The night before Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri (festival) most of the city’s downtown is closed to cars and trucks. Yakuza wannabes set up street stalls selling squid on a stick, hotdogs, yakitori, warm beer, iced drinks, and lots and lots of games for children. With a bit of skill, you can catch and take home a new pet: goldfish or turtles or crabs. There is also a “lottery” game in which you pick a number and then hope for a prize. You pay 300 yen, inevitably lose, and then get a consolation prize.
The thugs who man (and often woman) the stalls roll their Rs, use casual verb forms to one and all, and have to pay the real mob a basho-dai (inflated “rent” for setting up their stalls on the street). The cops do crowd control and emergency services but leave the stall owners to their own devices.
Yesterday there were heavy thundershowers at 4 pm, so it was cooler than usual. The main streets are closed off from 6 pm for Yoiyama, and most women come in yukata, brightly colored cotton summer kimono. Many men wear jimbei, which is a lightweight cotton outfit that can double as pajamas or for relaxing at home.
On the side streets off of Karasuma Dori (street), old Kyoto families open the doors to their machiya townhouses and show off their heirlooms: byobuscreens, fans, and more. It is here too where most of the floats, the enormous Yamaboko, that are the feature attraction of Gion Festival, are parked for the night. You can get right up to them, which will not be the case on festival day.
Unlike Gion Festival, which is now mainly an event for older tourists bused in from the provinces, Yoiyama is mainly for Kyotoites. People of all ages—though the young and families with small children are definitely in the majority—come out in their finest summer wear. From our neighborhood groups of young women headed out to the bus stop in their yukata, making or confirming plans on their cell phones.
After two hours, with most of our bodily and spiritual needs sated—and the crowd growing ever denser—we fled for home.
Monday, July 17, 2006