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Mikoshi Arai is another lesser-known event of Gion Matsuri that is well worth attending. It is held every July 10, and the three portable shrines that play an important role in the festival’s ceremonies are purified by a Shinto priest. Men carry the shrines and these burning logs of bamboo from Yasaka Shrine to Shijo Bridge and back.
Although it’s unusually cold in Kyoto at the moment, spring and Miyako Odori are just around the corner. Miyako Odori, the largest and most famous dance performance of geisha and maiko, is held every year at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo in Gion Kobu in Kyoto from April 1 – 30. There are four shows daily, at 12:30 p.m., 2:o0 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 4:50 p.m. This photo of the maiko Makiko was taken at the 2007 Miyako Odori, when I had special permission to photograph the dances for my book Geisha & Maiko of Kyoto: Beauty, Art, & Dance (2009). More information about the dance and purchasing tickets can be found at the official Miyako Odori website in both English and Japanese.
Yama Boko, the grand procession of floats and main event of Gion Matsuri, is held on July 17 every year. The first Hoko float of the parade holds the Celestial Child (Chigo in Japanese), and the second, third and fourth Hoko floats have figurines instead of a real child. This photo is a close up of the figurine on the second float.
The Hoko floats are the larger two-story floats in the procession. They are so big they need to be pulled by large groups of men, anywhere from 15 – 50. The Yama floats are smaller (though still incredibly heavy) and are actually carried on the shoulders of the men from whatever district of Kyoto the float is from.
For any photographers interested in photographing Yama Boko, I recommend a lens of at least 200mm and preferably 300 mm. This photo was taken in 2008 with a Nikon 70 – 200mm VR1 on a Fuji S5 Pro. With the 1.5x crop factor and the lens at 200mm, I had just enough reach for a photo like this one.
The main events of Gion Matsuri start tonight in Kyoto with Yoiyama and conclude on Sunday with Yamaboko Junko. Although Yamaboko Junko (the procession of floats through the streets of Kyoto) is considered to be the highlight of the month-long festival, I always enjoy Yoiyama much more, probably because I love night photography and Japanese lanterns (chochin) so much.
During Yoiyama, all the floats that will be on parade on Sunday are on display on the side streets West of Karusama Dori and South of Oike Dori in Central Kyoto for three nights (7/14 – 7/16). There are also hundreds of food stands and souvenir stalls as well. I usually try to arrive at about 5 p.m. or so and just walk around to see what lanterns attract me most this year. It’s still a little too light at 6 p.m. to get the photos I want, but the sweet spot comes around 6:45 p.m. The darkening blue sky is in balance with the lanterns, so the sky is a rich blue and the lanterns don’t look overexposed in photographs.
By 7:15 the sky is too dark for my taste, and it’s time to put the camera away and head for the nearest cold beer stand. Fortunately, there are several on pretty much every block during the festival. A little photography, a little beer, and a little food. Not a bad way to spend an evening.
There are also several interesting events at Yasaka Shrine on 7/15 and 7/16. My favorite is Iwami Kagura, a form of folk dance based on Japanese mythology and Buddhist teachings. I believe the performance starts at 7:00 p.m. Like all the other events of Gion Matsuri, it will be extremely crowded. I recommend arriving at least an hour early.