Zen for Druids

What happens if you apply Zen to the Celtic tradition of Druidry?  It’s not something that would usually come to mind, though a book with that theme has just been published with neo-pagan specialists, John Hunt Publishing.

Druidry is a nature based religion that in recent years has been gaining in popularity. It seeks to make connections with the land and with ancestral spirits. In this it can be seen as part of the early animist/shaman religions that were worldwide before the Axial Age introduced more cerebral and ethically based practices.

So what would happen if you mixed Druidry with Zen?  Something close to Shinto, one might imagine!  Previous Green Shinto postings have dealt with the commonalities of Zen and Shinto, and how the two complemented each other in times past.  One looks to nature, the other to inner nature. Both look to dissolve the ego and find in the mirror a pure reflection.

It was with great interest therefore that we heard of the publication of this new book, and we look forward to reading it. Should any of our readers have already taken a look at it, we’d be delighted to hear your feedback.

Zen for Druids
A Further Guide to Integration, Compassion and Harmony with Natureby Joanna van der Hoeven

http://www.moon-books.net/books/zen-druids

The teachings of Zen Buddhism combined with the earth-based tradition of Druidry can create a holistic way of life that is deeply integrated with the seasons, the environment and the present moment. In soul-deep relationship we can use the techniques and wisdom from both traditions to find balance and harmony within our own lives. In this text we explore the concepts of the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) and how they relate to the wisdom of the Druid tradition. We also look at the Wheel of the Year in modern Druidry with regards to the Dharma, incorporating the teachings into every seasonal festival in an all-encompassing celebration of nature. We explore meditation, mindfulness, animism and integration with nature, learning how to find sustainable relationship in the work that we do, opening our souls to the here and now and seeing the beauty and wonder that enchants our lives in every waking moment. Step into a new life, fully awake and aware to the beauty of the natural world.Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, Witch, best-selling author and teacher. She is the co-founder of Druid College UK. Joanna moved to the UK in 1998, where she now lives with her husband in a small village in Suffolk near the coast of the North Sea. Woodbridge Suffolk United Kingdom

Paperback
Published: October 28, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-78535-442-7
Price: $ 14.95 £ 8.99
e-book
Published: October 28, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-78535-443-4
Price: $ 5.99 £ 3.99
ABOUT JOHN HUNT PUBLISHINGJohn Hunt Publishing has published nearly 1500 titles since 2004. Subjects range from spirituality and philosophy to culture and politics in over 25 separate imprints, non fiction and fiction. www.johnhuntpublishing.com.

 

The circular Shinto mirror that ends where it begins

Shimogamo’s water festival

People carrying candles through the ice-cold water to pray for protection for their legs over the coming year, though this year mobile phones were also conspicuous

Shimogamo’s mitaraisai (water festival) is one of Green Shinto’s favourites, about which we’ve reported in previous years (see here for nice pics of 2014, or here for a full account of last year’s event, or here for an early account and mention of Kyoto’s power spot).

The season is hot and humid (this year around 32 degrees and 90% humidity) so cooling off in a cold sacred stream is most welcome. Particularly when it gives year-round protection to your legs!

When I say the water is ‘cold’, I mean absolutely freezing. The origins of the stream appear to be unknown, but it must come from deep underground for there is not even a touch of summer warmth. Instead the iciness is so painful that for the first few minutes it seems impossible to bear and people cry out in disbelief. Once in the stream however such is the pressure of the crowd behind that there is no escape by scampering for high ground. And soon, without even realising it, the body adjusts to the shock and what at first seemed intolerable gradually becomes bearable, even pleasant.  By the end, when people emerge, it’s with a smile!

Shimogamo Shrine in its best evening garb

In recent years the festival has grown much more popular and become a tourist event as much as a local rite, and the shrine has extended the time from four to nine days in all. They have also had to stake out waiting lines in zigzag fashion like at an airport, though at non-peak times you can just walk straight through and pay your 300 yen.

Each year I have the impression the shrine staff put their heads together and come up with a new idea how to improve the event. Pebbles from the river have been put up for sale. Sacred water is offered as a drink. Special ema are offered for Y200, which can be floated on the water. And this year for the first time there was a new style of fortune telling, with attendees splashing their blank fortune slips in water in order to reveal the result.

