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Gion Matsuri, Kyoto’s most famous festival, is held each summer in the month of July. It features gorgeously decorated floats, parades and processions, purification rituals, traditional music, displays of family heirlooms, and a giant street party. During the latter, central Kyoto is converted into a carnivalesque “pedestrian paradise” with local folk promenading in all their finery, sampling street food, bumping into old friends, and admiring the floats. There’s something magical about it all, but for outsiders it can be hard to grasp what exactly is going on. “At times,” writes Catherine Pawasarat, “the festival can feel overwhelming.” She’s not wrong. Looking at just one float, with its antique tapestries, its ornate carvings, its long central pole stretching up into the heavens, a casual visitor might wonder briefly what it is all about, shrug their shoulders and move on. How much harder it would be to fathom the festival in its entirety! Happily, Catherine Pawasarat has now blessed us with a highly enjoyable guide to Gion Matsuri, that provides a thorough overview of this unique festival: its traditions, its roots, its rituals, its significance, and the unique system of community collaboration that has kept the festival going for more than 1,150 years.
Pawasarat describes early in the book how when living in central Kyoto in the early ‘90s she stepped outside her house to find herself face-to-face with one of those giant floats. Unlike our imagined visitor, she asked a question, “What’s that?” and this first question was followed by another question, and then more questions, which she kept on asking until now, over 25 years later, she has boiled down the fruits of her dogged research into this remarkable book.
The book has two main aspects. On the one hand it is a handy and practical guide book that you can carry around with you as you tour the festival. The sequence of events is clearly laid out with a schedule and maps, each of the floats has its own entry with its key points of interest explained, there are practical tips for enjoying the festival coolly and comfortably, and suggestions for things to see and do.
On the other hand, this book is also an initiation into the deeper significance of the festival. Pawasarat is a long-time teacher of Buddhist meditation techniques and her spiritual training has led her to some profound insights about the nature of this annual celebration. She recounts an occasion one sultry summer night, when trapped within a seething crowd of festival-goers she felt “desperately stuck amidst a clamor of humanity”. However, on hearing the unearthly kon chiki chin of traditional flute and bell music she suddenly realized that she and all those around her were in the “in the middle of a Shintō purification ritual” and this understanding helped her to accept her place in the heaving throng. Later in the book she draws a thought-provoking comparison between the festival and a Tibetan mandala. Like a mandala the festival is painstakingly created each year, its many parts assembled into 34 beautiful floats, which create a network of sacred spots about the city center. But just like a mandala, after only a short time, all this beauty is taken apart and swept away. The annual repetition of this process is a reminder and a celebration of the transient beauty of life, a theme that chimes like a bell through Pawasarat’s book, just as it has through this city, each summer, for over a millennium.
Along the way, Pawasarat also pays tribute to the local community that supports Gion Matsuri and lists the many innovative ways that they are adapting to the challenges of the modern era. Reading of the festival’s transformation through the ages, the meaning behind each of its parades and processions, and the sheer effort that goes into putting it on each year one cannot fail to be impressed.
Gion Matsuri was born in the year 869, during a time of epidemic, and was initiated by the emperor to placate the gods and banish misfortune and disease. Ironically this book is being published during a global pandemic, when most of Gion Matsuri’s major events have been cancelled. Still, reading this book I felt like I had in a way visited the festival this year and paid my respects to the festival gods. I enjoyed this book immensely. It is a treasure trove of information about the festival and beautifully illustrated with the author’s own color photographs. For anyone who seeks to understand the modern city of Kyoto, its community spirit, and its vibrant traditions this book is an essential read.
The Gion Festival – Exploring Its Mysteries by Catherine Pawasarat is available as a paperback and Kindle e-book from the following vendors:
Article by Michael Lambe. All rights reserved.