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The Gion Matsuri Festival
One of Japan's three greatest festivals




Gion Matsuri is one of the oldest festivals in Japan and one of the greatest. Traditional rituals and events related to this amazing festival are held throughout the month of July in Kyoto. Experience this year's Gion Festival and come and taste the wonders of Kyoto's history, craft and music traditions.


History

Throughout history, Japan has suffered many times from serious epidemics, floods, fires, earthquakes and recently tsunamis. These were always viewed as signs that the ''gods'' and ''goddesses'' were not happy. To appease the deities and pray for the deceased, goryo-e rituals were held which over time, developed into festivals associated with a certain shrine. The Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's oldest goryo-e festivals, is strongly connected with Yasaka Shrine (also known as Gion Shrine).

The first Gion goryo-e was held in 869 in response to a devastating plague. In desperation, the reigning emperor decreed that special prayers be recited at Yasaka Shrine. The prayers were successful and from then on were repeated any time the imperial capital was beset by a plague or natural disaster. This was how the Gion Festival came to be. It became a yearly event starting around 970 and, except for brief interruptions, it has continued ever since.

Though the festival began as a religious purification ritual at the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) it had also become a way for certain craft guilds and kimono textile merchant families to show off their wealth and expertise. Large floats, musicians, dances, comic plays, and displays of artistic treasures were all part of the celebrations at the close of the 10th century. As the floats became increasingly elaborate and heavier some were outfitted with large wheels so that they could be rolled instead of carried.

From the late 16th century onwards, as a result of the growing prosperity of Kyoto's textile merchants, textiles from China, Persia, and even Europe, imported via the Silk Road, were added to the floats. For this reason the floats are sometimes referred to as ''moving museums.'' During the Edo period (1600-1868) and early Meiji period (1868-1912), the floats and the city of Kyoto were badly damaged by war fires on several occasions. However, each time, the citizens worked hard to rebuild everything and the festival continued to grow in popularity and fame.


What are ''Yama'' & ''Hoko''?
The festival procession consists of 32 floats, all of which are connected with neighborhoods in each district. There are 25 Yama floats and 7 Hoko floats. Yama are the smaller floats. They weigh about 1.5 tons and are usually about 6 meters high. Yama floats are usually carried by many people on their shoulders. The Yama floats usually depict scenes from Chinese and Japanese history and mythology and often bear pine trees, shrines, and sacred mannequins.

Hoko (sometimes referred to as ''boko'') are usually the massive 2-storey floats. Most weigh from 5 to 12 tons and can be as high as 25 meters. Most have large wooden wheels and are pulled by 12 to 50 people. The second floor is where the musicians and page boys sit. Unlike the Yama, the roofed Hoko have long, mast-like poles at the very top.


Yoiyama & the Yama Hoko Junko Grand Parade
The biggest events of the festival are, without doubt, the Yoiyama (14-16th) and the Yama Hoko Junko (17th). Yoiyama is the ''pre-party'' of the parade. Each district display their Hoko or Yama floats in their districts to perform and treat the guests. The downtown area around Karasuma and Shijo are car-free and hundreds of food and game stalls are lined up.

The parade of colorful Yama and Hoko are carried and pulled through Kyoto's downtown streets by teams dressed in traditional outfits. The most interesting thing to see during the procession is when the big wheeled Hoko floats are turned around the corners at the intersections of Kawaramachi-Shijo, Kawaramachi-Oike and Oike-Shinmachi. This is an incredible feat and requires special teamwork and old style Japanese ingenuity!





Gion Matsuri Main Event Calendar


1st: Naginata-boko Osendo
From 10:00 at Yasaka Shrine, this year's Chigo (the sacred page boy who rides on the leading Naginata-boko) visits Yasaka Shrine and prays for safety during the festival.


10th: Omukae Chochin Welcoming Lanterns

Men wearing formal kimono depart from Yasaka Shrine at 16:30. They escort children dressed up in gorgeous traditional outfits and head west along Shijo to Kawaramachi. Their role is to welcome the mikoshi portable shrines carried out of Yasaka Shrine later in the evening (see below).


10th: Mikoshi Purification

During the festival, the deities of Yasaka Shrine reside in a temporary shrine called the Otabisho. The mikoshi are purified with water from the Kamo River. The mikoshi depart from Yasaka Shrine at 19:00 and arrive at Shijo Bridge at 20:00.


10th-14th: Hoko and Yama Construction

The festival's 32 floats are assembled in the neighborhoods they belong to. This is a great opportunity for getting a close up look at the floats.


12th-13th: Hoko & Yama Trial Pulling

The people of each respective float neighborhood try carrying or pulling the newly constructed floats, accompanied by Gion Bayashi music, to ensure that they are ready for the parade on the 17th.


14th-16th: Yoiyama

On the three nights before the grand parade, the festival's energy reaches its peak. The streets with people looking at the lit up Yama & Hoko floats. Gion Bayashi music fills the air, and countless stalls are set up along the colorfully decorated streets.


14th-16th: Folding Screen Display
On these days the old textile merchant homes and businesses on Shinmachi and Muromachi open up the front parts of their homes and shops to show off their valuable folding screens and other treasures.


15th: Traditional Theatre Performance Dedication
From 15:00 to 18:00, traditional Japanese theatre performances (kabuki, biwa lute, harp, kyogen, dance, etc.) will be performed on the stage in the center of Yasaka Shrine.


16th: Iwami Kagura
From 18:30 at Yasaka Shrine, ancient court dance called Iwami Kagura Shinto dance and music will be performed to the music of flutes and bells.


