July

JAPAN: Kyoto (Gion Matsuri / 祇園祭)

If your travel itinerary to Kyoto was not already bursting at the seams with things to and places to see, there is one more item which merits consideration.  It is the Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival/祇園祭) which takes place during the entire month of July and is punctuated by two float processions, (Yamaboko Junko/ 山鉾巡行), held on July 17 and July 24.  It is the largest and most famous festival in Japan.

The festival originated in 869 when the Japanese people will suffering from plague and pestilence. The Emperor Seiwa ordered the people to pray to the god of Yasaka Shrine to deliver them from all that ailed them and the practice was repeated whenever there was an outbreak. In 970 it became an annual event that eventually evolved into a huge celebration of Kyoto culture. During the Edo period, the wealthy merchant class used the festival/ parade to brandish their wealth and thus it grew into a more elaborate event.

Although the Gion Matsuri is centered on a collection of magnificent parade floats known as “yamaboko,” the events preceding the float processions known as “yoiyama” also draw huge crowds to what seems like an colossal summer block party.  People happily stroll through Kyoto’s downtown area, which during the three nights leading up to the parade(s), is reserved for pedestrian only traffic. They don their summer yukatas and partake of the street food and beer offered at the various food stalls lining the streets. These events are called Yoi-yoi-yoi-yama, Yoi-yoi-yama and Yoi-yama, respectively.

Yoi-yama (宵山) takes place on July 16 and July 23, Yoi-yoi-yama (宵々山) on July 15 and July 22, and Yoi-yoi-yoi-yama (宵々々山) on July 14 and July 21. Some of the oldest families in the area open the front of their traditional machiya houses or shops to display their treasures to the public during this time. This tradition is known as Byobu Matsuri. (Byobu is a traditional Japanese folding screen.) You cannot enter the houses, but you can admire the treasures from outside.

Also prior to the parade(s), the yamaboko are brought out of their warehouses and assembled in designated spots on the major downtown streets of Kyoto (the main area is Shijo-dori between the Kamo-gawa River and Horikawa-dori). Yamaboko refers to the two types of floats used in the procession: the 23 yama and 10 hoko. The yama floats are enormous in size, some weighing as much as 12 tons and towering 25 meters in height.  The hoko floats are smaller but still an example of Kyoto’s finest craftsmanship and artistry.

The procession takes place between 9:00 and 11:30 and follows a three kilometer route.  Paid seating is available in front of the city hall but good viewing spots along the parade route are abundant.

So, if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in Kyoto in July, put on your summer yukata and come see what all the fun is about.

Web page:         http://gionfestival.org/

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Japan: Gunma/ Tatebayashi (Kenritsu Tsutsujigaoka Koen /Azalea Hill Park)

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Just thirty-seven miles north of Tokyo you will find the city of Tatebayashi. The city is famous for its Morin-ji temple, which was the setting for the famous Japanese folktale about a shape-shifting tanuki (raccoon). The story is called, Bunbuku Chagama and tells the tale of a magical tanuki who changes its form to a tea kettle to help reward his rescuer for his kindness.

During mid-April through mid-May however, tourists flock to the city for another reason, to view the 10,000 tsutsuji bushes (azaleas) in Kenritsu Tsutsujigaoka Koen (Azalea Hill Park), the largest azalea park in Japan. The park is approximately 12.6 hectares and records show that it dates back to 1556. It is said that the azalea bushes were first planted during the 17th century at this location by the lords of Tatebayashi Castle. As a matter of fact, today you can still see some of these 800 year old tsutsuji bushes which tower over 16 feet high.

The park was converted to a prefectural park in 1923 and has been maintained by Gunma Prefecture ever since. The azaleas reach full bloom in mid-April and the blooms last through early May. During this prime time, the park increases its admission fee from ¥310 to ¥620. This is also the time that the Azalea Festival takes place at the park. There are 50 different types of azaleas that bloom in the park, covering the grounds in a carpet of red, purple and white.

If you venture to the north, you will see the Jonuma Pond.  During the months of July through August, wild lotus flowers bloom here. A lotus flower festival takes place at the park during this time showcasing 200 different kinds of lotus flowers. Also, since the renkon (lotus root) is a common item on the Japanese dinner table, visitors will be afforded the opportunity to purchase lotus root bento (lunch boxes) and pasta at the Tsutsujigaoka Park Inn during the festival.

Kenritsu Tsutsujigaoka Koen draws over 200,000 visitors during the height of the azalea season. Access to the park is easy via the Tobu Railway Isesaki Line. Exit at Tatebayashi Station and you will reach your destination in 25 minutes on foot or a mere 5 minutes by local taxi.

Whether you want to learn more about the famous Japanese folktale or you simply want to enjoy the beauty of the flowers at Kenritsu Tsutsujigaoka Koen, Tatebayashi City can easily fit into your itinerary when you are traveling in the Tokyo area.

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Web page:       http://www.city.tatebayashi.gunma.jp/tsutsuji/

Address:          3278 Hanayama-cho, Tatebayashi-shi, Gunma