Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

July 19, 2009

Gion Festival Dictionary (Japanese Customs)

The Gion Festival held in Kyoto from July 1 to July 29 originates in a ceremony organized in the 9th c. in the Shinsenen Pond, then part of the Imperial Palace. Halberds were carried here and dipped in the water as supplication to the gods to end an infectious disease. The festival was annually repeated and grew in size - in due time the citizens of Kyoto took it over from the court. The famous floats first appeared in the Middle Ages, to please the gods with music, dance and spectacle. The lead float, Naginata Boko, still carries a halberd on the roof as reference to the origin of the festival. It is also the only one that still has a child (Chigo) as representation of the god. There are 32 hoko (carts) and yama (floats) built and maintained for centuries by local associations of merchants in central Kyoto. They are decorated with fabulous carvings and ancient Gobelin tapestries and other drapery. All floats tell a story from Chinese legend or Japanese myth.
  • Chigo: "Celestial Child", a kid who rides on the hoko as a representation of the deity. Now only one chigo is left, on the Naginata Float which opens the procession. It is his task to cut the rope hanging across the street with a sword at the beginning of the Grand Parade on July 17. The chigo wears a distinctive costume and headdress. Some Chigo of other floats walk along in the procession.
  • Chigo Shasan: on July 13 the Chigo ("Celestial Child") who rides on the Naginata float is taken on horseback to the Yasaka Shrine to receive the blessings of the deity. Wearing a tall court headdresses and traditional robe, at the shrine he receives the fifth court rank.
  • Chimaki: a glutinous rice cake wrapped in a bamboo leaf and tied with straw. In the Gion Matsuri the rice is left out and the "packaging" only is sold to be tied above the front door of your house as a talisman. A popular souvenir of the festival, sold for example during Yoi-Matsuri by the groups who attend to the floats.
[Gion Bayashi musicians on the hoko cart.]
  • Gion Bayashi: the festival music played by flute, drums and bells by musicians sitting on the second floor of the floats. The basic rhythm is kon-chiki-chin, on which countless variations are improvised. Has origins in Noh music.
  • Goryo-e"Assembly of Resentful Spirits," the origin of the Gion Festival is a ceremony sponsored by Emperor Seiwa to drive out an epidemic in 869. Goryo-e was held in the Shinsenen Pond, then part of the Imperial Palace. Halberds were carried here and dipped in the water as supplication to the gods to end an infectious disease. Goryo were ghostly beings that brought on disaster and infectuous diseases. They could be the spirits of people who died with unresolved resentment or otherwise a sort of "plague kami" who caused epidemics. Goryo-e rituals were held to appease goryo or to send them away in order to prevent disease.
  • Hanagasa Procession: 10 large umbrellas attended by geisha are paraded through the streets on July 24. Leaves at 10:00 from in front of the City Hall at Oike, then proceeds via Teramachi and Shijo to the Yasaka Shrine where it arrives at 11:30 for the Sagi-Mai (Heron Dance). Comes in place of a second Float Parade originally held on this day with 9 floats to celebrate the return of the omikoshi with the deity from the temporary shrine (otabisho) to the Yasaka Shrine. This second float procession was for practical reasons discontinued in 1965 and merged with the float procession on July 17 (which originally only consisted of about 20 floats). NOTE: Things change... the second Float Parade (Ato Matsuri) has again been reinstated since 2014.
  • Hoko: Hoko floats are massive two-storied carts pulled by teams of up to fifty persons. They can weigh 10 tons. Upstairs 18 musicians play Gion Bayashi music. The hoko have a roof on top of which stands a long, mast-like pole. The branches attached to it are symbolic resting places for the deities.


