Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival), Kyoto, c. 1930.

1930sArts & CultureKyoto-Nara
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“Kita-kannon”-yama float, Gion Matsuri, Kyoto, c. 1930. The festival originated as part of a purification ritual (goryo-e) to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. Over time the increasingly influential (and powerful) merchant class made the festival more elaborate and, by the Edo period (1603–1868), used the parade to brandish their wealth. When not in use, the floats and regalia are kept in special storehouses throughout the central merchant district of Kyoto in the care of the local people.

See also:
Jidai Matsuri, Kyoto, 1914

“Religious festivals are the most striking features of native life, and mirror the very soul of Japan. The most important fete of this kind is the Gion-matsuri, held annually in Kyoto, which it is our good fortune to see. The most important distinction of this, like many another, is the magnificence of its pageantry.

“The Funehoko Cart of Gion Festival”, Kyoto, c. 1960, is unique among the floats as it is shaped like a boat (fune). The floats in the parade are divided into two groups, Hoko and Yama. There are 9 of the larger Hoko (long pole or halberd) which represent the 66 spears used in the original purification ritual.

“The foremost dashi, or car, carries upon the top of a mighty upright, rising a hundred feet into the air, a glaive forged from the charmed anvil of the wonderful sword-maker, Sanjo Munechika, and credited with possessing the virtue of curing the ague at a single touch of its blade. Behind this dashi follow twenty-three cars, bearing the effigies of as many noted scholars and philosophers, a mock moon, a mantis, and a stealer of flowers.

“Each special district, at the time of its matsuri, or festival, given in honour of some particular deity whose shrine has been reared in that place, feels at liberty to worship as many other deities as it likes … Each of these deities is allowed a separate palanquin, a shrine on wheels, the principal god being given the place of honour at the head of the sacred van.

Gion Matsuri dashi, with a golden phoenix, leading the parade of floats, Kyoto, c. 1940. A woodblock print postcard from publisher T. Tokuriki.

“The carriage is lacquered a deep black, relieved by golden ornaments. On the roof a golden phoenix perches with wings outspread, while a roof-tree glistens in decorations of copper. Inside this shrine is placed the effigy of the god who calls forth this train, a torii in front and one behind, made conspicuous by their red lacquer. The other deities are not placed inside the car, but mounted in gorgeous panoply high over the heads of the crowd riding upon it.

Hoshoyama, Gion Matsuri, Kyoto, c. 1930. The floats in the parade are divided into two groups, Hoko and Yama. The 23 of the smaller Yama carry life-size figures of famous and historically-important people.

“The first car is not decorated, but this one, called the dashi, ‘a car of gentle motion,’ can be described as a wooden house on four wheels, but having a mass of carving, decoration, and elaboration that defies description. An attempt of this kind would be useless, as far as concerned its representation of a class, for no two of these strange cars are ever made alike. The carvings on this one represent, in part, flights of phoenixes rising on wide-spreading wings, trains of tortoises, and columns of marching dragons.

“Among the deities included are to be seen the zodiacal conceptions, the goddess of matrimony, the goddess of the sea, the seven gods of fortune, the conquering empress; in fact, the deities supposed to govern every trade and craft which most affects that particular locality.

“On a platform raised from twelve to twenty feet above the ground, encircled and entangled amid the drapery of silk and brilliant brocades, snow-white gohei, and wreaths of gold and silver flowers, stand half a hundred people, while over their heads rises, on a high pillar, the carved head of the sacred object to which the car has been dedicated.”

Japan: The Place and the People, by George Waldo Browne, 1901

Traditionally, the Minami-kannon-yama is the final float in the Gion matsuri procession. The float features a seated sculpture of Yôryû (Willow) Kannon.
It is decorated with an Indian carpet dating to 1684, the oldest carpet of its type in the country.

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