>>>The Mobile Museums of Kyoto
Photo: HunterKitty / Shutterstock.com

The Mobile Museums of Kyoto

From sombre ritual to a celebration of opulence: While it may have come a long way from its ninth century roots, the Gion Matsuri Festival continues to be held every year...
arrying a 10,000 kg float for three kilometres is no easy task. And if it has immobile wheels, things get even trickier. In any case, this is the main attraction at Gion Matsuri, one of the most important festivals in Kyoto. With events throughout July, the yamaboko float parade (on the 17th) is the high point of festivities.
There are two different types of float: hoko and yama. The first kind is the largest, and can be as high as 20m, which means they have to be carried by several dozen people. Due to their dimensions, every turn and change of street creates a real spectacle. Yamas are a little lighter. They are between 5 and 6m high and do not normally weigh more than 2,000 kg. They are prepared down to every last detail, and decorated with tapestries and fabrics.
The floats are considered small museums in motion.
Photo: kuruneko / Shutterstock.com

One of the Big Three

Further to Gion Matsuri, two other major festivals take place in Kyoto: Aoi Matsuri and Jidai Matsuri. The first is in honour of a type of plant and is held on 15 May. At the Jidai festival (22 October) participants dress up and act out scenes from Japanese history.

Locals ride the floats, wearing traditional dress (kimonos and yukatas), and musicians play flutes and bells. One of the hokos carries a very special passenger, called chigo. This is a child dressed in accordance with Shinto, chosen from among the children of the city’s business people. Since the Kamakura period, this has been the purpose of the celebration, to show the opulence of local trade. However, the origins of Gion Matsuri are different. At the end of the ninth century, with a plague devastating the city, Kyoto was not at its best. This being viewed as a sign from the gods, the city commenced goryo-e rituals to beg clemency and purification. That was the origin of festivals like Gion Matsuri, which is one of the oldest. It began in the year 869, around Yasaka shrine. Since the prayers were successful, it was repeated every year. 66 floats took part in the early processions, which was the number of prefectures in Japan at that time. Today the number has decreased to 32 (nine hokos and 23 yamas).
The local nature of the procession does not prevent casual visitors from joining in. Western faces are very welcome because they give an exotic air to the floats. Beyond watching the parade in the street, you can take an active part and join the procession. To do this, you have to register at Kyoto Prefectural International Center, which is the institution responsible for managing foreign applications. For those unable to take part, the street festival offers various alternatives: enjoying traditional music (gion-bayashi), buying good-luck charms (omamon), and tasting traditional food: yakisoba, okomiyaki, takyaki, yakitori and more. For three nights before the procession, the streets of Kyoto are in full party mode and the floats are illuminated and left out in the street. Some homes leave their doors open for visitors, normally ones that house relics, like ancient kimonos. This generous tradition is also considered a festival: Byobu Matsuri.
The most poignant moment of Aoi Mitsuri is the procession of women who accompany the Crown Princess.
Photo: Chiharu / Shutterstock.com
While Gion Matsuri followers are outnumbered by the attendees you would find at a manga event, its importance in Japanese culture and history is undeniable. It also shows how this culture is able to move between two worlds: that of anime and that of Gion Matsuri; between young people dressed in visual kei style, and those who prefer yukatas.
Gion Matsuri is called Gion-san by locals.
Photo: Sergii Rudiuk / Shutterstock.com

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