The Gion Festival 祇園祭

by Nemo Glassman

They sit in the middle of Shijo Street in the heart of downtown Kyoto with heads bowed, more than a hundred men in anticipation gathered around the ornate float enshrining the main deity of the Gion Festival, Susano-o-mikoto. They are quiet and remove hachimaki head-wraps as the priest offers ritual prayers to ensure safe travels.

Then it all happens in the space of an instant. Lightning flashes directly above with a shaking explosion of thunder. And then rain, in bucket-loads, soaking their white happi coats like a celestial purification of the city itself.

Thousands of onlookers, both local and from afar, escape under the eaves over the sidewalks and then turn in electric excitement and expectation of the moment when the giant float is raised upon so many shoulders for the long return journey to Susano-o-mikoto`s Yasaka Shrine resting place.

Prayers end, shouts go up, and the carriers are all to their posts to take the float up amid the confusion of the deluge.

The mikoshi float calmly sheds the downpour, sitting atop a wooden frame of smoothly worn long timbers. The portable shrine boasts a golden finish with large golden bells attached by thick braided regal red rope. Perched on the roof is a golden phoenix carrying a bundle of fresh green sacred rice stalks, symbolizing abundance.

The mikoshi is raised into the air and shaken high above in an ancient offering, as generations before have done for over one thousand years. Bells clang and metal brackets shake in a joyful chorus praising the voyage home.

It is just when their collective arms cannot bear the weight any longer that the mikoshi is back down onto stout shoulders and they are off on the return route with spirited shouts of `hoito, yoito` urged on by the ever strengthening downpour.

The carriers work as one organism, shifting in and out of their posts again and again in constant rhythm, bearing Susano-o-mikoto through the winding back streets and broad thoroughfares of the old capital to its sanctum within the sacred grounds of Yasaka Shrine.

Night falls on Yasaka Shrine in the heart of the Gion district, and the rain has long-since let up. The mikoshi rests just outside the South gate of the shrine, Susano-o-mikoto ready for the final stage of the day`s arduous journey: and what a homecoming it is! All at once, they charge into the central courtyard of the shrine with renewed vigour. The mikoshi float bounces and flares, moving in a sweeping circle around the gravel courtyard, somehow staying afloat on the swirling, shouting, screaming, swinging sea of the carriers still soaked with sweat, rain, and blood. The spectacle seems to last forever, and just when you think that someone might actually die, as abruptly as it all began, it is over.

In the still that follows I can`t help but wonder, what are they praying for… And as if having read my thoughts, someone next to me says, “The only thing any of us can really say to the gods is thank you.”

Gion Matsuri

The Gion Matsuri of Kyoto is an annual festival which has been celebrated continuously since 970 (although originally founded in 869), with the exception of some brief intervals, such as during the chaos of the Onin War. Originally founded as a purification festival, inhabitants of Kyoto were encouraged by the emperor to make offerings and prayers to the deity, Susano-o-mikoto, in a time of plague and pestilence.

Currently in consideration as a world heritage festival, the ceremonies, events and parades span the entire month of July. Everything builds up to the main processions on the 17th of mikoshi portable shrines, and the tall hoko floats.

For the three nights leading up to the 17th, some of the larger central streets are closed to car traffic, and Kyoto comes alive with exhibitions of private art collections along Muromachi Street in machiya homes, as well as hundreds of street vendors all around downtown. Don`t forget your yukata or jinbei wear and have a good fan to chase away the heat!







神輿を持ち上げる彼らの腕が、重さにそれ以上耐えられなくなったとき、神輿は担ぎ手たちの肩に下ろされ、「ほいっと よいっと」と活気あるかけ声とともに、さらに強くなる豪雨にせき立てられるように練り歩いていく。








■ 7月17日(山鉾巡行)
■ 観覧席設置場所:御池通
■料金:3,100円 (全席指定・パンフレット・日除け帽子付)
■ 問い合わせ:京都市観光協会 075-752-0227

Nemo Glassman lives in Kyoto and runs Plus Alpha Japan with his colleague, Bodhi Fishman. Plus Alpha Japan gathers on over 30 years of experience introducing visitors and Japanese guests alike to the arts and heart of Japan. For more information contact:
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