July is peak summer for the northern hemisphere and while many may choose to stay indoors to get away from the heat, the Japanese are one to head outdoors for a Natsumatsuri or summer festivals, are like street carnivals, where locals get together to enjoy the warm weather with food and games. The Gion Matsuri is no different and is considered one of the most famous festivals in Japan.
Held in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto, the ancient festival originated as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods that caused natural disasters and plagues. By far the highlight of the festival is the Yamaboko Junkō parade. The Yamaboko are giant wooden floats that are assembled in a traditional Japanese way that doesn’t use nails.
These floats are mounted onto wooden wheels and are pulled through the narrow streets of Kyoto by at least 40 men during the parade. All eyes will be fixed on the chigo, though, during the parade. The chigo is a young boy who is chosen to act as the deity’s special page that has to cut a sacred rope with his sword in one slice as part of the ritual.
In the days leading to the Yamaboko Junkō parade, attend the Yoiyama Festival, which allows parade goers to check out the floats that also act as shrines or as museums holding priceless artefacts. As with every Natsumatsuri, do check out the yatai, street stalls selling traditional Japanese snacks and food, as well as the game stalls where the gamed can win bags of goldfish and other trinkets.
To feel like a part of the rich Japanese culture, don on a yukata (summer kimono). Yumeyakata has a wide range of colourful yukata for rent for both men and women.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
The month-long summer festival runs from 1 to 29 July 2016. The Yamaboko Junkō parades are held from 17 to 24 July. It’s best to head to the intersection of Shinjo and Karasuma, where the parade begins. Arrive early for the best views. Entry to all events is free.
From Singapore, fly Singapore Airlines or All Nippon Airways direct to Kansai International Airport (KIX). From Kuala Lumpur, fly Malaysia Airlines or Japan Airlines. From KIX, grab the Hankyu Tourist Pass with Limousine BusTicket (from US$18) at the Kansai Tourist Information Center for fast transport to Kyoto.
Enjoy a full Japanese experience of staying in a ryokan with modern comforts at Maifukan, situated within Gion. Their combination Japanese/ Western-style rooms let guests enjoy the best of both worlds (from US$143 per pax per night).