The fortune telling appeals to people of all ages, from babies to students to the elderly

Gion Festival 2017 leaflet

The highlight of today’s parade is the turning of the fixed wheel ‘hoko’ floats at Kyoto’s main intersection

This year’s Gion Festival happened to coincide with a three-day weekend, thanks to the public holiday today (July 17, the day of the main procession). It meant extra large crowds and extra large numbers of police, who for the first time on the Yoiyama evening insisted on one-way directions for the milling throng. In methodical Japanese fashion, anyone heading the wrong way against the flow of people was quickly hauled out and pointed in the right direction.

One of the protective ‘chimaki’ talisman on sale

The crowds were also noticeable for the increased number of foreigners this year. On a rough count, I estimated around every twentieth person was non-Japanese. And at least one of the salesman at the ‘yatai’ stalls was a foreigner with a Kansai accent, doing a brisk business with stretch ice-cream.

Because of the increased numbers of tourists, the authorities have gone out of their way to make the festival more appealing by adding features such as small theatre shows and maiko serving beer in front of Yasaka Shrine. For non-Japanese there was also a very useful free leaflet being handed out in English with one of the best festival explanations I’ve seen.

A colourful map gives an overview of the 33 floats and their locations (each downtown neighbourhood maintains and exhibits its own float). There are also detailed explanations of aspects of the festival, such as the special music called Gion Bayashi. This is played with gong, drum and flute. Musicians begin practising when young, mastering all three instruments, and the power of their playing is said to be an important element of the festival.

Another item covered is the ‘chimaki’ protective amulets attached to the front of houses to ward off pestilence during the year. The origin is said to date from when the deity Susanoo lodged overnight at the home of Somin Shorai. Though his family were poor, they gave Susanoo warm hospitality, and in return the deity promised their descendants protection from disease, offering them a bundle of cogon grass to wear around the waist. As a result, cogon grass is used today for the protective ‘chimaki’.

Overview of the 10 floats, with descriptions, that are involved in the Ato-Matsuri (on July 24)

The leaflet also notes that folding screens and scrolls are on display in some of the old houses (though I’m told the number of such displays is greatly reduced as a result of people ‘misbehaving’ by touching exhibits, crossing lines, or shouting in drunken manner etc). Each float also offers for sale  its own good luck charm, dedicated to the deity of the float and with its own particular tradition.

Finally, the leaflet gives a detailed description of the two types of floats. One is the Yama, with 14 to 24 carriers, which has a sacred pine tree, a display and carrying poles. The other is the Hoko, which weights 7 to 9 tons and has a long spire like pole stretching up 25 meters from the ground. These floats have large wooden wheels and are pulled by 30-50 people, directed by two men standing on the float itself. Musicians sit on the second floor, and above them are four roof riders who make sure the float steers clear of power lines and other obstacles. Decorative curtains and tapestries hang over the sides.

The distinctive identity and history of each float is neatly given in pages that separate the floats into two parts: firstly, the 23 floats involved today in the Saki-Matsuri (Before Parade on July 17th). Secondly, the ten floats involved in the Ato-Matsuri (After Parade on July 24th).

Four key moments are identified as follows: 1) the festoon cutting ceremony, involving a chigo (sacred child) cutting a straw rope to symbolically represent entering into the spirit world; 2) Lot Check, when each float has to ritually present the document certifying its place in the parade; 3) Float Turning, when bamboo or poles are inserted beneath the fixed wooden wheels of the hoko floats in order to enable them to turn; 4) Disassembly, when after the parade the floats return home and are disassembled to ensure the spirits of disease that have accumulated are not released.

Full marks and gratitude to the Gion Matsuri Yoiyama Council who produced this useful free guide to the annual display of people’s power in the old imperial capital!

The order of floats in the parade is chosen by lottery, and one of the ritual moments in the proceedings is the ‘Lot Check’ when a representative has to show the official document to the authorities.

 

One of the Chigo (sacred child) that symbolise purity and play an important role in the festival

All about the Gion Festival

Tonight’s the night!  The evening before the big parade, known as Yoiyama, is happening in downtown Kyoto tonight when people throng around the massive festival floats, with their musicians and displays. It’s a great communal festivity, marking the highpoint of the month-long rituals that make up Gion Matsuri, and it’s one of Green Shinto’s favourites.

