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.

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Japan: Hachioji Geisha

Even if you have never visited Japan, you must be familiar with Japan’s geisha culture. With their distinctive white face, red lips and elaborately decorated hairstyle, the geisha remain an enduring symbol of Japan. The word geisha means performance person.  The geisha are the entertainers of Japan and their existence can be traced back to the 1600s (Edo period).  To become a geisha, it takes years of training. Geisha typically begin their training as early as sixteen years of age and are called maiko (geisha in training). The maiko receive extensive coaching in singing, dancing and playing traditional Japanese instruments as well as the use of proper customs and social skills.

It was estimated that Japan had over 80,000 geisha at one time, today that number has dwindled down to 1,000 – 2,000.  The geisha can primarily be found in Japan’s cultural capital of Kyoto.  They continue to work in traditional teahouses as they have always done, entertaining and charming their clientele with their highly cultivated skills. But you do not have to travel to Kyoto to see the geisha.  Hachioji, in western Tokyo, also has its own geisha culture.

Hachioji City is often overlooked by many people living in central Tokyo, but it is more densely populated than central London and has a vibrant city center.  Easily accessible by the central JR Chuo Line from Tokyo or Shinjuku stations, the city is renowned for its traditional Japanese festival, the Hachioji Matsuri (八王子まつり).

The three-day festival is held in the beginning of August and includes a parade of mikoshi (portable shrines) and nineteen dashi (floats), music and dance performances and over three hundred food and gift stands. It is the largest festival in Hachioji.  The festival also features performances by Hachioji’s geisha.

The geisha culture at its peak had 200-300 geisha working in over 30 restaurants in Hachioji, which was a busy transportation route to Edo (Tokyo). Today, there are less than 20 geisha working in the city. The geisha house in Hachioji is known as Yukinoe okiya, where 54-year-old geisha, Megumi is the okaasan (mother).

The geisha also participate in a series of geisha parades held in September.  The women, dressed in their traditional kimonos, dance and play music as they weave through the streets just north of Hachioji Station.  The parades are usually held between 6:00 to 9:00 PM and last 30 minutes.

So whether you are interested in learning more about the geisha culture or if you want to experience a traditional Japanese summer festival, take a quick trip to Hachioji.  Hachioji Station is just 51 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Chuo Line.

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Hachioji Matsuri








Megumisan helping a young geisha get ready



Japan: Traditions (Chochin/ 提灯)

In the third installment of Japanese traditions, I’d like to introduce you to one of three forms of traditional lighting in Japan called “chochin” (提灯). It is perhaps the oldest form of lighting, with records dating back to 1085 and perhaps the most popular in terms of being used for matsuri and events. The traditional chochin is made from paper or silk stretched over a split bamboo frame that is wound in a spiral. The lamp is collapsible and is hung from a hook at the top. Its main purpose is outside illumination and you will find them strung together and hung outside Shinto shrines. You will also find chochin hung in front of restaurant buildings all over Japan. The akachochin (red lantern) typically signifies an izakaya (a traditional Japanese drinking establishment.) It was originally used in the Yoshiwara district (red light district) to light the way of visitors but today it has lost that association.

Chochin hanging from the pleasure boat on Sumida River



Another form of folding lantern called Odawara chochin appeared in Japan during the Edo Period (1600-1868) and was used by travelers to light their path during the night. Later, the Bura chochin, round in shape and resembling a tea container became popular among travelers. They were hung from the end of a short brass rod which the samurai used as a weapon for self-defense.

Bura chochin

Bura chochin

Today, you can find chochin made from plastic and illuminated by a light bulb sold in souvenir shops both in Japan and abroad. The chochin is recognized worldwide as an icon of Japan and has been elevated to a symbol of celebration in modern Japanese society. As a matter of fact, every year from October 4th-6th, Nihonmatsu in Fukushima Prefecture hosts the Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri (Festival). The festival dates back to over 360 years ago and consists of 3,000 chochin illuminated and paraded around the city on taiko drum floats.

