Kyoto is known as the old capital of Japan. People come here from all over the world for its beauty, serenity and preserved traditions. It has a special place in many Japanese people’s hearts as well as mine. When you think of summer in Japan, fireworks and BBQs come to mind but for most Kyoto residents, it’s all about the Gion Matsuri Festival.
This solemn and profound festival started over 1150 years ago when plagues of cholera, malaria, dysentery and other epidemics were distressing the people of Kyoto. The emperor ordered 66 halberds to be paraded around the streets to represent the 66 regions of Japan at that time. This was intended to supplicate the malevolent spirits that were causing the above misfortunes. It actually worked and eventually became a yearly ritual. Overtime, the halberds morphed into gorgeous floats and became the place for rich kimono merchants to show off their successes as the floats were extravagantly decorated.
The festival spans the whole month of July with various events and was accepted into UNESCO in 2009 as a Cultural World Heritage Event. Most people would say that the highlights are the 2 grand processions that occur on the 17th and the 24th of July but there is so much more. The grand parades are quite astonishing as the massive floats are transported around the city. What isn't known or realized is that there is much more going on
in the background to make this entire festival a possibility. Picture this: a 12-ton float being built by hand using only ropes and wood, then gorgeously decorated with hand woven tapestries that are hundreds of years old. 20 musicians, “hayashi,” (aged 8~60ish) who have been practicing for 5 months, sit inside a space of about 4 meters squared and play for about 6 hours. This float is then pulled around the city by 50 volunteers, who have had no practice run for about the same duration in temperatures reaching 37°C with a humidity of 90%. There are currently 33 floats at present and this is only 1 of the hundreds of events that occur during this time. It is truly breathtaking.
The Takayama Float
The Taka-yama float has been a participant of the Yamahoko float procession in the Gion Matsuri for most of its history since ancient times. The description of this float, with the name Takatsuki-yama, appears in a document from the 15th century, indicating the long history that it boasts.
Originally, the float was carried on peoples shoulders during the procession.
Then, during the Edo period, large wheels were attached to it so that it could be towed. The float was once ravaged
by the massive fire that burnt Kyoto down in 1788, but was reconstructed with a magnificent large roof at the end of the 18th century.
However, at the beginning of the 19th century, it was wrecked once again, this time due to a great storm disaster. Since then, Taka-yama has not been able to participate in the float procession. To make things worse, almost all of the float parts were destroyed in a fire caused by a civil conflict that broke out in 1864. On this occasion, however, the three dolls that had been displayed in Taka-yama over generations-Taka-jo, Inu-kai and Taru-oi-escaped damage.
Residents of the district housing Taka-yama have since participated in the festival by displaying these dolls at the procession eve called Yolyama. Currently, there is a movement to revive Taka-yama. The district residents are now restoring the float to its former state, using information dug out from old literature and pictures, aiming at partici- pating in the Yamahoko float procession with Taka-yama by 2022.
Before this, they will participate in the Yamahoko float procession in the style of Karabitsu-junko-marching in the procession while carrying a Karabitsu* and playing traditional festival music-in 2019, to be part of the procession for the first time in over 150 years.
Everyone loves a party and the nights before the Gion Festival parades, the streets of Kyoto become a mini Japanese style Mardi Gras.
Kyoto, being the old capital of Japan is filled with history, tradition and sometimes a healthy bit of pride. Many Kyoto citizens of families with histories over half a millennia are known to be a wee bit proudful of everything Kyoto. They are known to be a little difficult at times but one of the best things about the Gion Festival, during this time, is they inexplicably, open their hearts and sometimes their homes to pretty much everyone.
This phenomena is one of the reasons why you'll fall in love with Kyoto and the Gion Festival. You'll find stalls lining the streets around the floats offering food, games, drinks and all sorts of amusements. Many homes in the float neighborhoods will have tapestries and giant screens depicting various scenes from the past on display and will be open to public viewing.
The floats themselves will be beautifully displayed and lit up at night. You will be able to enter most of them for a nominal entrance fee which goes towards the maintenance and preservation of these gorgeous monuments. More often than not, the hayashi (musicians) will be playing the uniques Gion Festival tunes in the float or nearby. It really is an amazing treat for most of your senses.
If you are ever in Kyoto during this time, do not hesitate to visit the Yoi Yama nights of the Gion Festival.