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[Corona ni Makeruna] It’s Time for Kyoto’s Gion Festival Lantern Making, on a Smaller Scale

Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri, one of the most famous festivals in Japan, will resume some public festivities in 2021, even though on a smaller scale due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Okugawa Lantern Shop: Making lanterns for the Gion Festival. Craftsmen are making them by hand, one by one, in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto (photograph by Yukia Watanabe)

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The summer is a very busy period for traditional festivals in Japan. It’s a moment of celebration, and one which many people look forward to with anticipation. 

For businesses, however, it’s the time for making Yamahoko lanterns for the Yoiyama festival in Kyoto. The beautiful craft works are lined up in a narrow space at the Okugawa Lantern Shop in Kyoto’s Shimogyo Ward.  

The Yoiyama festival takes place on the eve of the actual Gion Festival, one of the most famous festivals in Japan. This year the celebration is on July 16. Celebrants come dressed up in yukata cotton kimono to admire the larger hoko (gigantic, multi-storeyed floats) and the smaller yama (mountain) floats (smaller floats). Collectively, they are known as Yamaboko.

This year, for the second year in a row, the festival has been scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

RELATED: Gion Festival Amid the Pandemic: Smaller Events, Closer Communities and The Men of Koiyama: Keeping the Gion Festival Tradition for the Next Generation

Nonetheless, for the first time in two years some yoiyama celebrations and yamaboko parades will take place. Only about 800 lanterns will be made this year, about a quarter of the annual number. Of these, about 50 pieces of lanterns are called komagata, after the koma shogi game piece. This will be the fewest number of lanterns displayed on Yamaboko in the past 50 years.

In the workshop, craftsmen are conscientiously putting glue on the skeletal frames and drawing family crests on them with a paintbrush. As Tadashi Okugawa (66), the 8th-generation owner explained, “Compared to last year, we will be making as many yamaboko floats as we will use, but it is disappointing that only a few people can see them. I hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will end by next year, so that many people can enjoy the Gion festival.”

(Read The Sankei Shimbun story in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Yukia Watanabe, Photojournalism section, The Sankei Shimbun

Yasuaki Watanabe is a staff photo journalist of the Sankei Shimbun, Osaka HQ Photojournalism section.