Translated by Hilary Keyes
Want To Quietly Enjoy Kyoto's Gion Festival? Visit At The End!
Written by ふじき ゆみこ
Summer in Kyoto means one thing: the Gion Festival. For the first time in 50 years, the Ato-matsuri ("after festival") was revived last year.
Kyoto's summer is defined by its world famous Gion Festival, and last year, for the first time in 50 years, the Ato-matsuri (the "after festival") was revived.
The famous festival, known as the Saki-matsuri ("before festival") and held every year on July 17th, has Kyotosee its greatest number of visitors.
This part of the festival sees the gods leave Yasaka Shrine, being carried through the city, while the Ato-matsuri is just the opposite - the gods are returned to Yasaka Shrine.
Enjoy Twice the Yoiyama and Yamaboko
Since last year and for every year from then, the main festival event, the Yamaboko junkō (*1) or festival parade, has been divided into two sections, one on the 17th and the other on the 24th. Which is lucky because for those whose schedules don't match that of the festival or for people not wanting to go out in bad weather, you have a second chance to appreciate this incredible event on the 24th.
*1 Yamaboko junkō: a parade of decorative festival floats that have been constructed from wood, bamboo and rope without the use of nails and is pulled through the streets.
After the festival parade ends on the 17th, the 23 festival floats used in the first half are disassembled and 10 freshly built ones are drawn through the city in the second half. And for three days (from the 21st to the 23rd), in the same festival stops that the yamaboko floats are drawn through, paper lanterns and figures of the deities are publicly viewable at yoiyama (*2) held from day to dusk. As a matter of fact, in general the builders of the festival floats for the After Festival are more than happy to mix and have fun with the visitors who stay after the main event on the 17th is long over.
*2 Yoiyama: small vigil-like festivals, held usually the night before a grand festival.
Perfect for Those who Hate Crowds
From the 21st to the 23rd during the yoiyama period and unlike the main days of the Gion Festival, the crowded one-way footpaths and rows and rows of street vendors and night fair stands disappear. For that reason the main streets feel clearer and less congested, making it easier to walk about and not feel tired from having masses of people crowding around you. Rather, in front of the regular shops themselves the staff sell their wares outdoors, which gives it a slightly different festival atmosphere instead. If you would like to enjoy the sights and tastes you can only find in these festive machiya in relative peace, then the After Festival is perfect.
Climb onto the Floats and View the Town
Riding upon a yamaboko is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. During the After Festival's yoiyama, you can climb aboard the float known as the Minamikannon Yama.
This experience costs 300 yen. As this float is much taller than you think you might find your legs freezing up in fear, but if you focus on the hundreds of years old tapestries right before your eyes you should be able to get over your fears!
And, on the first floor of the Minamikannon Yama meeting place (*3), you will find a shop selling kabu (root vegetables); their popsicles are one of the best-known foods of Gion Matsuri.
*3 The base where the yamaboko are located; at these locations you can take a closer look at the decorations found on the festival floats.
One more piece of good news! If you stay through to the end of the After Festival, you can watch the triumphant return of one of the festival floats: the Ōfune Boko (great ship float). Seeing this great ship as it slowly advances through the city once more thanks to the combined efforts of the people is a sight not to be missed!