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: Tokyo (Yasukuni Shrine / 靖国神社)


Daiichi Torii


During my most recent visit to Japan in early September of 2016, I had the honor of visiting the most controversial Shinto shrine in the Asia-Pacific region. Located in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo, the Yasukuni Shrine was founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869 and commemorates those who lost their lives fighting for their country.  Whenever a Japanese leader visits the shrine, it provokes protests across the region as well as public controversy in global media.


Statue dedicated to a war lord

In the Shinto religion, the souls of the deceased become kami (deities) and there are over 2 million kami listed in the Yasukuni Symbolic Registry of Divinities.  Most of the names on the list are those of soldiers. However, the list also includes the names of women and students who worked in factories for the war effort and were involved in relief operations in the battlefield. Further, the list is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent. Yasukuni Shrine also honors the souls of 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans.  What creates controversy is the fact that the list also includes the names of 1,068 war criminals, 14 of whom are considered A-Class.




Memorial to Patrol Boat Crew Members

The shrine sits on 6.25 hectares and includes several structures. Among these is the Haiden (the main prayer hall where worshipers come to pray) and the Honden (the main shrine where Yasukuni’s enshrined deities reside). The Honden is also the building where Shinto rituals are performed and it is generally closed to the public. The building located on the right side of the Haiden is the Sanshuden (Assembly Hall). Located directly behind the Sanshuden is the Tochakuden (Reception Hall). The Symbolic Registry of Divinities is stored in the Reijibo Hoanden, which is located directly behind the Honden.







There are several different gates (torii) located on both the causeway and shrine grounds. When moving through the grounds from east to west, the first torii visitors encounter is the Daiichi Torii. This large steel structure was the largest torii in Japan when it was first erected in 1921. It marks the main entrance to the shrine and measures approximately 25 meters tall and 34 meters wide.


Daini Torii

The second gate is The Daini Torii. It was erected in 1887 and is the largest bronze torii in Japan. Immediately following the Daini Torii is the Shinmon. This 6-meter tall hinoki cypress gate was first built in 1934 and restored in 1994. Each of its two doors bears a Chrysanthemum Crest measuring 1.5 meters in diameter.



Lastly there is the The Yushukan Museum. It contains various artifacts and documents relating to Japanese war casualties and military activity. The museum was established in 1882, and is considered to be the first and oldest war and military museum in Japan.





Memorial to Tokko Pilots


Memorial for War Widows and their Children


150 lb. Bronze Cannon from Fort Tenpozan in Kagoshima

Controversial or not, the shrine is a wonderful, tranquil place to visit despite its association with wars.



My Amulet Purchased at the Shrine

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Address:                       3-1-1 Kudan-kita,Tokyo,Japan


Japan: Aichi Prefecture / Nagoya (Atsuta Matsuri/ 熱田まつり )

The 1,900 year old Atsuta Jingu Shrine is host to 70 festivals throughout the year but the largest and most auspicious of these is the Atsuta Matsuri (Shobu-sai). The shrine, hidden among 1,000 year old cypress trees, is located in Nagoya in the Aichi Prefecture. It is said to be the home of the legendary Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi or the Sacred Sword Kusanagi, one of the three Imperial regalia.

On June 5th of every year, the Atsuta celebration takes place with parades, taiko drumming, martial arts displays and fireworks. The highlight of the festival is the five Kento Makiwara, large floats decorated with 365 lanterns. These floats are displayed at the entrance gates to the shrine and are lit up between the hours of 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM.

The Atsuta festivities begin at 10:00 AM with a special ceremony held in front of the shrine’s main sanctuary. Here, the Emperor’s messenger and the shrine’s priests pay homage to the gods of the shrine. A special dance called the Atsuta Kagura is performed to the tune of Japanese flutes and taiko drums. It is said that this local dance has been performed at the shrine since the shrine’s inception 1,900 years ago. The word kagura means god entertainment and refers to a form of Shinto theatrical dance that predates Noh. Visitors to the shrine during the matsuri will also have an opportunity to see kyudo (Japanese archery) and kendo (type of Japanese fencing).

In the evening, night stalls line the temple grounds offering delicious local delicacies and traditional matsuri fare. The fireworks take place at the Jingu Koen (Park) from 7:50 PM to 9:00 PM.

The festival is free to attend and the shrine can easily be accessed via the JR Tokaido Line from Nagoya Station to Atsuta Station.

Address:                      1-1-1 Jingu-Nishi, Atsuta-ku, Nagoya



Japan: Osaka Prefecture, Kishiwada City (Danjiri Matsuri)

Danjiri Matsuri are essentially cart pulling festivals held throughout Japan. The danjiri is a large cart in the shape of a shrine or temple. Weighing anywhere from one ton to four tons, it is often crafted out of wood with very ornate and elaborate carvings on it. Different neighborhoods, each with their own guild responsible for maintaining their own cart, participate in the Danjiri Matsuri. The danjiri is kept in storage for most of the year until the festival approaches. It is at this point that the cart is prepared with elaborate flower arrangements, prayer cards, ornaments and religious consecrations to be paraded up and down the streets. It is believed that spirits or gods reside in the danjiri much like in the mikoshi (portable shrines).

The Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is probably the most famous of all. Held annually during the month of September for over three hundred years, nothing gets the citizens of Kishiwada more riled up than the Danjiri Matsuri! The festival was established by the lord of Kishiwada Castle to pray for an abundant harvest. With thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators, it is easily one of the Osaka area’s rowdiest festivals.

The danjiri are pulled by two thick white ropes through the streets of Kishiwada by local residents with the town elders and musicians riding on the cart. People pull from the front and use the back ropes to turn the danjiri. The privilege to stand on top of the danjiri goes to the person in charge of controlling its direction. This person is called the daikugata. Directing the danjiri with paper fans is an art form and a sight not to be missed. The musicians stand under the daikugata playing various instruments including taiko drums, flutes and gongs called narimono. Their job is to energize the team pulling the cart by playing fast rhythms in places where the team runs fast and by beating taiko drums repeatedly when turning and skidding at an intersection. The locals call these movements yarimawashi.

As the danjiri race by, you realize that this is not just a parade but an actual competition, where each neighborhood competes to demonstrate how fast and skillful they are in maneuvering their cart. Each of the teams wear headbands and colorful matching happi coats with their local symbol emblazoned in the back. Most of the excitement and danger comes when the danjiri prepare to turn a sharp corner. The music plays louder and the yelling increases. Kishiwada police shutdown several major roads, creating a maze of at least ten city blocks for the danjiri to parade around. Along with the sound of the drums, gongs and yells you can hear sirens, as ambulances rush to help bystanders or danjiri riders who may have fallen.

As the sun goes down, the danjiri are covered in glowing lanterns and roll along at a much slower pace this time. The festival ends as the danjiri gather at an appointed place and a religious ceremony is held.

It is said that the people in Kishiwada live for the festival. The festival attracts more than 500,000 tourists to Kishiwada City, which has a population of only 200,000. During the Danjiri Matsuri, locals and tourists come together to create an overwhelming air of excitement that cannot be experienced elsewhere in the world.