Previous reports have featured an illustrated overview (see here); history and the floats (see here); a focus on the eve of the parade (see here); the actual July 17th parade (see here); a list of the month long activities (see here); a talk about the festival by Catherine Pawsarat (see here); the Hindu background of the deity, Gozu Tenno (see here); a piece on phallicism in the festival (see here); the Western input in terms of tapestries (see here); for the removal of the spirit bodies into the mikoshi (see here); the Kanko sai, when mikoshi return on July 24 (see here); reinstalled ‘Ato Matsuri’ (later parade on July 24) with its own Yoiyama (evening before) (see here).

The dragon’s head sits proudly aboard the recently reintroduced Ofune float. As deities of water, the dragon is well placed to offer protection to the Gion Festival’s final float in the procession.

Atago July 31 pilgrimage

The excellent Core Kyoto series produced by NHK World (which broadcasts in English for overseas)  has produced a fine item about Kyoto’s Mt Atago and the pilgrimage for the fire deity which takes place on July 31.

The video is available on the NHK site till July 27. After that it may appear on Youtube, along with many of the other Core Kyoto videos. Click here to check them out as it’s really an excellent series for anyone at all interested in Japanese traditions.

Core Kyoto

Atago Sennichi Mairi: Pilgrimage to the Guardian against Fire

Broadcast on July 13, 2017

Paper talismans protecting against fire are common sights in Kyoto homes. People receive them at Atago Jinja, situated on top of a rugged mountain. The shrine holds Sennichi-mairi, or the 1,000-day pilgrimage, on the evening of July 31. Worshippers believe that if they make the grueling trek they have 1,000 days’ worth of protection against fire-related disasters. Discover the deep faith in Atago as more than 10,000 Kyotoites undertake the pilgrimage with gratitude for the gifts fire bestows.

Available until July 27, 2017 by clicking here.

Ponsonby-Fane exhibition 1

Entrance to the Ponsonby-Fane exhibition, now showing in the newly converted archives rooms

Green Shinto has written before of the remarkable preeminent Shinto scholar, Richard Ponsonby-Fane (1878-1937), an English aristocrat who made Kyoto his home in the prewar years and wrote extensive volumes about Kyoto and shrine histories. It’s said he knew more about Shinto history than even shrine priests. (For a previous article about his time in Kyoto, please see here. For the Wikipedia site about him, see here.)

The cricket-loving, scarf-wearing Shinto expert Ponsonby-Fane

At Shimogamo Shrine in Kyoto, an exhibition about Ponsonby-Fane is currently being held, which features work collected by his personal secretary, Yoshijiro Sato.  Green Shinto is delighted to announce that a descendant of Sato’s brother named Yumi Kimura has written in with some family reminiscences about Ponsonby Fane, which cast a new and fascinating light on the great man and his works. Yumi Kimura writes as follows…

The secretary to Mr Richard Ponsonby-Fane was Yoshijiro Sato who was my grand-father’s elder brother. It seems that Yoshijiro Sato (whom I never met) passed away about 40 years ago. One of the photos of the exhibition poster shows Mr Richard Ponsonby-Fane being surrounded by Yoshijiro and his family relatives.

The exhibition has been prepared by my mother’s cousin living in Kyoto. It seems that it has taken about two more years than expected. Unfortunately the exhibition is only displayed in Japanese (In my opinion, Mr Richard Ponsonby-Fane was a real scholar on Japan who deserves to be recognized by the world.) I am not using this current Japanese word in bad meaning, but I believe that he was an “Otaku among Otakus” focusing on Japan, which is superb. Otherwise, he could not have left such a volume of documents and books etc which are profoundly researched. My mother suggests that he was able to do this because he had a large budget from his family background, and she presumes that current people could not do so because of insufficient budget. Also current people have too many things to do other than their own interest (curiosity) and therefore it is not easy to focus and concentrate on only one thing.

My grand-mother frequently told my mother about Mr Ponsonby-Fane with respect, joy and happiness, because my grand-parents used to be involved in his daily life in Kyoto. That is why my mother also told me about him often in my childhood. My mother remembers that there were tons of thick books (including the Kojiki, the Nihon-shoki etc) on the solid bookshelves in the house when small. They had been sent in the war to the country-side in Ibaraki-prefecture to avoid loss by fire in the air raids. The large cities were always under threat of air raids, and Kyoto was one of them. As a little girl my mother was aware then that there were some manuscripts written in a strange font though it looked like Japanese. The little girl always thought ‘Omoshiroi Ji dana’ (What interesting shaped Kanji!). That was the hand-writing of Mr Ponsonby-Fane.

