Tuesday, July 14, 2009


The Music of Gion Matsuri
Kyoto, Japan

Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's most famous festivals, is upon us again.

Originating as an ancient purification ritual, the matsuri features street fairs, parades and spectacular floats and is attended by a quarter million visitors from Japan and abroad every year.

Curiously the festival is held during some of the most oppressive weather imaginable - temperatures are well into the 30s and are accompanied by debilitating levels of humidity.

Not only that. Since it's the tail end of the rainy season there's a fair chance festival goers will get drenched in one of Japan's legendary downpours.

Then there's the music.

The jangling bells, woozy flutes and ominous drums of Gion Matsuri are ubiquitous in Kyoto at this time of year. They are piped continuously through shopping arcades, main streets and, worst of all on underground train platforms where commuters are held hostage to their charmless drone.

Escape is all but impossible, the relentless boom of the drums only adds to the sense of ennui and depression as office workers endure their daily commute.

Removed from its ritualistic context, it's probably the least festive music you can imagine, a far cry from the rapturous sambas of Rio de Janeiro or the high energy excitement of San Francisco's Gay Parade.

Despite the faddish, hyper-modernity of Japan, the Matsuri music underlines how deeply the Japanese soul is rooted in tradition.

I can't help feeling ambivalent about this obsessive relationship with the past. Respect for the ancient ways can be an admirable trait, for example in the traditions which have created Japan's superlative cuisine. But one's best quality is often one's worst quality.

We love Japan partly because it has clung to its traditions longer than we have. But the ritualized conventions of Japanese society can also hinder spontaneity and social progress, or have the effect of shutting out the foreigner.

Most gaijin will probably never find themselves in Japan. Indeed, they are more likely to lose themselves.

Though Japan is crammed with experiences, sense impressions, and bizarre, unforgettable sights which baffle and charm, we don't belong to Japan and it will never belong to us.

As I become older, I realize that fitting in - just a bit - is what I crave; at least enough to somehow see myself reflected in the landscapes and soundscapes around me. Thus I suspect that one day I will leave Japan and head for a place where I can read the signs.

That's because getting a hold on Japan is like trying to grasp the elusive mountain mist. You spend an eternity attempting to track it down, then, just when you think you have it, it's gone.


Cushion Meg said...

Hi Shiffi, I feel almost the same way as you about the music of Gion matsuri though I was born in Japan and not a Westerner. But Osaka matsuri and Hakata matsuri are very different from Kyoto one! They have more lively and exciting! Contemporary Japanese culture has various aspects and some traditional Japanese scenens are also unfamiliar to many Japanese, I suppose.

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Thank you Meg, I'm glad I am not alone.

It's important to remember, though, there are some great aspects to Gion Matsuri. The floats are really spectacular and the procession is quite a sight.