Cherry Blossom Forecast 2024 (Japanese version only) (Japanese version only) (Japanese version only)

when and where to see cherry blossoms (Japanese version only):

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Gion Festival(2)

It's raining and cool today. Cicadas started to sing.

Many areas in Niigata Prefecture and border area between Niigata and Fukushima prefectures had a record rainfall. Some rivers burst their banks and several roads were closed to traffic due to landslides.

Kyoto was also caught in a thunderstorm on 28th. Trains were stopped due to lightning strike there. However, events of the Gion Festival including the ritual to purify mikoshi(portable shrine) were held. There were few visitors.

Finally, the Gion Festival in Kyoto ended on the 31st.

I get back to talking about Yamaboko-junko(山鉾巡行) on the 17th.

On the 17th, a parade of 32 beautifully decorated floats named Yamaboko-junko(山鉾巡行) was held. yotoreached 35.7 degrees Celsius on the 17th this year, but more than 200 thousand visitors gathered along the route.

chidren on Naginata-boko

At the head of the parade, the Naginata-boko(長刀鉾) float appears. A child in traditional attire who serves as a messenger of God is on the float. The parade starts when he cuts the sacred rope. Naginata is a halberd-like weapon.


The starting order of several yamahoko floats is fixed. Minami-kan'non-yama(南観音山) brings up the rear. Other floats draw lots to decide whose turn it is every year.

meeting place of Urade-yama(占出山)

The floats are decorated with antique textiles, paintings and carvings. But many of these floats substitute their remakes to avoid damage to them. You can see the genuine articles at a local meeting place around each float on the night of the 16th.

meeting place of  Hakurakusan-yama


the remake of tapestry made in 16th-century Belgium


Wooden carp is said to be created by the famous sculpture Hidari Jingoro(左 甚五郎) in the Edo Period.


Wooden mantis on the roof is manipulated with dexterity.


tapestries made in the Ming dynasty(1368-1644) of China and others



















Three yamahoko floats of Ofune-boko(大舩鉾), Taka-yama(鷹山)and Hotei-yama(布袋山) can't return to the parade due to lack of funding and a manpower shortage after having been burned by the rebellion at the Hamaguri Gate (蛤御門の変) in 1864 or a big fire in 1788. However, residents hold the festival by displaying these floats' ornaments within their towns. Ofune-boko aims to return to the parade.  Other yamahoko floats were also damaged by fires and wars to some degree.

People involved in the festival never eat cucumbers during the festival. Because the shrine crest of Yasaka Shrine is similar to the cut surface of a cucumber. That's the only reason.

A confectionery shop named Kashiwaya Mitsusada(柏屋光貞) sells Gyoja-mochi(行者餅) only on July 16th. Advance reservations are required. I've never had it before. In 1806, an ancestor of the current shop master in ascetic training as a mountain ascetic hermit had an omen in his dream. It is said Gyoja-mochi was based on the omen.  The confection is made by wrapping a mixture of rice cakes, miso and powdered Japanese pepper in thin crepe-like pancakes.

photos by KYOTOdesign
photos were taken some years ago, so many floats had rainproof cover.

Compared to Yamaboko-junko, shrine rituals are sober.

The following two rituals are also held on the 10th and 28th.
In the morning, the water taken from Kamo River is purified. It's called Shinyosui-kiyoharae-shiki(神用水清祓式).
In the eveining, people head for the Shijo Bridge from Yasaka Shrine carrying one of three portable shrines(mikoshi) on their shoulders. Some men holding large burning torches lead the parade. People also hang charcoal cinders of the torches wrapped in soft paper near their front doors as a charm against bad luck. Mokoshi is purified by sprinkling the water over mikoshi with sakaki(species of evergreen sacred to Shinto) on the Shijo Bridge. People carry mikoshi back to the shrine and decorate the portable shrines. It's called Mikoshi-arai-shiki(神輿洗式).

On the afternoon of the 10th, shrine parishioners including children in historical costumes parade to welcome mikoshi from and to the shrine through their towns.

On 15th, the shrine's priests get the divine spirit to move to mikoshi with lights out.

On the evening of the 17th, after a ceremony,  shrine parishioners parade from the shrine to a rest house for the god through their towns holding three mikoshi on their shoulders.

On the evening of the 24th, three mikoshi are carried from the rest house to the shrine through the city. The divine spirit returns to the shrine late at night.

During the festival period, various events to pray for a safe festval are held and many performances are dedicated to the god at the Yasaka Shrine.
Hanagasa-junko(花傘巡行) is a parade including musicians, dancers, maiko and geiko to the Yasaka Shrine  held on the 24th. They performed at the shrine.

