For Kyoto’s citizens, July 17th is always eagerly awaited for two reasons. First, there is a lively street procession of the Gion Festival (which is the oldest continuously running urban festival in the world). Secondly, the occasion of this parade traditionally marks the end of Kyoto’s rainy season “tsuyu“. Even though temperatures are steadily climbing, it is a great relief that grey skies and constant rain might abate for a little while. I look forward every year to participating as a curious spectator in this grand month long event that has such an extraordinary 1150 year history. Originally started by the Emperor in 869 as a ritual to appease angry spirits believed to have caused a deadly plague at the height of summer, the festival has been held almost every year for over a millennium. Even today, the Gion Festival maintains its relevance as an example of sustainable community building in traditional neighborhoods, as well as a symbol of potent resilience and hope during the current COVID pandemic.
Above all else, the festival is a massive, month long purification ritual. There are usually many opportunities for the public to attend events in historic, downtown Kyoto locations. Although the crowd pleasing climax of the festival is the spectacular procession of 33 traditional yamaboko floats, I confess that I am more attracted to the intimate atmosphere provided by visiting the traditional neighborhoods where the floats are constructed and housed, to have the opportunity to see many historical decorative treasures that are only displayed for a short period prior to the procession.
I have been visiting the festival for three decades, but still feel like I am just scratching the surface of its multi-layered history. Even though many of the larger public events were cancelled for the second year in a row due to COVID, I was incredibly grateful that on a much smaller scale, some of the traditional neighborhoods rallied to display their historical legacies. I was also told by some of the Festival elders, that the traditional medieval techniques to build the ancient floats (by hand using only rope and without nails), need to be continually practiced lest the knowledge should become lost. Witnessing the building of the floats which takes about two days is like stepping back into time.
Not only float construction, but also the traditional music of the festival involves skills that must be kept alive by assiduous practice. One of my friends Yoshii-san is very involved as the leader of the music for the Ofuneboko float. It is always a privilege to go and hear the hypnotic, almost trance inducing notes of the festival’s music.
This year, I was on a particular fact finding mission to find out more about the floral emblem of the Gion festival. Since ancient times, a perennial herbaceous flower known in Japanese as hi-ogi (Blackberry lily) Iris domestica, has been displayed in Kyoto during this month long summer period. The Japanese name hi-ogi refers to sword shaped , iris-like, medium green leaves which are thought to resemble a formal, medieval Heian period court lady’s fan made from cypress. Although the red-spotted orange flowers on stalks look like lilies, the plant actually belongs to the Iris family. It is also commonly known as Blackberry lily in English because the flowers develop into pear shaped seed pods which split open at the end of summer revealing a “blackberry-like” seed cluster.
Insatiably curious, I have always wanted to know why the Blackberry lily was chosen as the potent symbol of this medieval festival. I decided that in order to find out the real history of the flower, I should speak directly to some of the festival elders in the traditional neighborhoods. Little did I know that my enquiries were to be greeted with raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders. Everyone knew at least that the flower was supposed to ward off evil, but like so many rituals that have continued for time immemorial, no one knew much more than that and had never thought to ask. My “investigative journalist” streak started to emerge after hours of asking questions to various people in the enervating heat. I plucked up the courage to go directly to the most prestigious traditional florist in the city of Kyoto. I have their beautiful book entitled: “The Art of Hanamasa- Purveyors of Fine Flowers in Kyoto for 160 years”.
Actually, I had a very illuminating chat with the elderly owner of the store Fujita-san. She told me that like so many flowering plants that were originally imported into Japan from China centuries ago, the plant had been valued more for its medicinal qualities than for its decorative value. It was understood that the cluster of “blackberry-looking” seeds had traditionally been used in Chinese herbal medicine, as a potent ingredient in decoctions specifically aimed at improving digestion and giving energy in the challenging summer months. It was incredibly satisfying to learn this information from a brand new “sensei” (teacher). Even though it had taken half a day and a brush with heatstroke to find this out, it had been completely worth it!
The name of this micro-season depicts the image of “Hawks learn to fly”. In Kyoto, there are two best places for “hawk viewing”. Firstly, on the Kamo river that runs through the city, (those having picnics are advised to discreetly eat sandwiches here lest they become the hawks’ dinner). Alternatively, whenever I climb Mt Daimonji adjacent to where I live, hawks can be seen gracefully circling the peak.