I feel like I am always starting my posts with an apology, but again, sorry for the lack of updates recently! As expected, schoolwork takes a lot of my time these days. But last week Thursday was a day of matsuri (festivals) for me here in Kyoto! Every year on October 22, Kyoto holds the Jidai Matsuri (時代祭り), one of the three most famous matsuri in Kyoto. For the Jidai Matsuri, participants dress up in authentic feudal costumes from the Meiji Era to the Heian era. I was most looking forward to seeing costumes from the Edo Period, my favorite period of Japanese history!
Although we had our regular classes on Thursday, during our lunch break a group of us walked from campus to the Imperial Palace (an extremely grueling distance — and by ‘extremely grueling,’ I mean ‘5 minutes’ – our campus is literally next door to the Imperial Palace) where the parade was set to start at 12:30pm.
Strolling from class to the matsuri. (On a side note, I cut through these Palace grounds every day when I’m riding my bicycle to school.)
We had about an hour and a half before our next class and about forty minutes to kill before the parade started, so we took some time to admire the costumes of the participants!
Anachronism was the name of the game at the Jidai Matsuri.
Anachronism, and relaxation. A lot of the people dressed up looked exhausted or bored – this guy was just a bit more obvious about it.
A lot of the participants were sitting around, relaxing – perhaps waiting to do something, or maybe they had already marched or performed before we got there. When Aisling and I approached this group to take a photo, this man insisted we each take a picture with him. Although I couldn’t totally understand his Kansai dialect, I did understand that he said they weren’t marching as part of an era of Japanese history – but had some relation to a famous family? I didn’t catch the name of which family their costume was related to, which is a shame. A chance to use all those semesters studying Japanese history passed on by!
So hi, here’s my face! And now Aisling’s:
These guys were super adorable. Thanks for letting me take your picture, adorable guys!
Excuse the odd angle of this photo – when I took it, I tried to crop out anything that would give away the fact that this photo was taken in 2015, so you can all suspend your disbelief for a bit and pretend this was taken way back in the day.
I really got a kick out of people wearing authentic costumes using modern devices like watches and phones, but some of my classmates were less than impressed.
Soon after this, Aisling and I made our way back to where the parade would begin, and elbowed our way into a spot as close to the front as we could get, without having bought reserved seating.
That being said, we were still about four rows of heads-in-the-way from the parade, and I didn’t get many good photos from the parade itself.
We at least got to watch the parade from the Meiji Era through the end of the Edo era before we had to head back to campus. Our teacher was so impressed and proud of us all for showing up to class that day. Apparently, she and another teacher had expected about half of us to skip out to watch the whole parade, but we all attended class that day (although some of my classmates rolled in a solid 15 minutes late, heh!)
After class, I geared up to attend a different matsuri that began at 6pm – the Kurama Fire Festival (鞍馬の火祭). The Kurama Fire Festival is held also held annually on October 22nd in a village on the outskirts of Kyoto. At the Kurama Fire Festival, citizens light giant pine torches on fire and parade them through the town both as a rite of passage for youth, and to honor the gods enshrined at the Kurama Shrine. To get to Kurama, you have to take a 45-minute train ride, although everything I had read online suggested going early, as the mass of tourists flooding the trains close to the start of the festival could potentially make getting on a train impossible.
Unfortunately, my festival-buddy wasn’t through with class until 4:30pm, so we ended up catching a train that was cutting it close to the 6pm start time. And for once, the internet was not exaggerating. The station servicing Kurama was crowded to the point that we had to form a line that wrapped throughout the station to wait to get on a train. Waiting in line to board the train was probably a 15-minute affair, followed by another 15 minutes of squeezing into a train car and waiting for others to squeeze in after us.
The train cars were packed with tourists, and there wasn’t any room to move, or any air to breathe that hadn’t just come out of someone else’s mouth. When we finally pulled into Kurama station 45 minutes later, you could hear everyone sigh with relief. …Of course, that relief was short-lived, because after pushing our way out of the train car, we were stopped on the platform. A squad of police officers informed us that the streets were so crowded, that it was physically impossible for us to move forward. So we waited. And waited. And we waited for so long on the platform, that the next train pulled in behind us!
Finally, the police allowed us to actually get off the train platform and make our way to the town. I had expected the festival to be crowded, perhaps similar to what I had experienced at the Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri in Osaka Prefecture – but nothing could have prepared me for how crowded the Fire Festival was. The police were right in saying that it was physically impossible for us to move forward. Police erected barricades kept the tourists to either side of the street to allow the villagers and their massive torches to pass through without endangering anyone. We were funneled into a predetermined loop around the town in walkways so narrow you were shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone else.
I’m pretty sure I saw more police officers than village participants.
After being funneled onto the narrow walkways, we weren’t allowed to pause to take photos or to take in the scenery. The police constantly instructed us to keep moving. On the one hand, I understand that the more you stop, the more the people behind you can’t move forward, but it made actually watching the festival happen near impossible.
This officer with the loudspeaker was instructing me to keep moving. Sorry, officer! I moved right after this. I am also realizing that these photos make the festival look more like a riot than anything else – I do want to assure you that despite the hundreds of people squeezed up against each other and being herded through the town like cattle, it was a really calm and orderly festival! No one got out of line or tried to break through the barricades to wander freely.
After about half an hour of trudging through the town on the predetermined course, we were suddenly funneled into an area behind the town and well out of view of anything festival-related. This was probably the worst part about the night. We spent forty minutes as a sea of people, moving two inches at a time, funneled onto this tiny bridge area:
The view from the bridge (when I finally made it) back to the sea of people still waiting to move forward.
Then, our reward for finally making it over the bridge? You’re back at the station, with nowhere to go except on a train back home! Most festival-goers did just make their way back to the station, but when we were told that the wait to get onto a train departing Kurama was two hours, we decided to take a breather from the crowd and go down the one road available to us to walk freely on.
Then, just as we started to make our way down the road in search of food, a parade of villagers and torches headed our way! Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Moreover, I was actually in a spot with no one in front of me (but the police), and I could stand in one place without being told to keep moving, so I could finally, finally take some photos!
Apparently, the Fire Festival begins with children carrying relatively small torches, and ends with adults carrying massive ones – so we caught the beginning of the adults and the 80kg torches!
My festival buddy inadvertently ended up following the march of giant torches back to the main shrine, where it looked like they were gearing up for some sort of finale. However, we didn’t stay to watch it, as we figured that the wait to get back on a train at that point could be so long, we could end up missing the last train home and the thought of being stranded over an hour away from the city center and our dorms was less than appealing.
At the end of the day, the Kurama Fire Festival was definitely an interesting experience. I can’t say I’d recommend it – the hours spent in crowds waiting was only really worth it because we happened to be in the right place at the right time for the last part. It’s definitely not a tourist-friendly event. Still, I don’t think it’s the festival’s fault or even responsibility to make it tourist-friendly – this village has been doing this fire festival since 940 A.D., and the hundreds of us sight-seers are the ones showing up in their town to watch it. Anyway, if you are interested in the Kurama Fire Festival, just be prepared to be squeezed in a crowd of people for very, very long periods of time!
All in all, last week was a pretty fantastic week for matsuri. Up next is momiji season – the weather is already getting pretty cold here. My teachers keep saying that the colder it gets, the more beautiful the autumn colors will be, so let’s all hope it gets pretty cold!