In July, Kyōto impresses with both traditional rituals and opulence. Gion-matsuri proves every year that the festive moments showed up as a necessity of changing profane time into sacred time, in order to renew not only the celebrated divine spirits, but also the souls of those who heartily participate in the events, and of the spectators who deeply acknowledge their value as national cultural property. The festival dates back to 869 when, in order to put an end to the devastating pestilence, Japanese erected sixty six hoko (“pikes”) corresponding to the number of the Japanese provinces in those days. Gion-matsuri originated in the belief of placating vengeful departed spirits and the god of pestilence through ritual and entertainment.
The pikes have been replaced by floats called hoko-dashi due to the long wooden handle with a sharp blade at the top. Besides these floats, nowadays we come across familiar yama-dashi as well; they are carried by parishioners or volunteers on their shoulders.
The most spectacular event of Gion-matsuri on 17th July is the procession of hoko-dashi and yama-dashi that wind their way through the streets of the ancient capital, displaying a wide range of paintings and tapestries, both Japanese and foreign. They all look like a genuine mobile art museum one feels tempted to take home in order to leisurely study its wealth of colours, and clear up the meanings hardly to be decoded at sight.
Each hoko-dashi is accompanied by a group of men in ancient costumes, bearing designs that identify them with a particular float. One of the most famous hoko-dashi is Tsuki-hoko (“Half-moon hoko”). The two men on the platform in the front hold a thick rice-straw rope with one hand, and each brandish a fan with the other. The fans are white, with a scarlet circle symbolizing the Sun Goddess. The drummers and flautists on the second floor of the Tsuki-hoko signal its approach through their music. The men on the roof throw to the spectators chimaki (rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves), which are much sought after for their propitiatory qualities.
Since the yama-dashi are heavy, their bearers do not hold them up all the time during the procession, but instead rest them on the ground at intervals to take a respite. Each hoko or yama spins its own yarn, but together they leave the impression that the old capital blows its historical breath over them. The Persian, Turkish, and Chinese huge brocades and tapestries speak for the assimilating spirit of the Japanese, ready to transmit further what is really worth knowing.
In the afternoon the mikoshi carrying the three divine spirits are transferred from Yasaka-jinja to a temporary abode in the middle of the former capital so that they may commune with the parishioners.
On 24th July, before returning to Yasaka-jinja, the three Kami make a pre-established tour of the city. The most important place they make a halt at is Shinsen-en (“The Imperial Gardens”) where they are welcomed with offerings of food, music, and dance.
At midnight, they are greeted back home, at Yasaka-jinja, with special prayers. The lights in the precincts of the shrine are put out and the ritual of transferring the deities impresses with its mystery that seems to belong to an out of world realm.
On 25th July other offerings (e.g. Kyōgen performance and tea ceremony) are dedicated to the deities of Yasaka-jinja, as a sign of gratitude for their being back to the permanent abode. The month of July comes to an end with another purification ritual that takes place at one of the sanctuaries dedicated to the God of Disease.
The large number of participants in the elegant and enticing Gion-matsuri, on any day of July, can hardly think that a couple of vengeful spirits could have sparked the birth of such a gorgeous festival full of ancient rituals, many of which have become deeply ingrained not only in the faith and the customs of the local people but also in that of Japanese all over the country. It might be a simple explanation of its enduring well into the future, but it is not the single one.
Letter to Japan
UMC, Bucharest, 2020