Nihonmatsu Chochin Matsuri

The omamori, the noren and the chochin are all a part of the time-honored culture of Japan. We are very fortunate that these traditions still live on today in modern Japan, enabling visitors to experience its history and customs. Whether you are visiting Japan for the first time or if this is several of many visits to this magnificent country, now you are armed with the knowledge and information to help you understand and appreciate some of what you see during your travels.


Japan: Kyoto (Aoi Matsuri)

The Aoi Matsuri, held annually on May 15, is one of the three main festivals which take place in Kyoto, Japan. Aoi is the Japanese term for Hollychock. The festival dates back to the 7th century and it is said that it started as a way to appease the gods after a severe storm destroyed the harvest. The flower was believed to protect against natural disasters and was used as a decoration throughout the festival. The festival is officially called Kamo Matsuri due to its association with the two Kamo Shrines: Shimogamo Shrine (Lower Shrine) and Kamigamo Shrine (Upper Shrine).

The festival features a parade with over 500 participants dressed in costumes from the Heian period (794-1185). The parade begins at 10:30 AM at the southern gate of the Imperial Palace of Kyoto. Around 11:15 AM, the procession crosses over the river located in front of the Shimogamo Shrine. Once at the shrine, there is a two hour ritual which takes place before the procession departs for the Kamigamo Shrine.

Each year, a new Saio is elected. The Saio was traditionally a young female member of the royal family who served as the high priestess of the Kamo Shrines. Today, the Saio is an unmarried woman who goes through a purification ceremony before the festival and is carried on a palanquin during the procession. The other main figure of the festival is the Imperial Messenger who leads the parade on horseback.

It is an amazing spectacle to watch as men on horseback, others carrying enormous arrangements of flowers, ornately decorated ox drawn carts and women dressed in traditional aristocratic costumes parade past you. Paid seating is available at the Imperial Palace and at the Kamo shrines as well as along the parade route. Otherwise, you would need to arrive significantly early to obtain a good spot without paying.

The Imperial Palace is 5 minutes on foot from Imadegawa Station on the Karasuma Subway Line.













Address:              Kyoto-Gyoen, Kamigyo-ku

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Japan: Kyoto (Jidai Matsuri)

The Jidai Matsuri (Festival of Ages), which began in 1895, is one of the largest festivals in Kyoto and takes place on October 22nd, the day during which the city became the capital of Japan in the year 794. The festival is in essence a historical reenactment parade with participants dressed in authentic costumes representing various periods and characters during Kyoto’s 1,074 year reign. The festival also commemorates the founding of the Heian-jingu Shrine, which was built to slow the city’s decline following the transfer of the capital to Tokyo in 1868.

The parade began as a small event with only six procession lines and has grown over the years to include twenty procession lines consisting of 2,000 participants and over 70 horses, which wind their way from the Old Imperial Palace to Heian-jingu Shrine. The procession is separated into historical eras and then further separated into themes. The parade begins with characters from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and continues in reverse chronological order until the beginning of the Heian period in 781. The festival’s honorary commissioners head the parade riding in horse drawn carriages. Following them are figures from the Meiji Restoration. There are marching bands with drums and flutes and soldiers who would have fought with the imperial forces, as well as some of the era’s most notable figures, including Sakamoto Ryoma. The largest group in the parade depicts the extravagant convoys sent by the shogun to represent him at important imperial ceremonies in Kyoto during the Edo period (1603-1867).

The Jidai Matsuri begins early in the morning with the mikoshi (portable shrines) carried out from the Old Imperial Palace. The procession starts in the afternoon and ends approximately 2 hours later at the Heian-jingu Shrine.

