There's a god for that
That first Gion Matsuri had all the elements that most such religious festivals have: elaborate carriages, loud chants, athletic bearers, fervor and excitement. And the event was accompanied by strange and wonderful festival food, fireworks and sparklers, banners and flags, girls in pretty summer yukata. It was like a wild outdoor pajama party.
That festival was much like festivals everywhere, with an emphasis on food and friends and family (universal elements that cross cultural and national boundaries), but it differed in the participatory nature of the central event. Matsuri always seem to have some central physical activity – carried out by a team of strong bodies – one that somehow captivates the spectators, that is transmitted from the organized core to the by-standing chaos, that excites the crowd and induces an elevated state of mind. Somehow, the loud drumbeats, the chants, the rowdy shouts, all synchronize the very heartbeat of the crowd, so that the perspiration of the performers heightens the senses of the onlookers, magically inducing them to sway and sing and shout with spontaneous joy.
As a first-timer, I found it hard to recognize this as a religious event. Where were the pious leaders and their faithful followers? Where were the worshipful poses of the righteous? Where was the reverence and awe? None of these was present. It would take half a lifetime before I could drop my preconceived notions of sanctity, and allow myself to admit a different way, before I could see worship in the pure joy of abandon.