It was hot in Kyoto, with the Gion Festival underway, and it would stay hot. Globally it was the hottest month in recorded history. In a week, 57 people died in Japan and another 18,347 were taken to hospital for heat injuries. There was a high-pressure front, the news said.
The Gion Festival originated in the year 829, as a religious ceremony to appease the gods. It is still Japan’s most famous festival. We were there in time for the second of two big parades.
Hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Kyoto, people fanning themselves with free paper fans and holding parasols over their heads to shield themselves from the sun, until police came along with bullhorns and said to lower them so others could see. One man installed his grandmother in the knot of people we were in at the curb. She was slumped and sweating under our feet somewhere, and he disappeared and returned now and then to bring her a cold rag and give her words of encouragement.
The main spectacle of this parade was the hoko floats, which can be 75 feet tall and weigh 12 tons. Crews of dozens of men pulled them with ropes like ships’ halyards. The hoko had no steerage, so when one got to a street intersection and need to make a turn, men laid split bamboo on the ground next to the spoke wheels, and the crews, chanting in unison, dragged the front ends through an arc, 90 degrees, to point in the new direction. Smaller floats preceded them, and there were girls on horseback dressed like geisha, groups of men in temple costumes, and children walking in formation in fanciful outfits.
We did not talk much, in the heat.
“Porcupines?” Frenchy said of one group of children, whose outfits had dozens of long white spines arcing from them.
“Lionfish, I think,” I said.
“Oh, of course you’re right.”
That morning the cicadas had blown out Frenchy’s hearing aids, which he was irritated to need anyway. We walked miles, over the river, and north toward the Yasaka Shrine that hosted the festival. We ate perfect ramen in a shop with maybe eight seats and wandered the narrow streets of Gion, where there was shade only until the sun rose overhead. Now we were in the crowds and clamor of Gion, and close to being done.
“I’m not as young as I used to be,” I said.
“Do you see the tears coming down my face for you?” Frenchy said. I could remember a trip to Vietnam where he told me, during an arduous hike that he handled better than I did, that we would go back there one day and they would think I was his older brother.
It is both solace and challenge to travel with others. Frenchy had ridden with a young Japanese couple in the elevator that morning. They had coffee in paper cups, and she said something about hers being too hot and tried to balance it on the rail. Her boyfriend or husband said something to her—good advice too late, no doubt—and she looked at him and put the cup against his wrist. Frenchy said he could not help chuckling as he got off at our floor. They looked up ruefully and smiled.
Dinner that night was from the 7-11: sandwiches (teriyaki chicken and egg; ham, cheese, and lettuce), a miniature can of Pringles knockoffs, dessert (custard pudding and strawberry trifle), and Suntory whiskey that cost $2.70. Breakfast the next morning was curry donuts, delicious but greasy.
We took a quick train out to Ōtsu to the temple with Bashō’s grave. I did not tell Frenchy it was only one place Bashō was said to be buried. We got out of the station and I oriented us to the map and we started walking. I said it had gotten hotter, and Frenchy said, “Yeah, well, it has been 12 minutes.”
Then, as if it had nothing to do with anything, he said his old military-diving instructor, Homer Crosby, used to tell him: “Frog, you have to expect losses.”