Earlier this week, I had a chance to participate in the Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s three largest festivals, by pulling a large “Yama” called the “Iwato Yama” through the streets of Kyoto with thirty two other guys from several countries. It was an incredible experience, and not only because it marked the only time in my life that I’ll ever be able to make the turn from Kawaramachi onto Oike Dori and have an empty street in front of me. It’s really hard to get up to speed when you’re pulling a 14m (~47 foot) tall, 8.25t (18,000 lb) float, complete with its own band, whilst wearing straw sandals.
Gion Matsuri is the oldest of Japan’s Three Great Festivals (the others are Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo and Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka). It began in 869 as a procession of 66 halberds, representing the 66 provinces of Japan at the time, through the city to ward off the spirits that were causing a plague. After 970, it became an annual event and the halberds evolved into elaborate floats, though the number decreased. Although the main event of the festival, the “Yamaboko Junko” (or procession of Yama and Hoko) does not go through Gion district, a detail that always confused me until I took part in the festival, the festival is in honor of the deity of Yasaka (Gion) Shrine, Susanoo-no-mikoto, so the name derives from that.
The Yamaboko Junko is held on July 17 each year, although there is a plan to separate it into two days, beginning in 2014. The larger floats are called the “hoko” (which becomes “boko” in the compound word) and represent the original halberds. The first in the order of march is called the “Naginata hoko,” with naginata meaning halberd (of the Japanese variety, of course). The smaller floats are the yama, which represent important scenes from legend and history, although some of these, including the one I pulled, bridge the gap in size between yama and hoko.
Thanks to a connection through a friend, I was able to join in pulling the Iwato Yama in this year’s Gion Festival, along with a group of international residents organized by the Kyoto International Center. Iwato Yama is based on the Japanese legend from the Kojiki of Amaterasu-no-mikoto, the sun goddess, who got annoyed at her brother, the aforementioned Susanoo-no-mikoto, and hid herself in a cave, called Ama-no-Iwato, so that there was no sun in the world. Sibling rivalry can have some serious consequences for the world when gods are involved! The other gods lured her out by creating the sacred jewels and sacred mirror, Yata no Kagami, and throwing a celebration outside of her cave. Being a bit full of herself, Amaterasu peeked out of the cave, wondering they could possibly be happy about, since she was hiding. The other gods told her they were celebrating because a greater god than she was coming, then they showed her the mirror. Mistaking her own reflection for a glimpse of this greater god, she came outside and they slammed the cave shut behind her and sealed it. Thus the sun was restored to the world.
In terms of the Yamaboko Junko, Iwato Yama is one of the largest yama, on the same scale as some of the smaller hoko, though with fewer pullers, and is always the 22nd float in the order of march. The pull team wears white calf-length pants (which are actually pretty nice), a white and blue happi festival coat, a small, conical straw hat, and straw sandals. Hopefully, by the time I post this, I’ll have a picture of me in that regalia. I didn’t manage to take any photos that day, since pullers are not to have any of the trappings of modern society, including cameras, phones, watches, or wedding rings. (Could we get away with Google Glass?)
Pulling the Float
In case the idea of straw sandals sounded comfortable to you, let me assure you, they are not- particularly when they are an inch too short for your feet so that your heel is on the pavement with each step. Fortunately, unlike the ninth century participants in the ceremony, I had access to skin-colored kinesiology tape, which I used to coat the bottom of my foot, and the top, under the rope thong that held the sandals on. No blisters for me! Seriously, if you’re ever going to participate in this festival, there is nothing more important than this tape. And white underwear.
The Need for Speed Management. We had 33 men pulling the float, and it was surprisingly easy to get it moving. The two guides mounted on the front of the float give a chant, accompanied by a synchronized fan maneuver, and on the final “Yah” we all pull together (We probably weren’t supposed to, but all of the foreigners shouted “yah” along with them). I’d say it goes from 0-2 mph in about 1 second, though that’s more or less the top recommended speed. Any faster, and there is a serious danger to the musicians, who are precariously perched on the edge of the float, some 20 feet above the payment. Yamas do not have shocks.
