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Gion Festival Amid the Pandemic: Smaller Events, Closer Communities



(First of two parts)


Kon-chiki-chin. Kon-chiki-chin.


The sounds of the rhythmic ohayashi music heard throughout the city of Kyoto accentuates the Gion Festival, the centerpiece of the summer season. 


For four years after World War II, the Gion Festival events were canceled, and the period remains a regrettable blank space in the 1,150-year history. However, from around 1948, a number of the neighborhood floats began to reappear and the festival resumed. 


Kojiro Yoshida was in 5th grade and vividly remembers the Kita Kannon Yama float of his neighborhood when it was first assembled after the war. From those early days of the festival’s post-war revival, he has been deeply involved in the festival and all of its traditions:


“As someone born in this neighborhood, it is my responsibility as well as a source of great joy,” he said. 


He is the former chief director of the Gion Festival Yamahoko Association, and still a respected and important figure in the city-wide festival circle. I asked what the festival was like to him post-WWII as a 5th grader. 


He reflected: “As a child, I remember it as an extremely exciting, heart-fluttering experience. After the war, the neighborhood community restored the Gion Festival. Despite being a revival on a very small scale, the triumphant expressions on the men’s faces is something that is vividly etched into my memory.” 


But this year, in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the fate of the festival was unclear. 


A Painful But Inevitable Decision



In late March, amid rising coronavirus concerns, the Gion Festival Yamahoko Association of Kyoto sent out a questionnaire to solicit many views as it considered how the festival should proceed in 2020. 


Results from the neighborhood associations indicated mixed views. There were some who strongly believed cancellation of the main festival events was the most realistic option. Others believed the festival should go on despite the challenges, since, after all, its deep roots represent the community’s wishes for peace and protection from illness. 


On April 20, the organizers officially announced that the Gion Festival’s highlight — the Yamahoko Junko, which are the famous processions involving various yama and hoko floats — would be canceled this year. The last time the Yamahoko Junko was canceled was 58 years ago, in 1962, when city streets were torn up for construction of its first subway line. 


A Festival for Peace and Protection from Illness



I asked several individuals involved in festival activities for two of the local neighborhoods — Koiyama and Kuronushi Yama, both in the heart of Kyoto — about their initial reaction to the challenges facing the festival in 2020. I wanted to know their hopes leading up to this year’s deliberations on the Gion Festival’s fate and their reaction to the final decision. 


Daiki Hashimoto, the director of the Kuronushi Yama Preservation Society, welcomed the opportunity, telling JAPAN Forward: “Initially, I had some feelings that, because of the origins of the Gion Festival, perhaps it should go on. Furthermore, this is probably common among those directly involved in the festival, but I felt that the Gion Festival was a unique exception.” 


The Gion Festival, affiliated with Kyoto’s Yasaka Shrine, has roots that go back to the Heian period. Kyoto suffered a deadly plague around 869 C.E., and the festival was organized to appease the gods and calm the disease. Since then it has survived numerous calamities, including fires, wars, and natural disasters, while increasingly becoming more extravagant and colorful as a festival uniquely symbolic of Kyoto. 


Like Mr. Hashimoto, many of the community members share a profound respect for the Gion Festival as an embodiment of a distinct spiritual value. 


One individual from the Koiyama neighborhood (who asked to remain anonymous) reflected back to 2015, when a different calamity, Typhoon Nangka, whipped through Japan and threatened the Gion Festival’s Yamahoko Junko. 


He recalled: “It was decided that if there was a typhoon warning announced, we would have to cancel the Junko. If it was just a storm advisory, we would proceed as planned. But then, a typhoon warning was announced for everywhere except Kyoto. Kyoto was singled out, and had just a storm advisory! It was very mysterious.”


He surmised that there are many reasons why this had happened. The message was clear, though, that Kyoto’s special cultural and historical aura could not be denied. 


“Perhaps the kamisan (gods) decided to protect Kyoto and its Gion Festival tradition. Or perhaps Kyoto, as a city that has always been the chosen location for the ancient capital, is in a place where it is protected from storms. No one knows. But it happened,” he said.  


