Artwork out of the Showcase

October 22, 2013

The origin and ornaments of a Gion-festival float, Tsuki-hoko


Tsuki-hoko parading magnificently (provided by Kyoto Design)

by Airi Kinoshita

A splendid view unfolds before your eyes; fantastic floats with marvelous ornamentation follow one after another. Musicians in identical yukata are riding on these floats and playing traditional music with flutes and drums. Cheers go up from the crowd for sturdy men dripping sweat and moving the floats forward. Excitement of the people has been rising since the previous night event, and the hot, sultry air fills the streets.

This is the Yamaboko  parade, the highlight of Gion matsuri which is one of Japan’s grandest festivals held on July 17. The festival was first celebrated in 869, according to Gion-sha honnennroku (Chronicle of Gion Shine),  the oldest record that mentions the festival. The purpose of the Gion matsuri was to appease the vengeful spirits who people believed had spread a plague over the city.

  It was the very end of 10th century when the first float was introduced to Gion festival by a street performer named Mukotsu and took around the city. Then, shopkeepers who lived in central Kyoto became involved in the festival. The shopkeepers rivaled each other in creating gigantic and marvelous floats, which are called hoko after ornament of hoko (pike) attached on the floats’ roof. Smaller-size floats are called yama, and these two types of floats are called Yamaboko altogether. Today 32 Yamaboko exist. In 14th century many imported goods entered Japan through trade with China and Portugal, and Yamaboko came to be decorated with carpets or tapestries made in Persia, Belgium, India, and China.

 Among fine, magnificent floats, the Tsuki (moon)-boko is considered to be the most luxurious and magnificent. The reason why it is named “Tsuki” is that this float enshrines Tsukuyomi, a Shinto spirit which is symbolic of moon and water (each float enshrines different spirits or heroes). Hence you often notice that lots of adornments related to moon or water are used in the body. Not only Tsuki-hoko weights and is tall the most among all the floats, its adornments cost more than that of any other floats. Therefore the float is well known as ‘moving art museum’.

Let us see the exhibits of the ‘museum’. Most of them were made by distinguished artists in the Edo-period (1603-1867).  For example, Souranreiju-shishu (fabulous creatures-embroidery) and Reimei-zu (picture of dawn) are fair textiles hung over the side of the hoko. Souranreiju-shishu was designed by Oshin Matsuyama, on which a phoenix and an enormous beast are silhouetted down to a feather or a hair. Reimei-zu made by Gekka Minagawa delicately represents a graceful scene surrounded with hollyhocks, where birds enjoy themselves on a lakeside. On the ceiling you will find Genji Senmen Sanzu (scattered arts of Genji story). 54 folding fans with small pictures are painted on a field of gold leaf and each of the pictures show chapters of Genji story, a romance set in Japanese aristocracy written about 1000 years ago. The posts holding up the roof are decorated with fancy metal sculptures created by Kannuemon Okazariya. The sculptures cleverly shaped into bivalves, spiral shells, or sea urchins shine on the lacquered posts reflecting the sun. Some ornaments might be difficult to see on the parade, so you’d better visit the hoko the previous night when it is open to people, then you will get a closer look at the craftsmanship.    

 Now 29 of 32 floats are registered as important cultural properties in Japan, and Yamaboko parade itself is also registered on UNESCO’s World Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Shijo-street and Karasuma-street are closed to traffic from 6:00 to11:00 p.m. for three days before the parade, and the downtown bustles with people looking in at night stalls one after another and go away. Why don’t you go to the grand festival and enjoy yourself in a circus atmosphere?




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