Focus on Japan: the Gion Festival and Bon Festival

By Lawrence I. Charters

Off Duty, July 1986, pp. JPN8, 9a.

Although the weather might be oppressive, July is a spirited month, full of celebrations, parades and intriguing festivals.

It is July in Japan, and you are feeling tired, hot and soggy. The temperature and humidity are both trying to break 100, and you perspiring nonstop in places you weren’t even aware you could sweat. Your already poor sleep is in no way alleviated by the appearance of the sun, bright-eyed and eager, at 4:30 a.m. Through all of this, a single thought holds a measure of consolation: August will probably be worse.

But there are ways to beat the heat, and as it happens, some of the best ways are also the most fun. July is not a time to sit home and watch old movies on TV, but to get out, see the world, expand your awareness of your environment and exercise off all the winter padding you are still carrying around.

According to an old saying, which you’ve probably already heard, you are a fool if you visit Japan and do not climb Mount Fuji. Not only is it the highest mountain in Japan, it is also considered a Shinto god. Each year, tens of thousands of people labor their way to the top as a form of spiritual devotion, and just as many make the same trip for less other-worldly reasons, mostly recreational and photographic.

While climbing Fuji is not too difficult, it is still a climb and not a hike, and you should prepare accordingly. You are strongly advised to join one of the trips planned by the base tour officers; they have experience in making all the necessary arrangements. A typical climb begins on a Saturday; after resting the night in a mountainside hotel — more of a hut, to be honest — the climbers rise really early in the morning in order to reach the top just at sunrise. The view is spectacular, and you will never again wonder why Japan calls itself “the land of the rising sun.”

Climbing season runs from July 1 to August 31, and base tour offices usually have trips planned for every weekend during the season. Last year, entire commands participated in joint climbs, and at least one (brief) touch football game was played at the summit.

Some people enjoy mountain beauty, but not so much that they feel compelled to climb mountains on the strength of it. Fortunately, July also happens to be an ideal time for visiting the rugged Hakone Mountains west of Tokyo, or taking the traditional loop around Fuji Five Lakes — so named for the five lakes at the base of the mountain. Or visiting Nikko, with its breathtaking falls and fabulous Toshogu Shrine.

Giant floats are the most visible symbols of the Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival), celebrated each year in Kyoto.
Giant floats are the most visible symbols of the Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival), celebrated each year in Kyoto. Scanned image of original photo.

July’s biggest event is Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri or Gion Festival, which may well be the oldest celebration held anywhere in the world. First observed in AD 869, the festival was intended as a way of calling the gods to combat an epidemic then sweeping the city. Over the years, the festival’s focus has changed to some extent; while the original purpose is still remembered, today’s Gion Matsuri concentrates on fun. Held throughout the entire month of July, the festival peaks with a massive and very colorful parade on July 17.

Because it is the middle of the week, you may have to take leave to see the parade — so take it. In terms of sheer grandeur, Gion ranks as arguably the most impressive celebration held in Japan, with literally thousands of people parading in costumes dating back to the ninth century. The huge floats, some towering over 70 feet in the air, are covered with rich tapestries, and some carry a couple of dozen musicians playing ancient instruments and singing age-old songs.

In addition to giant floats, the Gion Festival is noted for thousands of parade participates dressed in costumes dating back to the 9th century.
In addition to giant floats, the Gion Festival is noted for thousands of parade participates dressed in costumes dating back to the 9th century. Scanned image of original photo.

Kyoto is packed during this time, so you are strongly advised to drop everything immediately and dash to your base tours office. People sign up for this event months in advance, so ask to be put on a waiting list if the tours are full.

Though not recognized as an official holiday, the Bon Matsuri, essentially a festival for the dead, ranks as the second most widely celebrated festival in Japan, surpassed only by New Year’s. In Buddhist Japan, the dead are mourned for 100 years; during Bon, these departed relatives are thought to return home to visit with the living. This is not a solemn occasion, though, as the living are expected to entertain the dead with songs, dances and other festivities.

Bon is often called the “Festival of Lanterns” as it is common to decorate parks and graveyards with lighted lanterns at this time. Homes and cemeteries are cleaned in preparation for the festival, and outdoor dance pavilions readied for the enchanting Bon-odori, a traditional dance of rejoicing performed by masses of people dressed in summer yukata (lightweight cotton robes).

Bon is traditionally observed between July 13 and 15, but local neighborhoods, villages and towns hold festivals anytime between mid-July and early August. Many bases, and even individual commands on bases, hold their own Bon festivals, and Americans are not only invited to attend, they are expected to participate.

For those who missed the Independence Day fireworks on the 4th, take heart: many Bon celebrations include a fireworks display. And this doesn’t mean simply a pretty rocket or three and a show that’s over before your hotdog is finished. Yokosuka will stage a display right on the waterfront with several thousand rockets sometime in late July, as will Kamakura, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Tokyo will put on several displays in late July and early August, mostly along the banks of the city’s rivers.

Iwakuni residents should take care not to miss the Kangensai or Music Festival of the Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima on July 16 and 17. Colorfully decorated boats cruise around the island accompanied by ancient music, while Itsukushima Shrine plays host to some of the most unusual sacred dances in all Japan. If you’ve never been to Iwakuni, this is a good time to visit; Miyajima has long been considered one of the loveliest spots in the entire island nation, and Iwakuni also boasts the beautiful Kintai Bridge, Kikko Park and Iwakuni Castle.

From July 1 to 15 the Hakata Yamagasa festival takes place at Fukuoka. On the final day, the celebrations culminate with a lively parade featuring a fleet of giant floats topped with elaborate decorations. These are either pulled or shouldered through the streets by brightly attired young men.

On July 7 all Japan celebrates the Tanabata or Star Festival, which is dedicated to the stars Vega and Altair. As an offering to these two stars, who meet across the Milky Way, children set up bamboo branches to which colorful strips of paper bearing poems are tied.

At Nachi-Katsuura, in Wakayama Prefecture, the Nachi Himatsuri or Fire Festival of Nachi Shrine takes place on July 14. The highlight of this celebration is a procession of 12 giant torches carried by white-robed priests.

Horses, both tamed and wild, are the subjects of the Soma Nomaoi or Wild Horse Chasing on Hibarigahara, Haramachi in Fukushima Prefecture on July 24. A thousand riders in ancient armor vie for three shrine flags in a melee on the plain. Then men in traditional costume try to catch a number of wild horses chased into an enclosure by the horsemen.

In the Tenjin Matsuri of Temmangu Shrine in Osaka on July 25, a fleet of sacred boats bearing shrine palanquins sail down the river escorted by other vessels carrying images of historical interest.

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