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The Gion Procession

As I have mentioned before, the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is normally one of the biggest matsuri in Japan. It runs for the whole of July, and includes several large processions, including mikoshi and large decorated floats.

This year, due to COVID-19, things have had to be done a bit differently.

The matsuri traces its origins back to 863, when a matsuri, called a “goryōë”, was held in the Shinsen’en (“Gardens of the Spring of the Kami”) in Kyoto to appease the angry spirits (goryō) that were believed to be responsible for an epidemic. It was suspended for about ten years at the end of the fifteenth century, because Kyoto was a literal battleground, but otherwise it has been held for over 1100 years. Obviously, the priests at Yasaka Jinja were very reluctant to cancel a matsuri that is explicitly about stopping epidemics because of an epidemic. I have already written about the “prequel” matsuri that they held in April, May, and June, at various locations in Kyoto associated with the matsuri. This time, I will write about the main matsuri.

From a religious perspective, the important parts of the Gion Matsuri are the ceremonies performed in front of the kami, and the procession in which the kami move through the city to another location, where they are venerated for a few days before being moved back. The decorated floats are an optional extra. (From a cultural perspective, the floats are the centrepiece.)

The floats, obviously, had to stay home this year. The procession of the kami, on the other hand, ought to continue. The problem is that the normal method of transport, a mikoshi, is a complete disaster for infection. Dozens of people crowd together, in physical contact, to support the mikoshi, and carry it down the road while shouting. People drop out as they get tired, and are replaced, so that the number of people involved is even greater than it appears at any one moment. A mikoshi was clearly out of the question.

During the night of July 15th, while all lights in the precinct were extinguished, the spirits of the kami were transferred to the three mikoshi, in their hall (“garage” does not feel like a good translation, but that’s what it is — at some jinja, that’s also what it looks like). On the 17th, a matsuri was performed at the main sanctuary to replace the normal ceremony for sending out the kami. Then, the kami were transferred from the mikoshi, which remained in their hall, to a single himorogi on the back of a white horse. A “himorogi” is a large branch, usually of sakaki, with white paper shidë (lightning-bolt folded paper) attached, and they are used as temporary vessels for kami in a number of ceremonies. A group of about thirty priests, all wearing masks, then processed with the horse from Yasaka Jinja to the place where the kami are normally enshrined during the matsuri. Judging from the photograph in Jinja Shinpō, it was raining during this procession, and a traditional Japanese umbrella was held over the himorogi. When the kami arrived at the destination, they were transferred to the jinja there.

Over the next few days, small processions were held around the area covered by the matsuri, to pray for the end of the pandemic. On the 24th, the kami were transferred back to the himorogi, which was taken back to Yasaka Jinja, where the kami were transferred back to the mikoshi. Finally, a ceremony was held in place of the normal matsuri to welcome the mikoshi back, and the kami were transferred back to the main sanctuary of the jinja.

After the civil war, in 1500, the Ashikaga shogun at the time issued a declaration giving the jinja permission to use a himorogi if the mikoshi were not repaired in time for the matsuri. However, the mikoshi were ready, so the permission was not used then. Five hundred and twenty years after that permission, the kami have finally processed around the city in a himorogi — the first time in the history of the jinja.

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2 thoughts on “The Gion Procession”

  1. Thank you for writing about this. As a former ‘Kyoto-ite’, I’ve been thinking about that great city during these unique circumstances, and feeling sad, as so much of their economy is wrapped up in tourism now. I’m glad to hear about how the priests at Yasaka Jinja got around the issues of the pandemic in order to continue this old tradition. I recently commented on a reddit thread where you commented, and I thank you again for your work and your input. Are there any interviews with you or others in the community that you recommend are worth watching? I incorrectly commented that I liked seeing you on Japanolgy, when it was indeed “Life Where I’m From”. I’d enjoy seeing some more footage. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the comment, here and on Reddit. The priests at a lot of jinja seem to be taking a creative approach to the pandemic, which is a good thing.

      I did have plans to do another video with Greg, but they were disrupted by the pandemic. They may still happen next year, but everything is up in the air now. I’m afraid I don’t have any other English-language recommendations; my links to the English-speaking Shinto community are not actually all that good at the moment.

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