Whenever we head to Japan, we always check to see whether there will be any festivals on local to where we’re staying. In 2015, we discovered that we would be in Kyoto at the right time to see the Mifune Matsuri in Arashiyama. We love Arashiyama and have visited it a couple of times.
We caught the train from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama on the JR line. The train was already at the platform when we reached Kyoto station, and was pretty crowded. We’d read that somewhere in the region of 100,000 people visit Arashiyama to watch the festival each year, so we were expecting the train to be full. We managed to get seats, then more people piled on until it was standing room only. It turned out that we were on a local train and not everyone was heading out to the festival.
We arrived at Saga station around lunch time. It was pretty quiet. We guessed that most people must already be at Kurumazaki shrine, getting ready for the procession to the Togetsukyo bridge. As we walked down into town, we passed a sign for a vegan café called Prunus.
It was lunchtime, we were hungry, and an opportunity to eat healthily instead of scavenging for onigiri in a combini had presented itself to us. So we climbed the stairs to the empty café. We sat at a table in the window and ordered from the extensive menu. Gradually the café began to fill up with customers, and I started to worry that we had missed the festival. We shared a plate of vegan gyoza and a salad, both of which were delicious. The salad was particularly good. I could almost feel the nutrients adding benefit to my body! I don’t know if there was an offer on, but we also got a free slice of savoury pound cake. Savoury cake, you might ask, what the heck is that about? It was surprisingly delicious.
We paid up and headed back out into the sunshine. The route into town still seemed quiet to me, further adding to my worries that we’d missed the show. It was around 1 p.m., and the procession from the shrine should have reached the river. Fortunately, when we got to Togetsukyo bridge, we found plenty of people lining the banks of the river, and plenty more rowing around in small blue boats. Huge boats were ferrying camera crews up and down the river as well, and covered boats were carrying groups of tourists along the river.
We crossed the bridge and wandered up the river bank. The narrow path was pressed with people, but we found a spot beneath some trees that gave us a good view across the river to the landing stage where the festival boats were gathering. Some kind of ceremony seemed to be happening in an area alongside the landing stage, and costumed people were starting to get into the boats.
We watched and waited for around half an hour, and then the action started. Boats started to leave the landing stage and were propelled up river by oarsmen in the prows. We could hear ghostly court music in the distance, and then the first of the festival boats started to move back down river along our bank towards us.
First a group of women in Heian-era court dress.
Then a wide open bird-prowed barge with women dancers in priestly dress.
The women performed a fan dance, accompanied by flautists and drummers.
A dragon-prowed barge followed on their heels, containing warrior-like young women who danced forcefully with extravagant arm gestures.
It was a serious business.
The Heian Court ladies returned and began the tradition of floating colourful fans on the surface of the river.
People who had hired the blue rowing boats jostled for position, as close to the barge as they could safely get, ready to swoop in as the barge moved off to claim a memento of the day.
Somehow, as we’d been focusing on the fan activity, another open barge of men in colourful costume had made its way past us and was crossing in front of the bridge down river from us.
With that, the festival seemed to be over, and people started to make their way off the river bank and back over the bridge into town.
As we crossed the bridge, we could see that there was still some activity up near the landing stage, so we headed up along the opposite bank of the river to stand behind the landing stage with other, more elegant hangers on.
We were rewarded with a clearer view of the Heian Court ladies, still floating their fans on the river, and smiling graciously at the spectators.
Further up the bank was a man with a set of carp streamers (koinobori/鯉幟), enjoying the spectacle as much as we were.
A few moments later, the barge that we had missed on the other side of the river made its way towards us. Two young men in bright orange costumes were performing an elegant dance.
The whole thing was a wonderful spectacle. The festival itself has an interesting story. Some websites describe it as a re-enactment of an Imperial boating party that happened on the Oi river in the Heian period, but an article on the Matsuri Times website remembers that there is a spiritual element to the festival as well. The soul of the 12th century scholar Kiyohara Yorinari is enshrined at Kurumazaki-jinja and every May is taken out in a mikoshi shrine to tour the neighbourhood. The mikoshi is transferred to a boat which then sits in the middle of the river, while the other boats travel around it, carrying the performers who pay their respects to the soul of Kiyohara Yorinori through song, poetry and dance. Mifune refers to the three main boats that feature in the festival (the Gozabune carrying the mikoshi, the dragon-prowed Ryutosen and the bird-prowed Gekisusen), but it also refers to the three performance arts of music, poetry and dance. I wish I had known this before we went, because I would have looked harder for the Gozabune. It must have been further up the river from where we were standing.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in Arashiyama, making a return visit to the bamboo groves, and popping in to look at Tenryu-ji, of which more later.
I always enjoy visiting Arashiyama, but seeing the Mifune Matsuri made our 2015 visit even more special. One of the better festivals we’ve visited in the Kyoto area.