Friday, July 24, 2009

Yamaguchi Gion Festival!!

A couple hundred men dressed in white boxers, red stamps and hachimaki (stylized bandanas) were already standing in front of Yasakajinja shrine when we arrived at 6 in the afternoon on Monday. The heat of the day was persisting still and a friend graciously gave us an extra hachimaki to wipe the sweat off our faces.

Some wore white tabi boots, some wore sneakers and one was gaijin!

Three girls dresses as Heian beauties with "shaved" eyebrows and red painted dots

We were in good spirits though because one of the largest festivals in Yamaguchi was about to begin: Gion Matsuri. It's apparently modeled after the very large festival in Kyoto around the same time. Our version entails the carrying of three portable shrines about 1 or 2 km to another shrine where they stay for one week. The most notable feature is the sagimai or heron dance.

Sagimai, in action

Truthfully, the dance was a bit anticlimatic. Two men dressed as herons walked in a circle slowly flapping their wings interspaced by two more men wearing straw wigs, twirling what looked like black batons (maybe flutes, maybe kendo sticks? not sure). Three live instrumentalists accompanied them (a flute and a couple percussionists), and two adorable eight year old boys in the middle of the whole spectacle hopped twice and hit little double-headed drums strapped to their chests at various intervals.

The best part of the festival for us was watching the multitude of men in white gearing up for their trek around the neighborhood with the portable shrines on their shoulders. Even with twenty or so men carrying the shrine at any given time, and plenty of replacements on hand, they still looked exhausted when we saw them a few hours later depositing the shrines in their resting place for the week.

Tossing the portable shrine in the middle of the street

After the traditional activities, we wandered over to the main shopping area where the street was filled with young people wearing yukatas (summer kimonos), games (ring tosses, catching goldfish) and food vendors (takoyaki, french fries, shaved ice, cotton candy, and hot dogs). We managed to find a vegetarian option for me: osakayaki. It's a grilled dough/egg/spring onion package, covered in sweet okonomiyaki sauce and eaten hot. Yum.

Osakayaki: my new favorite festival food

Tomorrow, the 24th, there's supposed to be the second day of the festival where all the people join in a big dance, but it's cancelled because of the major flooding on Tuesday (don't worry, we live on high ground, but we did cancel classes that day because the roads were flooded). Keep those families in your thoughts and prayers.

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