We arrived in Kyoto just in time for the Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock) festival, which happens May 15 every year in Kyoto. According to The Mainisti, a Japanese paper in English language, “the festival originated in the era of Emperor Kinmei more than 1,400 years ago, when people prayed for no damage from rainstorms and good harvests.”
The parade runs along city streets between two important Shinto shrines, between conducting ceremony at each. We just stood along the streets with other members of the proletariat to watch a bit.
It was sort of like a Japanese equivalent of Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade in the US: over 500 people in beautiful Heian costumes, some riding horses and oxen and the like – except that their big sculptures contain Kami (helping spirits).
The biggest difference of all from a spectator’s perspective was the level of silence. The parade participants walked in silence. There was no blaring music, nor amplified commentary, nor engine noise from vehicles or other machines. And the crowd was mostly silent too as we watched: no wild cheering or yelling or even loud talking, just soft oo-s and ah-s and whispered comments to friends at some of the more spectacular displays. You could actually hear the clip clop of the animals’ feet and the creaking of the cart wheels as they passed.
I found this quiet profound.
I subsequently learned that this phenomenon, like most, has more sides to it. The Japan Times newspaper (English edition, combined with the excellent International Herald-Tribune), offered a review of an upcoming film about a middle-aged woman who leaves her husband after 30 years of marriage to seek her own individuated life of her choosing. This is apparently both radical and increasingly common. It said the ideal default way of being taught to Japanese is a stoic silence, which can translate into lack of verbal communication. The film illustrates the deep loneliness felt by many because of this: for many years, the only thing the husband said to the wife were three words: food, bath, bed.
Nevertheless, the cultural default to silence in a large crowd situation was profound to me. It allowed me to be present in a much more expansive energetic way than usual – more like in nature then in a city situation.