Originally, Yamaboko-junko used to be held on the 17th and 24th. Yamahoko floats paraded to run interference for the transfer of mikoshi, so 23 of 32 floats paraded on the 17th and 9 floats did on the 24th. All of yamahoko floats have paraded on the 17th since 1966 due to the tourism policy of Kyoto City. Instead, Hanagasa-junko came to be held on the 24th. Recently, a new move to restore the parade to its original state surfaced.

In the evening of the 29th, the organizers of the festival report the successful end of the festival to the god at the shrine. There are few visitors.

On the 31st, a ritual named Nagoshi-sai(夏越祭) is held at Eki Shrine(疫神社). Eki Shrine is an auxiliary shrine on the site of the Yasaka Shrine and is dedicated to Somin Shorai(蘇民将来), the god of avoidance of disease. Eki(疫) means disaster.

Somin Shorai gives shelter to a tourist during the trip. The tourist is Susanoo-no-Mikoto(素戔嗚尊) who is the god enshrined in the Yasaka Shrine. As a token of gratitude, Susanoo gave him a slip of paper with "蘇民将来之子孫也(I am a descendant of Somin Shorai)" written on it. Somin Shorai's family stayed free of disease due to the slip of paper.

Chinowa Kuguri at a shrine in Kobe

On the day, worshippers go through a large loop made of Japanese blood grass to purify them. It's called Chinowa Kuguri(茅の輪くぐり). Then they receive the slip of paper as a lucky charm from the Eki Shrine. The slip of paper is also attached to chimaki available at the Gion Festival.

This is the end of the Gion Festival.

photo by 神戸観光壁紙写真集

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Heron dance

two dancers dressed as a male and female heron

The heron dance(鷺舞, Sagimai) is a shrine ritual held as part of the Gion Festival at Yasaka Jinja Shrine(弥栄神社) in Tsuwano(津和野) on July 20th and 27th.

The lord of the Tsuwano domain started a heron dance on the model of the heron dance at the Gion Festival in Yamaguchi in 1542.  The heron dance in Yamaguchi was modeled after the Kyoto Gion Festival. People living in Kyoto didn't know about european magpie(鵲, kasasagi), so they created a egret(sagi) in a woven hat(kasa). Now european magpies also live in the Kyushu region.
After temporary interruption, two members of the domain was sent to Kyoto to master the dance in 1643.

Kosagi no mai

This dance is based on a Chinese legend that a pair of lovers separated by the Milky Way can see each other once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month and an european magpie with spread out wings works as a bridge for them.

I've been to Tsuwano.
Tsuwano is a little and relaxing castle town and is referred to as the "small Kyoto in San'in Region." Old samurai residences line up and many colored carps swim in the roadside canals along the plaster walls there.
Otome Pass(乙女峠) in Tsuwano is a Catholic holy site because 36 Christians were martyred for their faith there. The town is also the birthplace of Mori Ogai(森鴎外), one of Japan's great novelists.

Fringed orchids or white egret flowers (鷺草, sagiso) have started to bloom.  Sagiso(鷺草) literally means heron plant. It is named because the shape of its flower looks like an egret with its wings spread out.

In Japan, this orchid is very popular and many cultivated ones are sold. However, they almost die in two to three years because of plant viruses. Fringed orchids which grows wild in Japan are in danger of extinction.

2 photos by 季節の花 300

"White Egret Castle(白鷺城, Hakuro-jo or Shirasagi-jo)" is the nickname of Himeji Castle (姫路城, Himeji-jo). Most parts of the castle that we see today were remodeled by Ikeda Terumasa(池田輝政) between 1601 and 1609.

The castle met an ironic fate. It was built as a strong fortress. Despite that, the castle has never had a severe attack and never received heavy damage.

Ikeda Mochimasa(池田茂政), the lord of the Okayama domain, attacked the castle under the order from the new government in 1868. One of the gates of the castle was destroyed. Ironically, Mochimasa was a descendant of Ikeda Terumasa.

When the central part of Himeji City was burned down during World War II, a junior high school on the site of the castle was also burned down. Although some incendiary bombs were dropped on the site, the castle was not touched.

It is said targets  included castles. Nagoya Castle was burned down by air raids. Most of the existing castles in Japan were rebuilt with iron and concrete in the postwar period.

3 photos by 列島宝物館

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Tenjin Festival

The Tenjin Festival was held at Osaka Temmangu Shrine on July 24th and the 25th. Some  rituals were held at the shrine from late June to July 25th.

This festival is said to be one of the three major festivals in Japan , along with the Gion Festival in Kyoto and the Kanda Festival in Tokyo. The Gion Festival attracts many visitors from all over Japan, but I think other two festivals are of not much interest to visitors except local people.
The Kanda Festival in May was cancelled due to the Great East Japan Earthquake this year.

