gion matsuri (yamaboko junkō)

27Oct10

Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri festival (祇園祭), which is one of Japan’s “big three” festivals, takes place every year over the course of the entire month of July.  Though there are special events scheduled for almost every day during the month of July, what is generally considered the main event — the Yamaboko Junkō (山鉾巡行) parade — happens on the 17th.  The yamaboko are enormous, elaborately decorated floats that are hauled through the streets by dedicated teams of pullers who wear traditional uniforms that are specific to the yamaboko that they are affiliated with.  In addition to the pulling team the float holds a contingent of musicians that play traditional music, as well as a select group of performers who ride at the front of the float where they shout and perform ritual, dance-like gestures.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the yamaboko floats:

The floats in the Yoiyama Parade are divided into two groups, Hoko and Yama, and are collectively called Yamaboko (or Yamahoko). There are 9 of the larger Hoko (long pole or halberd) which represent the 66 spears used in the original purification ritual, and 23 of the smaller Yama which carry life-size figures of famous and important people. All the floats are decorated with beautiful tapestries both from Nishijin (the finest in all of Japan) and imported from all over the world. In addition to the art, there are many traditional musicians and artists sitting in the floats.

Each year the families that maintain the floats draw lots at a special meeting to determine what order they will take in the festival. These lots are issued at a special ceremony before the parade, during which the Mayor of Kyoto dons the robes of a magister. On the Naginata Hoko is the chigo, a young boy in Shinto robes and crowned by a golden phoenix, chosen from among the Kyoto merchant families as the deity’s sacred page. After weeks of special purification ceremonies, during which he lives isolated from contaminating influences such as the presence of women, he is carried atop the float as he is not permitted to touch the ground. The boy must cut a sacred rope (shimenawa) with a single stroke to begin the matsuri.

The festival itself originated — like so many others in Japan — as a way to placate the gods .  Here’s Wikipedia again:

This festival originated as part of a purification ritual (goryo-e) to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. In 869, the people were suffering from plague and pestilence which was attributed to the rampaging deity Gozu Tennō (牛頭天王). Emperor Seiwa ordered that the people pray to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, Susanoo-no-mikoto. Sixty-six stylized and decorated halberds, one for each province in old Japan, were prepared and erected at Shinsen-en, a garden, along with the portable shrines (mikoshi) from Yasaka Shrine.  This practice was repeated wherever an outbreak occurred. In 970, it was decreed an annual event and has since seldom been broken. Over time the increasingly powerful and influential merchant class made the festival more elaborate and, by the Edo period (1603–1868), used the parade to brandish their wealth.

The parade itself takes place over the course of about three hours and is astonishingly beautiful, even though everyone ends up having to suffer through the summer heat.  One of the things I like most about the festival is that the streets of downtown Kyoto are completely closed to motorized traffic during the parade, and this entirely changes the sense of scale of the place.  You never really quite realize how loud motorized traffic in a city is until it stops, and once it stops then other sounds can come in and take its place in a meaningful way — the sounds of music, of thousand-year-old chants and shouts, all of this becomes the new sonic landscape during the matsuri.  Similarly, without the traffic the sense time slows down and everything becomes more local and intimate.  With no cars to block your view in the street it’s almost as if you have unmediated access to the parade (though this is, of course, an illusion since the official boundaries that have been put in place for spectatorship are very real and very thoroughly policed).  In a weird way, it’s as if the festival has displaced the city itself in the very act of celebrating the city, divulging something else much more strange and wonderful in its place.

After the yamaboko parade was over, I wondered over to Yasaka-jinja for what I consider to be the true main event of Gion Matsuri — the ceremony in which the gods of the city are transferred to the golden mikoshi in which they will be paraded around the city.  Since I had a few hours to kill before the start of the ceremony I sat myself down in Maruyama Park, got myself a green tea ice-cream float, and watched one of the yamaboko get disassembled and stored away for the next year.

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