With barely time to sweep up the remains of Tanabata, Kyoto has jumped into preparations for one of the largest oldest and most treasured festivals in Japan–Gion Matsuri! On side streets and main streets throughout downtown Kyoto, construction has begun on the 32 massive floats that will comprise the Gion Matsuri parade.
Matsuri actually just means “festival”, and Gion is a goryo-e, or protective festival meant to fend off medieval plagues and epidemics 1200 years ago, but it soon grew into a way for craft guilds and merchant families to compete in showing off their wealth and taste. Music, dance, comic plays, and artistic treasures had all become part of the celebrations by the close of the 10th century, creating a true feast for the senses. And in order to parade their accomplishments through the city, each group constructed huge wheeled carts decorated as sumptuously as their means and skills allowed. That tradition along with all of the accumulated artifacts have been carefully preserved and handed down so that once a year, each year these beautiful relics of the past can be brought out and reconstructed for the continuing celebration of Gion Matsuri.
Over these last few days since July tenth, the various groups have swarmed with activity in the sweltering July heat to begin putting these floats together. Although the floats can be several stories high, no nails are used in the construction. The enormous beams are simply lashed together with ropes as shown below. And at right, you can see the skeletal structures beginning to take form. Small streets are entirely blocked off, while major streets become restricted to a single lane that allows traffic to slowly crawl around the float during these festival days.
And of course we Kyotoites take a keen interest in the progress of the construction. As the floats grow, so does the festival atmosphere. Sight-seeing increases with each day as does the number of vendors selling cold drinks and a variety of souvenirs. Members of the “team” involved with each float can be recognized in the crowd because of their distinct summer kimono. At this particular float, the team members sport an indigo blue with a white carp design.
Within a building near each float, the float committee displays the fabulous artifacts that will eventually be used to decorate the completed float. From the late 16th century onwards, as a result of the growing prosperity of Kyoto’s merchants, artwork from China, Persia, and even Europe were transmitted eastward along the Silk Road until they found their way to the capital of Japan.
Many of the floats are decorated with Gobelin tapestries that are thought to have come from Holland in the early 17th century. I have been told that these remain the best preserved Gobelin tapestries in the world with European scholars frequently seeking a chance to examine them. Below is a photo of the “treasury” of the Koiyama (Carp Float) Preservation Society. Note the large carved wooden carp on the left of the photo. This carp, placed on top of the float, is the obvious source of the float’s name. Behind the carp is a section of Gobelin tapestry. The orange torii gate in the center of the picture, the candles on the altar and the folded paper streamers on the right are symbols of the purification ritual that preceded the beginning of construction for this year’s festival.
Preparations will continue for another several days, and then the grand parade itself takes place on July 17th.