My mother has learnt through her cousin in recent years that the two children were often forced by Yoshijiro to help him with Mushi-boshi (insect cleansing) for the documents and books of Mr Ponsonby-Fane. Mushi-boshi is to let books get fresh air to keep them in good condition after the humid summer days of Japan. Her cousin recalled that it was such a burden to do Mushi-boshi because the books were usually thick and heavy, so they would hope to escape the task demanded of them by Yoshijiro, but there was no way for the poor young boy and girl.

My mother imagines that her cousin had a pretty hard time to keep all Mr Ponsonby-Fane’s books for a long time in such a small house in Kyoto (it is not usual to live in a large house in Kyoto). She imagines that one of the rooms of her cousin’s house must have been occupied only with those books and documents.

Mr Ponsonby-Fane passed away toward the end of 1937, which means it has been about 80 years since then, and which is already much longer than his lifetime (59-60 years).

I wonder how he would feel about the exhibition. I hope that he is smiling (I find in the photos that he’s only smiling a bit when he’s cuddling my uncle (the baby). Other than that, it looks as if he does not smile often, but looks very serious always).  My grand-mother used to tell her daughter that Mr Ponsonby-Fane loved to bring the baby along with him when going out for the O-kuge-san-mawari (making courtesy visits to the court nobles in Kyoto) – ‘Ponson-Sensei wa Masao wo yoku kawaigatte kure mashita” (Mr Ponsonby-Fane cherished my baby-boy Masao).  Also, she would tell my mother that a photo of the baby (my uncle) and the mother (my grand-mother) had been relayed to the UK by him (my mother knows exactly which photo had been relayed).

The newly converted building (former shrine house) in two rooms of which the Ponsonby Fane exhibition is being held

Spiritual tours (Akiko Murakami)

Oomiwa Shrine, said to be the oldest site of worship for the Yamato clan

Interview with Akiko Murakami of Nara YAMATO Spiritual Tours

  • How and when did you get the idea for your Spirit Tours?

It is a good question, simple question, but very difficult to answer simply. It is almost like my entire life has lead me, prepared me to start this Spirit tour in Yamato region in Nara prefecture, at this very time.

I grew up and have spent most of my life in Nara, the ancient capital city. Japanese history, culture, old Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were always close to me and very alive matters.   As a student, I enjoyed many cross-cultural communications, and learned to respect others with their differences. This background lead me to have an identity as a Japanese.

[For more details, see here.]

  • What kind of places do you cover?

I cover many of my favorite shrines and temples in Nara and Kyoto that have historical, physical and spiritual significances. I chose less touristy places closer to nature, but still accessible by public transportation for a day trip.

For example, Oomiwa shrine in Sakurai is top ranking among all the shrines in the Yamato region and said to be the oldest shrine. This Shinto shrine and kami was worshiped before Japan was united as one nation, and it has clear signs of nature worship since ancient time. It is my tutelary god, or local “kami”, under which I was born and where I paid my first shrine visit taken by my parents.

Murouji Temple, also called “Nyonin-Koya”(Mt Koya for women)

  • Do you see any difference between Shinto and Buddhism as far as pilgrimage and your tours are concerned?

Yes and no. Basically, I do not really separate Shinto and Buddhism, since they were almost equally worshiped before Meiji, when they were separated for political reasons.

However, in general, Shintoism is still regarded as uniquely Japanese, on the other hand, Buddhism is commonly accepted as one of the three widely believed universal religions. Therefore, on my tours I will explain the history and reason why the co-existed in “和”, or harmony, for many centuries.

Strictly speaking, Shinto and Buddhism have a fundamental difference in the object of worship, namely Kami, or Shinto deities, and Buddhist deities. Usually, Kami don’t have material form to pray to, and in many cases you just pray in front of a Worship Hall. In Shinto, nature worship (sense of awe for nature) is the basic stance.

In any case, the names and the origins and powers of the deities are very different. But personally, I think just being alive is a miracle and blessing, so one of the main purposes of the pilgrimage is to express gratitude for what we are already given. In addition, we pray to purify our mind, awaken our consciousness and remember who we really are, asking for clear guidance in making decisions, and wish for the happiness of all living beings. These can be the reasons why we go to shrines and temples, in my opinion.

Hasedera Temple. Akiko guides an American couple on their honeymoon.

