Saturday, July 17, 2010

Kyoto - Second Day

Last night we decided that we might save money and eat simpler breakfast. We bought bread (which was surprisingly like chala) and cheese for breakfast. We arranged a small table in our room and enjoyed breakfast.

Today the Gion Festival reached its peak - the procession of the floats. We took a bus to the area, and then walked toward the route. The intersection of the two main streets was so packed we couldn't see the floats nor could we progress along the route. We did a roundabout and returned through a side street a bit further down the procession route, where we could see the progression of the floats rather clearly.

The procession consists of two types of floats; small ones, that are like small vans with some decoration on top,

and large ones, that are built like a pagoda with a high mast that reaches several stories high.

The large ones are carried by a crew of people that chant, hit drums and play the flutes.

A few people stay on the roof and their job is to stabilize the tall mast.

In front of this wagon stand two "directors" who instruct the carriers when to go forward and when to stop, in a set of ceremonial sweeps.

Each float is preceded by a host of people that walk in front of it. These people wore special customs and some of them also perform various dances and musical steps.

The large floats also have a crew for pulling it forward with two thick ropes.

Beyond each float there are people carrying small carts with, apparently, additional ritualistic supplies.

The floats are decorated by precious ornaments from the 16-17th century. Some of them were purchased through trade and show European and Indian themes, which was surprising.

At set points along the route each float stopped and did a ceremony or a show. We realized this was the case a bit belatedly and saw these only from afar.

The weather was as usual very hot and humid, and most of the people in the procession were standing in direct sunlight throughout the affair. Although we were in a relatively early point in the route, it was clear that some of them were suffering.

We chose (by mistake, more than planning) to be on the shaded side of the street so were saved from the sun, but it was still very hot and we consumed quite a number of cold water bottle. (We did not remark on it, but there is a huge number of vending machines all over the place, so you can get water/juice/cold tea/coffee everywhere.) We escaped the crowd to sit on the pavement to cool down while the floats stopped.

All by all, it was a very hot event, but worth seeing.

After a while we decided we got the idea, and decided to move on. We had to walk for a while to get far enough from the closed zone to get on a bus.

We took a bus to Arashiyama, a small rural area on the skirts of Kyoto. The bus station was next to a wide river, and around it was bustling of activity. It was clear that the big festival did not draw all the crowds to it.

We stopped for lunch at a relatively touristic place, and heard throughout our lunch a big American guy conversing very slowly with a Japanese couple. Apparently he served as a language tutor and trying to get them to speak more fluently.

We walked along the river and then climbed onto a hill. Due to the heat, every climb became a strenuous sweaty affair, and was met with unhappy responses from our crew. When we got to the top we reached one of the hallmarks of the area, a bamboo forest.

Going downhill through the forest we got to the Tenrui Temple. This is a large temple of a Zen nature, and has a large contemplation halls overlooking picturesque zen garden. We strolled through the garden and enjoyed the views and suffered from the heat.

After exiting the temple, we decided we were drenched and exhausted from the heat, and so made our way back to the bus station.

We rode the bus back to the hotel.

By now going through the huge structure of Kyoto Station was a familiar experience. You get off the bus, go into the underground mall, go up the escalator to street level next to the station, go up to the 2nd floor, cross the main hall, go down to 1st floor and then to ground floor. Pass through a hall of restaurants and shops and finally exit back to the heat just across from the hotel. Wait until the green light, cross the street and safely into the hotel lobby.

After some rest we decided to go at dusk time to the Gion district. This is the old entertainment area and consists of small streets lined with traditional houses, many of them restaurants, pubs, and hosting houses. This is where there is a chance to see a Geisha on her way to work, although these are rare sighting.

When we got there we realized that another part of the Festival is taking place. Three "portable" shrines are moved from one of the temples to a display elsewhere (we lated discovered them in downtown Kyoto). This was done by a procession of 1000 (according to the guide book) man dressed in traditional cloths that carry the shrines while chanting and shaking it so that the bells on the shrine ring.

We run into the procession few times through the small streets. We saw only one shrine at a time, so I guess they either had three heads going through different routes or had them spaced out in time.

On the first street corner we saw the festival I saw someone in the crowd pointing up to a balcony, and I quickly looked up and saw for few second a white painted face. Not sure if she was a proper Geisha or not, but we might count that as a sighting.

After the passage of the shrine we wondered the streets for a while, enjoying the scenery and the lighted paper lanterns.

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