The Big 3 “Oddity” Festivals of Kyoto, Continuing from the Heian Period
There are a great many traditional festivals (“matsuri”) in Kyoto, which can be broken into a number of categories. For example, the Gozan no Okuribi festival we’ve introduced before is one of Kyoto’s Big 3 fire festivals. This time around, we’re covering the Big 3 category for “oddity” festivals. All of the three in this selection of strange festivals are famous and attract many people come opening day. So why don’t you go and get your fill of their unique atmospheres, as well?
Reference: Big 3 Kyoto Fire Festivals
Kurama Fire Festival; Gozan no Okuribi festival; Seiryo-ji’s Torch Ceremony
This marvelous and strange dance is a sight from the Yasurai Matsuri, held at Imamiya Shrine on the second Sunday of April. Yasurai Matsuri began in the Heian era as a festival to ward off misfortune, held during the fall of the cherry blossoms as diseases often spread during that time. It involves a vigorous dance where red- and black-haired demons, including both adult and children, beat drums and swing their hair as they leap. Parading through the streets of Kyoto
Here is an elegant hanagasa (“flower umbrella”). It’s said that entering beneath a hanagasa decorated with cherry blossom and camellias will remove sickness, and it is here we find the original purpose of the festival. With a legend saying that going within will keep you from falling ill for the year, many guests find themselves ducking into the umbrella.
There is dancing in front of a certain famous aburi-mochi (roasted rice cakes) shop, too. If you come all this way, be sure to grab a delicious aburi-mochi as well.
Dates: April, Map
Uzumasa Ushi-matsuri (Cow Festival)
Held at Koryu-ji, which is said to be Kyoto’s oldest temple, the Ushi-matsuri happened come the start of October to pray for a bountiful harvest and to ward off pestilence. Wearing a white mask, a monk (representing the deity) sits astride a cow and moves slowly while accompanied by the Four Heavenly Kings in the form of red and blue demons.
Unfortunately, the festival has been inactive these last years, with no plans to restart. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have it revived, though?
Dates: October, Map
Kurama Fire Festival
The Kurama Fire Festival, held on the evening of October 22, is considered as one of the Big 3 for both Kyoto’s fire and Kyoto’s “oddity” festivals. It began in the Heian period as a way to quell disaster following a huge earthquake and continued revolts.
At 6 o’clock on the day of the festival, children (with small torches) and adults (with large ones) start to parade through the streets, filling the town with torchlight.
Come 8 o’clock, the sounds of bells and drums begin to ring and echo, and the huge torches are all brought together at the otabisho (stop of the sacred procession) to be stood up all at once. Each of these massive torches is near 100 kg, needing the efforts of two or three adults. Heavy as they are, at times they let out showers of hurtling sparks, but this is one of the joys of the festival, making for a powerful sight. As it’s quite hard to stand them up, once successfully erected a great cheer rises up from the crowd. After all the big torches are upright, the nawakiri (“bond-cutting”) is held and all the torches are burnt.
As one of Kyoto’s Big 3 festivals, the Jidai Matsuri, is held on October 22 as well, the Kurama Fire Festival can be crowded even by Kyoto matsuri standards. Take care not to get swept away by the surge of the crowd! That said, once you’ve experience that you can really understand the wild joy of it.
Dates: October 22, Map
Reference: Big 3 Kyoto Festivals
Jidai Matsuri, Aoi Matsuri, Gion Matsuri