The shrine worships Sugawara no Michizane(菅原道真) who is known as Tenjin.
The festival is said to date from 951 when the shrine priests performed ritual ablutions at a ceremony site where hoko(鉾) drifted after being thrown into the Okawa River in 951.
Hokonagashi-shinji(鉾流神事) and Funatogyo(船渡御) come from this ritual. Hokonagashi-shinji is a ritual that hoko is thrown into Dojima River(堂島川) on 24th.
Funatogyo is said to have originated as part of the ritual that shrine parishioners went to the ceremony cite by ship to welcome the god.


The main events of this festival are Funatogyo and Rikutogyo(陸渡御) on 25th. The sprit of Michizane is moved from the shrine to a palanquin named horen(鳳輦).

People in historical costumes carrying the palanquin walk through the town to the boat pier. It's called Rikutogyo.

About deccorated 100 boats that they get on sail up and down the Okawa River. It's called Funatogyo.

Gyaru Mikoshi(ギャル神輿)

Carriers of this portable shrine are limited to young women.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Gion Festival(1)

It's getting hotter. The Women's World Cup excited us. It was one of the very few good news. Winning the Women's World Cup by the Japan women's national football team called Nadeshiko Japan (なでしこジャパン) gathered more than 17,000 people at a game of the women's soccer league "the Nadeshiko League" although a game of the league before the world cup gathered only 448 people.

The Gion Festival(祇園祭) is being held at Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社) in Kyoto from July 1st to the 31st. The Kyoto summer is extremely muggy, but people in Kyoto certainly look forward to the festival and realize that summer has come by it.

Although the festival's highlight Yamaboko-junko or Yamahoko-junko(山鉾巡行) was over, I hope this information helps future visitors to the festival.
Various events are being held until 31st. I heard that little people living in Kyoto saw all events of the festival.

The festival was originally started to counteract the epidemic spreading across Japan in 869.  The Imperial Court aimed to throw evil spirits with hoko(鉾) into the fountain of Shinsen-en temple(神泉苑) after leading evil spirits to possess stainding 66 hoko. Hoko is an older form of Japanese spear like a double-edged sword with a long handle. It is said the festival has been held every year since 970.

Each town came to elaborate decorated floats by the hands of residents including wealthy merchants and craftsmen. The festival was suspended by the Onin War (応仁の乱, 1467–1477), but it was revived in 1500.

The power of the day didn't like yamahoko(yamaboko) floats that got more extravagant year by year and banned parading the floats in 1533.  Town people went ahead with parading the floats not as a shrine ritual but as a festival for town people. At that time their floats cut a sacred rope that was stretched across a road to block their progression. So the Gion Festival is not only a shrine ritual but also a festival for town people.

Yamahoko floats consist of 23 Yama floats and 9 Hoko(Boko) floats. The floats were created based on scenes from historical events, legends and folktales in Japan and China.
.Hoko stands on the roof of hoko floats, but three of them don't have hoko.


 Fune-boko(船鉾) has the shape of a ship.


Ayagasa-boko(綾傘鉾) and Shijokasa-boko(四条傘鉾) have a parasol. People pull hoko floats.


Kita-kannon-yama and Minami-kannon-yama

Three of 23 yama floats resemble a hoko float in appearance, but a pine tree in place of hoko stands on their roofs.

Other yama floats have pine or cedar tree. People used to carry them on their shoulders, but they have wheels now.



The sections of the Yamahoko floats are all put together only with straw ropes, without using nails, during five days starting from 10th.

 They are drawn as a trial during three days startingfrom 12th. Ordinary citizens including women can take part in this trial.

 You can take a good look at the floats from the outside during and after construction. Some of them are open to the public, but Naginata-boko(長刀鉾) and Hoka-boko(放下鉾) are barred to women.


Chimaki(粽) and goods such as lucky charms, folding fans and tenugui(a piece of dyed cotton cloth) unique to each float are sold at local meeting places around the floats.
People hang chimaki near their front doors as a charm against bad luck. Usually chimaki means a cake made with rice flour wrapped in bamboo leaves, but this chimaki's body is hollow.

musicians on Naginata-boko

From 14th to 16th, the floats are lit up with paper lanterns in the evening. You can hear festive music here and there.
Stands of food and drink are on sale. The streets in Kyoto are heavily packed with visitors at this time.


This festival was broadcast on TV on the night of the 16th this year. The streets were extremely crowded



On the sidelines of the festival, 16 private homes and companies show their art works including folding screens to the public from 14th to 16th. It's called Byobu-Matsuri(屏風祭) which literally means "folding screen festival".

photos by KYOTOdesign