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Japanese Culture
Gion Matsuri
Gion Matsuri (Japanese: 祇園祭, "Gion Festival") - An annual festival that takes place in Kyoto and is said to be one of the most famous, if not the most famous, festival in all of Japan. It spans the entire month of July and is crowned by the beautiful parade, the Yama-boko Junkō (山鉾巡行, Yama-boko Junkō) on July 17.

Kyoto's downtown area is closed for pedestrian traffic only on the three nights leading up to the massive parade. These nights are known as Yoiyama (宵山) on July 16th, Yoiyoiyama (宵々山) on July 15th, and Yoiyoiyoiyama (宵々々山) on July 14th. The streets are lined with night stalls selling food such as yakitori (barbecued chicken skewers), traditional Japanese sweets, taiyaki, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and many other culinary delights. Many Kyoto girls dressed in yukata (summer kimono) walk around the area, carrying with them traditional purses and paper fans.

During the Yoiyama eves leading up to the parade, some private houses in the old kimono merchant district open their genkan or entryway to the public, exhibiting valuable family heirlooms, a customary event known as the Byōbu Matsuri or the 'Folding Screen Festival.' This is a precious opportunity to visit and observe traditional Japanese residences of Kyoto.

This festival first originated as part of a purification ritual (goryo-e) to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. In 869 CE the people were suffering from plague and pestilence which was thought to be a result of the rampaging deity Gozu Tenno. The emperor 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 Garden (at the intersection of Oike Street and Omiya Street, Nakagyo Ward) along with the portable shrines (mikoshi) from Yasaka Shrine.

This became a somewhat standard practice and was repeated wherever an outbreak would occur. In 970 CE 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 Edo Period (1603-1868) used the parade to brandish their wealth.

In 1533 the Muromachi shogunate halted all religious events, but the people protested stating that they could do with out the rituals, but not the procession. This marks the progression into the festival's current form. Smaller floats which were lost or damaged over the centuries have been restored, and the weavers of the Nishijin area offer new tapestries to replace destroyed ones. When not in use, the floats and regalia are kept in special storehouses throughout the central merchant district of Kyoto in the care of the local people.

Following is a list of selected events of Gion Matsuri every year.

July 1 through 5 - Kippuiri, opening ceremony of festival, in each participating neighbourhood
July 2 - Kujitorishiki, lottery for the parade order, in the municipal assembly hall
July 7 - Shrine visit by chigo children of Ayagasaboko
July 10 - Lantern parade to welcome mikoshi portable shrines
July 10 - Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo River
July 10 through 13 - Building-up of floats
July 13 a.m. - Shrine visit by chigo children of Naginataboko
July 13 p.m. - Shrine visit by chigo children of Kuse Shrine
July 14 - Yoiyoiyoiyama
July 15 - Yoiyoiyama
July 16 - Yoiyama
July 16 - Yoimiya shinshin hono shinji, dedicative art performances
July 17 - Parade of yamaboko floats
July 17 - Parade of mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine to the city
July 24 - Parade of hanagasa or "flower parasols"
July 24 - Parade of mikoshi from the city to Yasaka Shrine
July 28 - Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo river
July 31 - Closing service at Eki Shrine

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.

Hoko Floats

Niwatoriboko float, one of the first to begin the parade. At the top, festival-goers take turns getting on the float through a side building.Weight: about 12,000 kg

Height: about 25m from ground to tip / 8 m from ground to roof

Wheel diameter: about 1.9 m

Attendants: about 30-40 pulling during procession, usually 2 men piloting with wedges

Yama Floats

Height: about 6 m

Weight: 1,200 – 1,600 kg

Attendants: 14-24 people to pull, push or carry

Information source: “Gion Matsuri.” Article date: 19 Jan. 2008. Retrieved: Wikipedia. 12 Feb. 2008 <Gion Matsuri>.

Video - The following videos are of the Gion Matsuri. The first video is of the actual festival. The second video is of a street performance at the festival.





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