On Wednesday – and every year on July 17 – a stream of portable shrines (mikoshi) flowed through Kyoto as part of the festivities of what may be Japan’s most famous festival: the Gion Matsuri, centered on the ancient capital’s Yasaka Shrine. This parade of rolling shrines, the Yamaboko Junkō, is the crowning event of this month-long festival, revered as one of the most illustrious of Japan’s ancient summer celebrations.
On the three days leading up to the grand parade, the streets of Gion are roped off for pedestrians only, where yukata-clad pedestrians stroll with paper fans and stop at nighttime street stalls hawking various favorites: yakisoba (fried soba noodles), yakitori (barbecued chicken skewers), takoyaki (fried balls of flour-based batter containing minced octopus), okonomiyaki (aka Japanese pancakes with all manner of ingredients), traditional alcohols sake and shochu, and of course summer’s favorite tipple: cold beer. Images of the excitement can be seen here.
During these three special days: the entryways to some of Kyoto’s most prized – and private – traditional homes in its old kimono district are flung open to the public, giving a rare glimpse into these famously secretive dwellings.
But the real visual treat is on the streets. The Yoiyama Parade, held the night before the grand Yamaboko Junkō parade, is perhaps the best example. Included on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the dazzling floats of the Yoiyama Parade are divided into two groups, Hoko and Yama – collectively called Yamahoko, which ironically takes place outside of Gion, on the other side of the Kamo River.
Prior to the spectacle, the order of the floats in the procession is determined by drawing lots in a special ceremony that is presided over by the city’s mayor, who dons a magister’s robes. Lots drawn, the floats are draped in exquisite tapestries from Japan and abroad. Artists, musicians and life-size figures of important people ride in the floats, which are pushed and pulled by teams of up to 50 men (the two-storied floats on wheels weigh up to 10 tons). But the parade’s real star is chigo, a boy who undergoes weeks of purification rituals before he can ride one of the floats wearing Shinto robes and a golden phoenix crown.
The level of tradition observed at this great show in Gion has its roots in the distant past. Japanese novelist and Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata called the Gion Matsuri one of “the ‘three great festivals’ of the old capital,” along with the Festival of Ages (Jidai Matsuri, held every October 22) and the Hollycock Festival (Aoi Matsuri, held every May 15). These three great festivals are deeply rooted in Shinto tradition.
In Gion’s case, the revelries grew out of a purification ritual (goryo-e) aimed at appeasing the gods thought to be responsible for causing fires, floods and earthquakes. When a bout of plague befell the people in 869, Emperor Seiwa ordered the public to pray to Susanoo-no-mikoto, the god ensconced at Kyoto’s Yasaka Shrine. A total of 66 halberds – one for each province of old Japan – and Yasaka Shrine’s portable shrines were installed at the garden of Shinsen-en. This ritual was repeated whenever similar havoc occurred.
It was declared an annual event in 970 and has continued with few exceptions to the present. When the Ashikaga shogunate called an end to the religious ceremony, the people insisted that the festival must continue. Dropping the spiritual trappings, merchants began to influence the processions, giving them a glitzy edge that arguably reached its apogee in the Edo Period (1603-1868), but persists to this day.