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Greatest Japanese Festival: Gion Masturi!

- Brianna Nema

Okay, so I’ve told you about the throngs of festival enthusiasts and their yukata, but what about the festival itself and its elaborate mikoshi (portable shrines) and giant floats that fly through the air?

The Gion Masturi is one of the most spectacular ceremonies involving Kyoto’s Yasuka Shrine. It is famous for its portable mikoshi (shrines from the main shrine) and procession floats that are almost as old as the festival itself. On July 17th, the streets are cleared for the parade and men and women crowd the sidewalk to watch. The taller floats, called the hoko, stand about 82 feet tall and can weigh up to ten tons. They can be described as a combination music hall and museum, and are hauled by teams of up to 50 men. The smaller type of float is called yama, and it is about half the size of the hoko. Some of the yama were lost or damaged over the centuries. However, they have bee replaced or restored, with the weavers of the Nishijin area creating new tapestries to replace destroyed ones. The tapestries depict scenes from Chinese and Japanese history and mythology and often bear pine trees, shrines, and mannequins.

The floats are like enormous carts that must be pulled by two ropes with a team of men on each rope. The wheels on the floats were originally designed to move straight only. However, since the floats must maneuver through the streets, each one needs to turn right or left to continue along the parade path. Therefore, the men who guide the floats must stop at the middle of an intersection and pull the ropes in the direction where the float must move. Because the floats must be rotated in this manner, there are also two ropes in the back to further aid in the rotation process. This process takes about four to six minutes, and it can be quite humorous to watch, as the masses of men move to one direction and attempt to turn the float. In the photo seen below, all the men in white are holding on to the float ropes.

On other days, when the floats do not parade around the city, they sit at a standstill in the middle of the streets. When I gazed up at one of the floats for the first time, I did not see a float. Rather, I saw a giant piece of art. In addition to tapestries, the floats are adorned with lanterns, plants, and painted and carved wooden panels. At night, the floats are even more fantastic. The lanterns contrast vividly against the deep cobalt sky. To me the floats appeared almost as a rainbow of glowing light from afar.

Besides the floats, it was fun to explore the numerous food and souvenir vendors, who line up along the sidewalks. However, these vendors can be found at almost any Japanese summer festival. The antique float procession is the main attraction that will continue bring tourists from across Japan and around the world to Kyoto during the month of July.

For more information on the crafts, clothes, and festivals of Kyoto visit Kyoto City’s tourism website at: www.kyoto.travel

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