In Buddhism, I will talk about the people who dedicated themselves to spread the teachings, such as the founders of temples. On the other hand, some Shinto deities and origin of shrines can be too complex, vague or legendary to explain fully. Another difference is that Buddhist temples require entrance fees, but Shinto shrines usually don’t.

  • What kind of customers have you had so far?

I have guided people who have strong respect towards spirituality and history of Japan. Regardless of where they were from, they find strong affinity with things “Japanese”. One American CEO of a nonprofit organization said that she believes she must have been a Japanese in her past life. Almost all the customers are repeat travelers to Japan and had been to many other places in the world as well.

At the very beginning, I guided to the Nara and Yamato regions one of my American friends, who was a high school science teacher. He is a second generation Japanese American who immigrated to the U.S. and showed strong interest in Bushido and Japanese moral teachings. And he insisted that such qualities are worthy of forming a new course of educational curriculum in the U.S. Until now, he came back to stay in Nara more than 4 times. Last two times, with his new partner.

View of the 5 storey pagoda at Hasedera temple

Amongst other visitors I have guided a fourth generation Japanese Canadian lady on her first visit to Japan. I also hosted Jann Williams, an Australian professor and writer during her stay of research to write a book about Japan. She found me among many different kind of original tours advertised on a tour company Voyagin, where I advertise, “Visit deep spiritual sites in Nara with a local guide!” We went to Yoshino and Koyasan, too at different times.

In April, 2017, I had a great chance to guide a group about 25 Zen teachers and practitioners from “UPAYA Zen center” in US, lead by a TED speaker, Joan Halifax. For a half day tour in Nara, I chose Kasuga Grand Shrine, and I will also be guiding next year’s tour group from UPAYA on their visit.

  • What plans do you have for the future?

Right now, all the tours are accessible by public transportation as either half day or one-day trip. In the future, I’d like to take people down to more deeper or hidden part of Yamato region by car, as I know beautiful sites only the locals know. Also, staying one night somewhere like Asuka, or hidden hot spring area will open up other opportunities.

In addition, right now, I am making good friends with staff at a kind of new eco farm and retreat center in Nara called Toyouke no Mori. It is located in a nice natural environment, and we are planning to host tours involving programs such as zen meditation, forest meditation, organic lunch, or yoga.

To make spiritual tours for Japanese tourists by adding more history and mythology content is another idea.

  • What advice do you have for foreigners wanting to deepen their knowledge and practice of Shinto?

Shinto is written with two kanji, or adapted Chinese characters as “神道”. That literally means, “Kami (god)/ Divine” “Path/ way”. For me, Shinto is for everyone who is looking for a good balance both within and out.

Yoshimizu Jinja in Yoshino, with Shinto Chief Priest, Mt. Sato, and Green Shinto subscriber, Jann Williams.

And the basic key is to remember and respect the divine balance, the Law of nature. In Shinto all things, humans, plants, animals, minerals, ocean, fire, time (day and night, seasons, etc.), earth, sun, stars and planets, are all children of the kami. They are all beautifully interconnected with one another, however our limited senses, prejudices and egos blind us to see this ultimate harmony. In Shinto, the main reason to visit shrines is to purify our body and mind to remember that we have part of kami inside. If we can truly respect ourselves, then we can respect others who also have kami inside, too.

Reincarnation of the spirit is, I think, a basic idea. Ancestor worship and care for future generations to come is a part of our responsibilities in Shinto. Today, we understand with high tech and advanced technologies the relationship of micro and macro cosmos. I think we have to go beyond differences and overcome conflicts with others. In my opinion, Shinto is beyond religious belief or advanced science. This is something to remember that we are all part of a big Oneness. In Buddhism they say we are just a drop of water in a stream or big river that leads into a grand ocean.

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To learn more about Nara Yamato Spirit Tours, click here.
Toyouke no Mori are currently renewing their HP, but to learn about the person who inspired the project, Japanese artist Mayumi Oda, see here.

Kasuga Grand Shrine in Nara: Akiko tour guiding a group of visitors from UPAYA Zen center in the US.

Okinoshima World Heritage

Okonoshima, the sacred island at the core of the new World Heritage site

8 Japanese sites added to UNESCO heritage list

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A sacred island and three reefs as well as four other related sites in southwestern Japan were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list Sunday, the international body said.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization decided at a meeting in Krakow, southern Poland, to list the island of Okinoshima and the nearby reefs plus four other sites in Fukuoka Prefecture that a UNESCO preliminary review panel had recommended Japan should drop.