17th: Yama Hoko Junko Grand Parade

At 9:00, the leading Naginata-boko starts forward. When it reaches Fuyacho Street, the float's chigo (sacred child) cuts a straw rope with a sword and the parade begins.


17th: Shinko Festival

At 18:00, the shrine deities that preside over the festival are transported in three special mikoshi (portable shrine) from Yasaka Shrine to the Otabisho (on the south side of Shijo, just east of Teramachi).


23rd: Biwa Lute Music Dedication
From 15:00 at Yasaka Shrine, traditional biwa (Japanese lute) music will be played for the deity.


24th: Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession

At 10:00, about ten large umbrella floats attended by nearly 1,000 people depart from Yasaka Shrine.


24th: Kanko Festival

From 17:00, the three mikoshi are carried back from Otabisho back to Yasaka Shrine. When mikoshi arrive at the shrine, special prayers are held to welcome the spirits back to their main ''home''. This ceremony ends around midnight.


25th: Kyogen Performance
At 11:00, the Shigeyama Family will perform special kyogen (comical theatre) plays at Yasaka Shrine.


28th: Mikoshi Purification
As on the 10th, the mikoshi are again purified on Shijo Bridge at 20:00 before they are stored away until the following year.


31st: Nagoshi Summer Purification

This event completes the one-month-long festival. The ceremony starts at 10:00 at Yasaka Shrine. A huge circular chinowa wreath made of long green rushes is set up in the shrine precinct. Passing through the wreath is said to purify the spirit and ward off illness in the coming year.


Ofune Boko Revival
Endeavor of a float getting back to the Grand Parade in 2015

In addition to the 32 Yama and Hoko floats joining the festival, there are three other floats which quietly join the festival every year. These floats are called Yasumi-yama or ceasing floats which can't join the festival with floats for some reasons (the float is lost due to fire, lack of enough local members to support it, etc.). However in 2014, there is a chance of that one of the three ceasing floats, the Ofune-boko, may rejoin the festival. To have a ceased float come back to the festival is very unusual and Ofune-boko's local people have been making extraordinary effort to make this dream come true.

After spending only about 422 years in the Gion Festival and being destroyed 3 times, the great ship of the Gion Festival may make its comeback. The Ofune-boko may rejoin the Gion festival in 2014 after about 150 year absence.

The current Gion Festival's parade is on July 17th but, there used to be 2 separate parades on different days. The first parade was on June 7th and the second parade was on June 14th (in the old lunar calendar). There were also 2 different ship styled floats (1 in each parade). The first parade, called the Saki-matsuri (former festival) was always led by the Naginata-hoko and had the current Fune-hoko was part of it. The second parade called the Ato-matsuri (latter festival) was led by the Kita Kanon-yama and had the former Ofune-hoko as the last float. The current parade combines the Saki-matsuri and the Ato-matsuri in one parade on July 17th (in the new solar calendar), which means that if the Ofune-hoko joins the festival, it'll be the first time in history that the two floats join together in the same parade on the same day.


The frame skeleton of the Ofune-hoko in the Kyoto City Intangible Cultural Property Display Room

How easy would it be for a float to be reconstructed and re-enter the Gion Festival, a festival that is over 1100 years old? Sensuke Kimura, the current director of the Ofune-hoko's preservation committee answered the question.

Mr. Kimura is determined to be part of the Gion Festival and being born in the original Ofune-boko Hoko-cho (float neighborhood; west of Shinmachi, south of Shijo) feels that it is his destiny to bring the Ofune-boko back. Getting back in isn't an overnight process but in fact one that started more than 15 years ago. In 1996, 10 members from the Hoko-cho (including Mr. Kimura) got together and started playing the Hayashi music because of a deep loneliness that entered them in the previous year during the Gion Festival. The following year, the members grew and so did their desire to enter the Gion Festival.

The members that the Ohayashi team started accepting, were not necessarily from the Hoko-cho and some of them had never even played a musical instrument before, but, they all shared something in common. They were all passionate about the Gion Festival and it might've been this fervor that helped persuade the elders of the Hoko-cho to accept their request for the Ofune-boko to rejoin the Gion Festival.

There is a possibility that their request for re-entry into the Gion Festival may not join for 2014 but that will not stop Mr. Kimura and his members. A lot of money, time, effort and perseverance are going to be required and he and the Ofune-boko's Hoko-cho are doing their best to provide or attain the above so that their dream may be realized. This year, a Kara-bitsu Junko will take place. What that means is that the Goshinmen (a mask of the deity) will be placed in a special box, made of cypress, and carried in the main parade. This does not symbolize the lost float, but represents the Hoko-cho's determination to have their float return back to the Gion Festival parade in the near future.

The Ofune-boko may be able to enter the Junko parade as a proper float in the parade of 2014 but it may take decades for it to return to its original majestic persona. The Ofune-boko was beautifully decorated and musicians complemented the float from the Edo period (1600-1868), after once being destroyed in the Onin War (1467-1477). It was then completely rebuilt in 1804 and even more gorgeously decorated after being burnt down in 1788.

The Ofune-boko was in another fire in 1864 and is currently being reproduced. The actual frame skeleton of the Ofune-boko that may join the parade of 2014 is being displayed in the Kyoto City Intangible Cultural Property Display Room on the 1st floor of Yodobashi Camera in front of Kyoto Station. If you have a chance, please take a look at the expertise that must be incorporated into building the fames of the floats. While you're there, try and find a nail that was used to hold the pieces of wood together. It would be quite surprised if you can.