It is interesting to note that on July 25th, 1998, the 40th anniversary of Paris becoming Kyoto’s sister city, that the Jidai Matsuri was transported abroad for the first time. The procession began at the Arc de Triomphe and passed through such places as the Concord Plaza and the Louvre. Approximately 400 Kyoto citizens along with 260 Japanese residents of France joined local French participants in the parade, drawing over 200,000 spectators!









KYOTO_JIDAI_MATSURI 22-10-2013 04-28-13












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Japan: Kawasaki Halloween Parade

Halloween is a purely commercial holiday these days in America with costumes, decorations, etc. filling the shelves in stores just after Labor Day weekend, if not earlier. In a country that is renowned for its love of cosplay, Halloween has found a permanent home in Japan as well. There are events and parades held throughout the country and the most elaborate and famous of these is the Kawasaki Halloween Parade. (



Kawasaki City located in the Kanagawa Prefecture, between Tokyo and Yokohama is the 9th most populated city in Japan. On Halloween or just a few days preceding it, over 100,000 spectators along with over 3,000 participants descend on the city to stage a parade along a 1 mile route in the vicinity of JR Kawasaki Station and the nearby La Citadella shopping center. The parade route is flanked by food stalls as with any other “matsuri” in Japan as well as shops decorated with the Halloween theme catering to both tourists and locals. In addition to the parade, La Citadella offers a two week long celebration of Halloween with a series of events!









The annual parade began in Kawasaki 18 years ago and draws hardcore cosplayers and lovers of Halloween of all ages. The creativity of the participants is truly amazing. You will find everything from famous movie themed costumes like Pinhead from Hellraiser and Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street to classic Japanese horror characters like Sadako from the Ring series. There are also funny costumes like a lady dressed as a hamburger and a couple who joined the parade as a pair of Glico snacks. People even dress up their pets!






The event runs from 2:30 PM – 4:00 PM and is free to enter. If you love Halloween you must make a point of seeing it celebrated in Japan. The participants really give it their all and a good time is guaranteed to be had by everyone!















Japan: Okinawa (Ten Thousand Eisa Dance)

As previously stated, the islands that make up Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, have their own culture and customs that are different from the rest of the country. One example of this unique Okinawan culture is a famous dance called Eisa (エイサー). Eisa is a traditional dance with a long history. It originates from a folk song that used to be sung several hundred years ago. The dance style was passed down by groups of young people who would pay respect to their ancestors each summer by marching through their neighborhoods while playing taiko drums. However, the dance underwent drastic changes in 1995 and today it is Okinawa’s most internationally recognized performing art form.

Paying respect to one’s ancestors is part of Obon, a Japanese Buddhist custom which started over 500 years ago. This Buddhist custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to their ancestral family places and the spirits of their ancestors are said to revisit the household altars. The three-day event traditionally ends with a dance of joy called Bon Odori.

In 1995 the people of Okinawa incorporated the Eisa dance into this summer celebration. At that time, the first Summer Festival in Naha – Ten Thousand Eisa Dance Parade was held. With an open call inviting all those interested, a total of 8,000 performers spread out along Kokusai Dori (International Road) in Naha City and gave a spectacular performance. Every year the parade, which takes place on the first Sunday of August, grows in popularity and has become Okinawa’s leading festival.

For one full week, a variety of events unfold all around Kokusai Dori with the Ten Thousand Eisa Dance Parade being the main attraction. The unique rhythms and movements of Eisa are accompanied by the beating of drums and a beautiful, lively dance that involves the entire body. Recently some people have started using rock and pop music instead of just traditional music to create popular new styles of dance known as Creative Eisa.

The end of the parade is signified by a large group dance called the Eisa Pageant. A group of 1,000 selected participants practice for two months to perfect their synchronized movements. This show makes for a great finale with people up and down the street dancing to the beat of the taiko drum.

Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to participate in this dance that requires two months of practice. But anyone can participate in the Niwaka Eisa Dance Group. After two hours of practice, you’ll be able to perform Eisa in front of spectators. The cost of participation is ¥1,500.