers of the gods. It’s also famous for being featured in Memoirs of a Geisha.

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We followed the path of gates leading all the way up the mountain. It was eerily quiet, save for the song of the summer cicadas. I recalled a story about Inari shrine I heard, that if you came there with a man you loved the kitsune foxes would curse him out of jealousy. Legends like this were believable on that path in the night. Stone foxes watched us from behind their gates and stray cats’ eyes gleamed from the bushes. I found myself telling one stone fox ‘good evening’ in Japanese as we passed. Once we reached the top we were exhausted but got ourselves another lovely view.

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All the way back down the mountain and a bus ride to Kyoto station and I said my farewells to Sarah. It sure was a blast. I was wiped out and had an exam and a presentation the next day, so I pushed on through the night.

Monday night I served a shift for movie club’s screenings on campus (in which Gaijin was featured), and biked home through a summer rain shower. I got home soaked but excited, about half my dorm was headed to Gion Matsuri’s night celebration, and I was donning a yukata (summer kimono) that I purchased at that very antique fair mentioned previously on here.

It was really abuzz there as the float’s for the upcoming parade were displayed and there was festival food out the wazoo. I enjoyed some melon shaved ice and some squid myself.

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This festival is so very old that it serves all sorts of purposes, the main one being to ward off illness (it was originated after a particularly bad plague). Each festival float is designed after a different myth or story or blessing, and there’s always music and dancing and ceremonies wherever you go, and not even the Japanese can tell you what each one means. IMG_8878

Dazzled and exhausted I rode the train home and crashed.

After making myself take a rest day on Tuesday, I was ready to face Kyoto’s biggest Gion Matsuri event the next day.

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The parade.

Hundreds of local men haul these huge, towering festival floats decorated to the nines. The best part is when they had to turn the float they would lay strips of bamboo down at the wheels and soak them in water to make them slick, then directed by four elaborately dressed guys wielding colorful fans, they would pull it all at once crying “Yoisho!” Quite a sight.IMG_8924IMG_8934IMG_8967

I followed the whole route to the end, as the floats were pretty slow moving, and one part went down this alleyway of old buildings full of patrons. One in particular housed Maiko-san, better known as Geisha, looking on at the festivities and pretending not to notice how rabidly everyone was photographing them. IMG_8979IMG_8971

Wore out I picked up a big, cold green tea at the local conbini and chugged it on the way home. I was headed back out again to see what was left of the sights that night with my good friend Yui. I thought I would don the yukata one more time while I had an occasion to.

And of course we had to do some purikyua too, you know, that goofy Japanese photo booth that makes your eyes all buggy.

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Girly to the max. Twas wonderous.

We went to the main shrine and got some really good steak on a stick and of course some matcha ice cream too. We walked back toward the train station and sure enough, true to Kyoto form, were greeted with a parade out of no where. This one seemed to have something to do with youth, and local men carried portable shrines through the street guarded by mounted samurai. People clamored for pictures and several other foreigners noticed me speaking Japanese to Yui and kept asking me what was going on. I really wish I knew, but I’ve found this scenario to be pretty common here. Things just happen to you. Even Kyoto locals wont know what it is or what it means, this city is just so deeply rooted in tradition that there are too many to keep track of, best to just enjoy the encounter.

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I’ve seen and done so much this past week and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now that classes are wrapping up I’ve been laying down the plans for my last couple of weeks before the family gets here to cart me back to the states. I cant reveal all but I will say plans involve fireworks and this sport called sumo, you may have heard of it.

Now that the main events of Gion Matsuri are up things are quieting down around here, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this city, if you’re looking for an adventure, it’ll never let you down.

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