The four sites added to the cultural heritage list in line with Japan’s proposal include ancient tombs on the northern tip of Kyushu and the Munakata Taisha Shrine pavilions. Okinoshima is home to Okitsu-Miya Shrine.

In May, the UNESCO preliminary review panel recommended against adding the four sites, saying they do not have sufficient value for the world, but Tokyo persisted with its plan.

Sunday’s decision marks the fifth straight year that Japanese assets have been listed, bringing the total number of the country’s items on the cultural and natural heritage list to 21.

Okinoshima, midway between Japan’s southwestern main island of Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula, upholds ancient rules restricting entry, including a total ban on women visitors.

Around 80,000 items unearthed on the island have been designated as national treasures, including a gold ring made on the peninsula and cut glass from Persia, now Iran.

The shrine was used to conduct prayer rituals for Japan’s exchanges with other Asian regions during the fourth to ninth centuries.

Following the UNESCO preliminary review panel’s recommendation against the four sites, Japanese officials explained the interconnectedness of each site to representatives of the countries on the World Heritage Committee, according to the officials.

On Sunday, education minister Hirokazu Matsuno credited Sunday’s success to those who lobbied for Japan’s stance by speaking to the representatives, saying committee members came to understand that Okinoshima and its related sites convey to the present day a form of worship that has been passed on from ancient times.

Ryohei Miyata, head of Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, was one of the officials who lobbied for the listing of all the proposed sites at the UNESCO meeting in Krakow.

In his remarks after Sunday’s decision, he said he is happy that the assets have been recognized as world treasures, adding that Japan will strive to preserve them for future generations.

© KYODO

Tanabata 2017

Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar)Green Shinto has carried several reports about Tanabata over the years, and an overview of previous posts can be found here.  One of the most interesting accounts we’ve come across is by neopagan Shintoist Megan Manson.

Tanabata is a folk festival, celebrated widely across Japan and involving wishes hung on bamboo branches in celebration of ‘star-lovers’ which get to meet once a year.  Last year Green Shinto friend Isil Bayraktar reported for us on a specifically Shinto event held for the occasion at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.  It is centred around children, and Isil was impressed by the colour and performances.  As is clear from the pictures, the occasion was carried out with typical attention to aesthetic appeal and honouring ancestral spirits.  The patron deity of learning, Sugawara no Michizane, would surely be beaming with delight.

Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar)

Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar) Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar) Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar)   Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar) Tanabata (Isil Bayraktar)42_1192508290921139124_n 13438928_1784802905068966_2890215795249979121_n

(All photos by Isil Bayraktar.)

Gion Festival (Foreigners perspective)

The Gion Matsuri: Foreigners’ float
(The “Hakurakuten Yama” float this year will consist of 18 men from all over the world.)

By Shaheed Rupani  (from Why Kyoto? Jun Sept 2017, p. 42-43)

Two yama and a hoko parading through downtown Kyoto

Kyoto is known as the old capital of Japan. People come here from all over the world for its beauty, serenity and preserved traditions. It has a special place in many Japanese people’s hearts as well as mine. When you think of summer in Japan, fireworks and BBQs come to mind but for me, it’s all about the Gion Festival.

This solemn and profound festival started 1148 years ago when plagues of cholera, malaria, dysentery and other epidemics were distressing the people of Kyoto. The emperor ordered 66 halberds to be paraded around the streets to represent the 66 regions of Japan at that time. This was intended to supplicate the malevolent spirits that were causing the above misfortunes. It actually worked and eventually became a yearly ritual. Overtime, the halberds morphed into gorgeous floats and became the place for rich kimono merchants to show off their successes as the floats were extravagantly decorated.

The festival spans the whole month of July with various events and was accepted into UNESCO in 2009 as a Cultural World Heritage Event. Most people would say that the highlights are the two grand processions that occur on the 17th and the 24th of July but there is so much more. The grand parades are quite astonishing as the massive floats are transported around the city. What isn’t known or realized is that there is much more going on in the background to make this entire festival a possibility.

