Gion Matsuri, Part III

Last Wednesday the last main event of Gion matsuri took place – the Kanko Sai festival, where the three mikoshi were taken from their temporary display on the Otabisho, carried on different routes through the inner city, and then returned to Yasaka shrine.

The parade started at 5 pm at the Otabisho. All of the things that can be seen in the picture of Wednesday’s post were removed and the mikoshi stood there for easy removal. The first one to be removed was the centre one. First there was a blessing of both the mikoshi and its bearers in front of the shrine to the right of the Otabisho. The mikoshi was then fixed to two long wooden beams and, amid shouts and clapping, was carried through the narrow streets of the inner city.

blessing the mikoshi
Blessing the mikoshi - note the knots!

The same was done with the other mikoshi, first the “west” one, and finally the “east” one. One of them was carried through the narrow streets of Teramachi, and then through Nishiki food market, and I am still amazed how its bearers could manage to make the very narrow 90 degree turn between the two streets… Each mikoshi was accompanied by a person on a horse – the centre one by the chigo, by the way – and finally, around 9 pm, the individual parades turned towards Yasaka shrine, lead by a procession that carried all the things that were removed from the shrine to accompany the gods in the first place.

through teramachi street
mikoshi carried through teramachi

Once again, the bearers of the mikoshi showed off their strength by turning it around on its long wooden beams whenever possible, always accompanied by a rhythmic shouting of “hoi-tto”, “hoi-sso” or “ri-ssa”, and at Yasaka shrine itself each mikoshi was carried three times around the centre stage before it was placed in there again. The men carrying the mikoshi must have been exhausted at the end, but there was a certain excitement that went through them and the spectators, although I have seen a few with blood stains on their shoulders…

arrival at yasaka
Mikoshi arrives back at Yasaka shrine

All of this took a very long time, partly also because of the fastening and unfastening of the heavy ropes that were used to tie the mikoshi to several wooden beams. Finally, around 11:30, all mikoshi had been placed again on the stage at the centre of Yasaka shrine. Then, all the lights were turned off and only the moon lit the final, most important scene: the return of the gods to the main shrine. A path was made with sacred rope between the centre stage and the main shrine building. Accompanied by music and hidden from view by screens, two priests went from the main shrine to the centre stage and at each mikoshi in turn either perfomed a rite or actually removed something they then brought back to the main building to enshrine there again.

Except for the music, it was quiet, the hundreds of remaining spectators were completely still, many of them had folded their hands in prayer. A palpable relief went through the crowd when the gods were returned to their proper home and the lights were turned on again. Many people then went to the shrine and offered a quick prayer. The scene was strangely touching, even though I am not religious.

It was midnight by then and I had to walk home. About 5 minutes after the gods had returned home, it started to rain. Well, the main part of Gion matsuri was over anyway.