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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