Progress has to be fast enough to account for course corrections, which are made by shoving a wedge under the wheels to force them to the side, but slow enough that the brakes (slightly larger wedges, showed under the wheels from the front, instead of the sides) still work. Beyond that, it’s supposed to be a stately procession, so even if we could go faster, we wouldn’t want to. We had to be told several times to slow down, as it was. Incidentally, the streets of Kyoto may seem flat and level, but I can assure you now that they are not.
Turns on a 10-Yen Coin. No, really, it does. Mostly because we stop it and then yank it around in a circle, but it meets the technical description, no? Turning the yama was actually one of the most interesting parts of the parade. For the latter half of the parade, I was next-to-closest position to the yama along the ropes, so I had a great view of the final two turns.
First, the men who were directing us laid out slats of bamboo and we pulled the front wheels onto those. Then, they wrapped the pull ropes around the axle, where it protruded from the wheel opposite the direction of turn and we stretched the ropes out on a 90 degree angle from the float. The guide team laid out more bamboo, forming a curving track for the wheels to slide along and drenched all the bamboo with water to ease the sliding. Four guides mount up for the steering process and give a different chant (yoi yoi to sei yoi to sei, yoi yoi to sei yoi… to sei!) and on the last “sei” we pull, yanking the float about 30 degrees per pull. It’s very important to stop the pull when the guides raise their fans, as they’re watching to make sure the wheels don’t slide off the bamboo and onto the pavement.
The Best Part of the Parade. The parade starts at Karasuma-shijo, proceeds down Shijo to Kawaramachi, then up Kawaramachi to Oike, then back toward Karasuma. Those are all wide streets, and lined with spectators, and even seats on the pavement in places. At the end, we turned of Karasuma onto Shinmachi, a street so narrow that the yama barely fit between the lines. This street was lined with spectators too, stacked one-deep with their backs to the walls, or leaning out from the second story of the old houses. They were the most enthusiastic cheerers we had all day, on the ones on the street-side fanned us as we went by, which felt amazing after the pounding sun of Oike-dori. At one point, we were stopped outside an Italian restaurant, and a waitress came out with a bowl of ice cubes for us to chew on, too. A few of the neighborhoods that we passed through on Shinmachi were responsible for maintaining yamas and hokos of their own, so they had perhaps a deeper appreciation of the event. But at the same time, as a foreigner participating in this festival, these were precisely the people I thought might be most displeased that it wasn’t a purely Japanese event. It was a tremendous relief, even more so than the fanning, to receive their support.
The second best part? That would have to be the first water break, right before the Shijo-Kawaramachi turn, about two hours in (mostly waiting time). No water ever tasted so good before!
An Incredible Experience
It was also a relief when we pulled Iwato Yama back to it’s original parking space and were finished for the day! I felt honored to be able to participate in this festival. From the first ceremony and shrine blessing for all the pullers, to donning the outfit and wonderful sandals for the first time, all the way through the pulling, I was thrilled to be there. Even on the hills. (I swear, there are hills! The road grade probably approaches 0.5% in places.) We had great weather for it, a break from the 37 degree heat of the week before, and there was even a breeze on Kawaramachi and Shinmachi, so it wasn’t nearly as challenging an endurance trial as the horror stories I’ve heard, though without kinesiology tape, I might be singing a very different tune now. I won’t call it a once in a lifetime experience, since several of my fellow pullers were repeat participants, and I may have the opportunity again in the future. I’d love to participate again, though I wouldn’t want to take the experience away from someone else who has never gotten to be part of this before. I guess I’ll just have to wait to see if the opportunity arises!
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That’s awesome that you had the opportunity to join!
I’m not sure what the local feelings would have been like in 1990, but I recorded the live broadcast of our year and saw that they did a specific segment on our all-foreigner team. The announcer’s attitude was positive, and the feedback I got from the organizers and the community that maintained our yama was also supportive. Even if there may have been a few traditionalists in the crowd that don’t like seeing foreigners participate, I think it’s good for them especially to see that we are here and want to be part of their community and events.
Thank you for sharing your story!
It is always a privilege to have an active part in the Gion Matsuri. Mine was in 1990, my Japanese friend, Jerry, invited me. My crew dragging a hoko were all made up of foreigners. I am not sure if the Japanese audience were happy or just amused that foreigners were doing a lot of the work. It was one of the my best experiences (though sweaty and tiring despite the light white attire) of my short life in my beloved Kyoto-shi.