After the Yamahoko Junko was successfully completed in the face of the typhoon mysteriously bypassing Kyoto, he recalled something especially striking: the reaction of many of the choshu (townspeople), who simply told him with a sigh of relief, “We are relieved to have done the Junko.”


Although the men who accompanied the floats were drenched from the heavy rain, and the vivid designs of the tapestries were barely visible as they were bound in layers of protective plastic, everyone was thankful for the Yamahoko Junko to have happened. From the community’s standpoint, what was most important was that the Junko safely proceeded.  


The Festival’s Place in Kyoto’s Cycle of Seasons



Offering a sense of meaning, expectation, and structure to the year, the Gion Festival is most definitely an anchoring priority for many Kyoto residents. Nowhere is this more true than in the festival neighborhoods where the floats are raised.


Another example of the important priority given to the Gion Festival in recent decades can be found in 1990. That year, the construction of the city’s Tozai subway line threatened the procession. The man from Koiyama related how, despite the disruptive construction project, the decision to proceed represented a pivotal change in how the festival was treated by the city. 


“During the Hankyu subway line construction in 1962, the Yamahoko Junko was canceled quite suddenly, because of the dangers of having the floats move over steel plates. Partly due to that experience, for the Tozai subway line construction, it was decided that the construction zone would be reburied specifically for the Junko!” he recalled.


The hoko floats, which could weigh up to 12 tons, were accommodated, and there was a safe and smooth procession. Furthermore, as hoko floats could be up to 25 meters tall, the heavy machinery and cranes in the construction zone were removed to create an undisturbed view of the procession.


At that moment in time, the Gion Festival took priority over transportation. 


Year of the Coronavirus


However, with this year’s coronavirus situation, the community leaders also understood the serious precautions that needed to be taken. In recent years, the Gion Festival is known to have attracted more than a million visitors.


Mr. Hashimoto of the Kuronushi Yama neighborhood described the concerns: “From around the end of March, I started to witness the effects of the coronavirus spreading vastly in every direction. At that point, unfortunately, I thought that cancellation would be an inevitable decision.”


Yoshiaki Tahara, a long-time resident of the Koiyama neighborhood, picked up the conversation to emphasize the sacredness of the Gion Festival, while also expressing awareness of the shifting reality of the coronavirus.


“People gathering would immediately become a threat for spreading the coronavirus and causing a cluster. So I felt like the Gion Matsuri would be canceled. But because the kamisan are involved, we had to think instead about what new form it could take this year,” he said.


With this mindset, many of the festival activities were reorganized to proceed on a smaller scale, to avoid gathering large crowds. One such event was the Kippu-iri ritual, traditionally held on July 10, in which community members gather to offer prayers for a safe festival. This year, the Koiyama Preservation Society organized participants into smaller groups with offset schedules. Then it implemented precautions, such as temperature screenings, face masks, and extra social distancing. The rituals around the annual prayers and offerings could be held in this way while keeping the risk of spreading COVID-19 at a reasonably low level.


The Enduring Willpower of the Locals


Even before COVID-19, what had always stood out as a consistent thread through the Gion Festival was the willpower of the neighborhoods and their leaders. 


These neighborhoods, referred to as chonai, protect their treasured yama or hoko floats while representing their communities in the colorful competition. There are currently 34 different chonai involved in the Gion Festival. Each one contributes considerable time, energy, and funding to carry out the festival events. 


According to Mr. Hashimoto: “Being a part of the Gion Festival is like belonging to a team club. My main focus is on my career and a family, but the Gion Festival offers an opportunity to gather with others, overcome differences such as age, and work together toward a common goal.”


The Koiyama resident also commented on the autonomy of Gion Festival neighborhoods, pointing out that each one was bound by a strong sense of competitive spirit, pride, and zealous dignity. He called this the “iji (willpower) of the choshu (townspeople).”


He added, “This isn’t politics and it isn’t about power, it’s about individual hearts.”


(To be continued)


Author: Mariko Azuma