    [Hoko cart]
  • Hoko Hikihajime (Yama kakizome): Trial pull of the cart-type floats from 12 to 15 July by the children of each township. At this time the Gion Bayashi music also starts up.
  • Hoko Tate (Yama Tate): The 32 floats are assembled in the various localities using traditional methods from 10 to 13 July. Instead of nails, rope lashings are employed. First the frame is assembled and then the float is decorated with brocades and tapestries. In the case of the large Hoko carts, a gangway is made to the second floor of the nearby house.
  • Imetake Tate: On July 15 two bamboo poles with a sacred rope strung between them are set up on Shijodori near Fuyacho. Cutting the rope on July 17 heralds the start of the float procession.
  • Jinjisumi Hokokusai: on July 29 the Gion Festival concludes with a rite of reporting to the kami
  • Kippu-iri: Between July 1 and July 5 a meeting is held to determine and arrange the rites and rituals for the festival, as well as discuss duties and procedures.
  • Kuji-tori: on July 2 priests from the Yasaka Shrine and city officials draw lots to determine the order of the floats in the parade. Eight floats, including the Naginata Boko which always rides first, have fixed positions so they are not included.
  • Mikoshi: the Yasaka shrine possesses three mikoshi, for its three deities: the main one (Nakagoza) dedicated to Susano-o no Mikoto, the next one to his wife Kushi-Inada Hime no Mikoto (Higashigoza) and the third one to his sons, collectively called Yahashira no Mikogami (Nishigoza).
  • Mikoshi-arai: on July 10 a Cleansing Ceremony of the mikoshi of the Yasaka Shrine is held. Priests carry the main mikoshi (Susano-o no Mikoto) to the Shijo Bridge where they purify it by pouring water from the Kamo River on it using sacred sakaki branches. The mikoshi leaves the Yasaka Shrine at 19:00, arrives at the bridge at 20:00 and returns at the shrine at 20:45. On July 28, at the end of the festival, the mikoshi is again purified in the Kamo River before being put in storage at the shrine.
  • Nagoshi-sai: on July 31 a large ring made of various grasses is set up in the grounds of the Yasaka Shrine and people pass through it to cleanse their spirit and receive protection from illness. See my post on Nagoshi no harae.
  • Oide (Mikoshi Matsuri): A sacred procession (shinko) of the three mikoshi of the Yasaka Shrine is held in the evening of the 17th. Start is at about 18:00. They follow somewhat different routes (generally via Shijo, Kiyamachi, Sanjo, Oike, Teramachi and Kawaramachi) to the Otabisho (which they reach between 21:00 and 21:30) on Shijodori where they will stay for a week.
  • Okaeri (Kankosai): the mirror procession of Oide, in which the three mikoshi return on July 24 from the Otabisho at Shijodori to the Yasaka Shrine. Leaving at 17:00, they weave their way through the parishioner's wards and return after 21:00 to the Yasaka Shrine.
  • Omukae Chochin: on July 10 men dressed in formal kimono carrying bamboo poles with lanterns leave the Yasaka Shrine at 16:30. They arrive at the City hall on Oikedori at 17:30 where children perform various dances. The procession which now contains people in various costumes as well as geisha loops back through town to the Yasaka Shrine to meet the mikoshi returning from its purification at 20:45 (see Mikoshi-arai). This is a modern addition to the festival.
  • Otabisho: the Yasaka Shrine stands outside what used to be Kyoto proper, on the east bank of the Kamo River. During the festival the deities of the shrine were welcomed to the city center where also the ujiko, the parishioners, lived. Therefore "temporary abodes" were set up. Today there is one Otabisho on Shijodori just east of Teramachi - near a busy bus stop.
  • Sagimai: "Heron Dance." Held on July 16 at 18:00 in the courtyard of the Yasaka Shrine.
  • Tsujimawashi: The huge carts have no steering mechanism so turning corners is a major operation called Tsujimawashi. The front wheels are bound tight so that they jam, after which the cart is pulled sideways over wet bamboo slats. This a time-consuming and presumably dangerous operation.
  • Yama: Yama floats were once carried but are so heavy that they now move on hidden wheels. They are decorated with scenes from Chinese and Japanese history and mythology. They often bear a pine tree, a shrine, and large dolls.
[A "yama" float]
  • Yamaboko Junko: the highlight of the Gion festival is the Float Procession which starts at 9:00 on July 17 when the Naginata Float starts moving. At Fuyacho Street the Chigo cuts the sacred rope. The other floats join in the predetermined order from the places in their communities where they have been built up. A total of 32 floats make a tour around the neighborhood, through Shijodori, Kawaramachidori, Oikedori and back through the narrower Shinmachidori. The route is modern and has been determined based on traffic problems and the enormous number of spectators.
  • Yasaka Shrine: Shrine (and in the past, also Buddhist temple complex) dedicated to Susanoo no Mikoto, the wild younger brother of the Sun Goddess who became a healing kami, and his avatar, the Indian guardian deity Gozutenno. Gozutenno was the guardian of Gion Shoja (the Jetavana monastery) which led to the name "Gion" for shrine and festival. The shrine/temple complex originated in either the 9th or 10th c. In 926 an ascetic monk set up a Tenjin hall here. Gion's Goryo-e (a ceremony driving out vengeful spirits) date back to the latter half of the 10th c. They attracted such a fervent following among Kyoto residents that it soon became the "unique festival" (reisai) of the shrine. They were also sponsored by the court. The custom of using floats where people dressed up in costumes, played music and danced, was characteristic of the festival. Originally meant to please and appease the kami, later it became a spectacle for the enjoyment of the viewers. In the Muromachi Period, the festival was adopted by the residents (machishu) of Kyoto's commercial districts. When the Meiji government instituted its "kami and Buddha separation" (shinbutsu bunri) policy, the shrine-temple complex Gion Kanjinin was renamed "Yasaka Jinja."
  • Yoi-Yama: From 14-16 July the Yoi-Matsuri is held. Gion-bayashi music fills the air. Families in the localities where the carts and floats stand, open their houses and shops to show of heirlooms (therefore Yoi-Matsuri is also called "Screen Festival, " Byobu Matsuri"). The floats are decorated with lanterns, human figures and other ornaments, and children sell amulets such as chimaki. The festival if the 15th is called Yoi-Yoi-Yama and that of the 14th Yoi-Yoi-Yoi-Yama.
Reference materials: Kyoto Gion Matsuri Te-cho (Kawara Shoten, 2007); Encyclopedia of Shinto; Kyoto Visitor's Guide, July 1990; Kyoto Shinbun.

