The Heron Dance at Gion Matsuri

The Heron Dance is one of the many unique events that are part of Gion Matsuri in July in Kyoto
The Heron Dance is one of the many unique events that are part of Gion Matsuri in July in Kyoto

One of the many unique events in Kyoto's month-long Gion Matsuri is the Heron Dance, which is performed by children on both July 16 and July 24.

The July 16 performance is held right on Shijo Dori, one block West of Yasaka Shrine. It is part of an event called Yoi-Miya ShinshinHono Gyoji. Shijo Dori is closed to all vehicles from 6 p.m., and several dances start at 7:00, beginning with a performance by three of Gion Kobu's maiko.

The Heron children are also part of the Hanagasa Junko procession on July 24, and they are once again part of series of performances inside Yasaka Shrine the begin when the parade has finished around 12:30 p.m., which was when I made this photo back in 2012.

If you look closely at the photo, you will see the string connecting the wings of the Herons. When the children lift their arms as they are doing here, the wings expand, and when they lower their hands to their sides, the wings collapse. It is a simple yet ingenious system, and the dance is one of my favorite parts of Hanagasa Junko, which is my favorite event of Gion Matsuri.

The most amazing aspect of Hanagasa Junko for me is the endurance shown by these children and all the other members of the procession who march and then perform afterwards.

Most of the participants arrive at the shrine by 9:00 a.m., pose for photographs for a short time, and leave Yasaka Shrine at 10:00 a.m. The parade lasts for about two hours, and most of the people walk for several kilometers under the incredibly hot and humid Kyoto sun in heavy costumes and makeup.

The dances and other entertainment begin once they return to Yasaka Shrine, and the Heron Dance is one of the last performances of the day at around 1:30 p.m., the hottest time of the afternoon. So, the children spend at least six hours in costume, most of this time either walking or dancing with stoic expressions on their faces.

Even the kami must be impressed by their dedication, let alone mere mortals like the rest of us!