gion matsuri (shinkousai)

31Oct10

Although many people consider the Yamaboko Junkō parade to be the main event of Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri festival, I was really looking forward to seeing the shinkousai (神幸祭 — literally ‘god happiness festival’) at Yasaka-jinja.  The origin of Gion Matsuri dates back to 869 AD when a plague ravaged the Kyoto area.  Thinking that the plague must be an expression of the anger of the gods, the people of Kyoto decided try to appease the gods of Gion (the former name of Yasaka-jinja) by offering prayers and holding a festival in their honor.

During the shinkousai, three golden mikoshi (or ‘portable shrines’) are brought into the main shrine building where the gods reside.  In a ceremony presided over by Shinto priests and sacred musicians, the three gods of Yasaka-jinja — Susanoo-no-Mikoto, Kushinada-hime-no-Mikoto (Susanoo’s wife), and Yahashira-no-Mikogami (the child of Susanoo and Kushinada-hime) — are temporarily transferred from their dwelling places within the shrine and housed within the three golden mikoshi.  These mikoshi are then paraded through the streets of Kyoto to a shrine on Shijo street which becomes their temporary residence for a week.

The ceremony itself begins with prayers and incantations to the gods offered in front of the covered stage where the mikoshi wait.  This is followed by the ritual appearance of the chigo — the child who is chosen to be the sacred page of the gods — who circulates around the central stage area on horseback.  Then, one by one, the crews who will carry the mikoshi arrive, and finally the mikoshi are carried to the main shrine where they are blessed and then inhabited by the gods.  After the gods have taken up residence in the mikoshi the crews that carry them rock them violently from side to side, hoist them high into the air, and toss them around as much as possible.  This may seem like a strange way to treat a god, but Japanese gods enjoy a little bit of fun (after all, the “god happiness festival” is a festival to give happiness to the gods and not the other way around) and one way to ensure they have a good time is to enthusiastically throw them around as if they were invincible boats in the middle of a wild, raging party.



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