July 13, 2009

Japanese Customs: Evading the bad years

Thanks to the Yin and Yang calculations brought from China, Shinto has adopted a system of yakudoshi, or inauspicious years. In the past, mysterious calculations were necessary, but now the priests have decided that all women have their most inauspicious year when they are 33 years of age, and men when they are 42. People of these ages visit their shrine for a ceremony or at least buy a protective amulet (omamori).

Below is a photo of a sign in the Fujinomori Shrine asking attention for the bad years. These are counted as kazuedoshi, that is in the old system where you were already one year old at birth (meaning you have to add one year to all these figures - 33 is in fact 34, and 42 is 43, etc.). As people are not used to this system anymore, the years of birth are written behind them.


The inauspicious years are in red; also the year before and after that age is "bad." In addition, for men 25 and 61 are weak years, and for women 19 and 37.

It is all totally unscientific, and I don't know how many people still fall for it. Sometimes Japanese just like to take part for the fun of it without asking themselves such difficult questions. My Japanese family strongly disliked it. But when a religious institution finds a way of making money from the gullible, it will cling to it for ever!

Japanese Customs: Summer cleansing of the spirit

Nagoshi no Harae refers to the "great purification" (oharae) that used to be performed on the last day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar. This goes back to a custom at the imperial court, but it in later ages it became especially popular among Kyoto's townspeople.

[Chinowa in the Fujinomori Shrine, Kyoto]

For this rite, large rings made of miscanthus reed (chinowa) are set up in the grounds of shrines. By passing through the reed gate (the summer ring) worshipers are purified and get rid of any defilement (kegare). Thus they are protected from misfortune. The custom also existed of passing the defilement on to a paper or straw puppet and throwing this away in a river or the sea.

The rite was originally also held at the end of December, but that one has been given up long ago, perhaps because there are already other purification ceremonies at the New Year. In contrast, the Nagoshi no Harae that is held in summer has become bigger and nowadays most shrines put up the chinowa for the whole month of June.

Fujinomori Shrine (Kyoto Guide)

The Fujinomori Shrine in the Fushimi Ward of Kyoto is associated with horses and horse racing - its main festival on May 5 features kake-uma (showing military arts on horseback). The deities are militant gods and therefore Fujinomori was in the past popular with warriors.

[Shrine grounds, Fujinomori Jinja]

The shrine rather naively claims a history of 1,800 years, all the way back to Empress Jingu who is one of its present deities. Empress Jingu was a rather belligerent female, who led a naval expedition to attack Korea, but unfortunately for the shrine, she never existed. Her story is all pure myth, as are the banners and weapons she is supposed to have buried here after her victorious return from the continent.

Historical evidence shows rather that the Fujinomori Shrine was established in the 15th c. by the merger of a few local shrines in this area. About those original shrines, nothing is known, but if they had been famous, they would have figured in the 10th century Engishiki list of important shrines. So it is safe to assume this shrine was born from medieval warrior society, and that fits its character.

[Statue of sinister samurai, Fujinomori Jinja]

The grounds are spacious, but there are no historical buildings except the Main Hall which dates from 1712 and was apparently moved here from the Palace. The shrine is known for its hydrangeas, which flower in June in two gardens attached to the shrine.
A 5-minute walk from JR Fujinomori Station on the JR Nara Line, or a 7-minute walk from Sumizome Station on the Keihan Line

Hydrangea in the Fujinomori Shrine, Kyoto (Photo Moment)

In June, ajisai (hydrangeas) pop up everywhere in Japan: standing defiant along the roadside, peeping out of small private gardens, clustering in temple courtyards and parks.

[Hydrangeas like splashes of purple on the green leaves]

This year, at the end of June, I went to the Fujinomori Shrine in the Fushimi ward in Kyoto, a lesser-known spot as ajisai watching goes. But there was nothing wrong with it. Although the shrine stands in a busy residential district, Fukakusa, the grounds are extensive. There are two hydrangea gardens, one to the left of the approach to the shrine, the other at the back.

[White ghosts]

Narrow paths lead through these gardens and the flowers are so high that you can't see other viewers, let alone be disturbed by the houses and parking lots around the shrine.

[Lace cap variety hydrangea in the Fujinomori Shrine, Kyoto. In Japanese lace caps are called Gaku Ajisai or "picture frame hydrangeas."]

The hydrangea gardens are open in June and July; in the middle of June there is also the Hydrangea Festival, but I avoided this for fear of crowds. It would only have meant some additional koto (Japanese zither) music, anyway. There were still enough beautiful hydrangea to make the visit a rewarding experience.
A 5-minute walk from JR Fujinomori Station on the JR Nara Line, or a 7-minute walk from Sumizome Station on the Keihan Line