The fixed wooden wheels mean that turning corners is a skilled manoeuver with

Picture this: a 12-ton float being built by hand using only ropes and wood, then gorgeously decorated with hand woven tapestries that are hundreds of years old. 20 musicians, “hayashi,” (aged 8~60ish) who have been practicing for 5 months, sit inside a space of about 4m2 and play for about 6 hours. This float is then pulled around the city by 50 volunteers, who have had no practice run for about the same duration in temperatures reaching 35°C with a humidity of 90%. There are actually 33 floats and this is only one of the hundreds of events that occur during this time. It is truly breathtaking.

This year will be the 16th year for me to participate as a volunteer in the Gion Festival. It will be my team’s honor to be parading the “Hakurakuten Yama” float. This year’s team consists of 18 men from all over the world. I can still remember my first time – it was pulling the heaviest float, the “Tsuki Boko” or moon float. I didn’t know what was happening but before I knew it we were moving this gorgeous museum on massive wheels with our bare hands.

When we got to the first corner, we had to do a 90° turn to the left but the wheels didn’t turn?!?! Suddenly, they started throwing water on the ground and lining up bamboo slats and we gave a tug. The colossal monument started turning and everyone cheered. It wasn’t an easy day; when we were done, I was depleted and borderline dehydrated but I’ve done it again every year since.

Chimaki for good luck are hung on doorways throughout the year

Kyoto hasn’t been an easy place to assimilate into – language problems, cultural misunderstandings and many more, but during the month of the Gion Festival, it seems like everyone in Kyoto is just happy and forgiving. The town buzzes with an invisible aura of euphoria and it just feels good. The streets in the center of town are closed on the nights before the grand parade on the 17th, and there are hundreds of night stalls with street food, games, drinks etc… The floats are all lit up and some can be entered for a small fee. This is also a good time to get your hands on a chimaki. They are sold at most
of the floats and act as protective amulets that you put in front of your house above the door to ward off evil. I always get one as well as a miniature float every year.

I don’t know how long my services for the Gion Festival will be required but I will continue to do this for as long as I am able to. If you’re in Kyoto on the 17th, look for my team and me. You might even see us on the nights before, at the Yoi Yama.

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The Gion Festival is a month long event.  Here are a few highlights

July 10th Omukae Chochin

At about 4:30PM, children dressed up in old traditional costumes come out of YASAKA-JINJA Shrine and walk down Shijo Street to go towards City Hall where they perform a dance.
Mikoshi Arai
A portable shrine is brought down from YASAKA-JINJA Shrine and is brought to Shijo Bridge, where it is purified by the waters of the Kamo River.

July 10th-14th Saki Matsuri Hoko & Yama Tate – Float Building
The floats start being built early in the morning. uly 12th – 14th

July 12th -14th Trial Pulling
The float construction is finalized and a trial pulling is performed in the afternoon around 2PM. Anyone can join. Give it a try!

July 14th -16th Yoi Yama
The evenings before the grand parade on the 17th – the city is filled with people wandering around in awe at the beautifully lit up floats. July 17th

July 17th Saki Matsuri Junko
Grand Parade – prior festival – From 9AM starting at Shijo Karasuma to Shinmachi Oike 3rd

July 21-23rd Ato Byobu Matsuri
Folding Screen Festival – some houses located in vicinities of the displayed floats open the doors for onlookers to view the auspicious folding screens. ly 24th

July 24th Ato Matsuri Junko
Grand Parade – latter festival – From 9:30AM starting at Karasuma Oike to Shijo Karasuma
Hanagasa Junko
A parade comprised of Geiko and Maiko, children in traditional garb, mikoshi and more that latches onto the end of the Gion latter parade – from 10AM at Yasaka Shrine
Kanko Sai
The 3 mikoshi (portable shrines) that are sitting at the OtabiSho (resting point) at Teramachi & Shijo are brought out around 5PM and carried around the various communities. You have to see it being brought down through the narrow arcade of Nishiki – quite amazing. This festival event finishes around midnight at YASAKA-JINJA Shrine with a very mysterious ceremony – has to be seen to be explained. Try to be there by 11PM if you can.

July 28th Mikoshi Arai
A portable shrine is brought down from YASAKA-JINJA Shrine and is brought to Shijo Bridge, where it is purified by the waters of the KamoRiver and returned back to the shrine. July 31st July 31st

July 31st Eki-Jinja Shrine Nagoshi Sai
A huge wreath is constructed at YASAKA-JINJA Shrine. It is believed that going trough the wreath will remove bad fortune.

Decorated fans on display at the Gion Festival in the days before the big parade on the 17th

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