If you really want to express your feelings, it helps to carry a one-ton shrine around the city at 5 in the morning while having cold water poured on your back.
Every summer you’re bound to run into a street converted into a festival of colorful banners, food, games and monkey acts. This is the public face of a summer purification festival, often called Gion after the original “God-Carrying” festival in the Gion district of Kyoto. In Fukuoka, the sixth-largest city in Japan, it’s the Hakata Gion Yamakasa in July and lures the entire city out at 5 in the morning. In smaller towns, the local festival might hire participants from outside the city.
These festivals have a lot of variety. Typically, local men carry a large portable shrine (mikoshi) to the four corners of the city or neighborhood and then to the central shrine. The mikoshi is heavy or the distance is long – in Tajima, the journey runs from 4 in the morning to 11 at night; in Tagawa, the men pull shrines on floats up a river; Fukuoka’s weigh one ton each. The men are cheered along the way on streets lined with food and beer stands selling octopus balls and corn on the cob. The men are dressed in traditional costumes, and the shrines are tall, beautifully decorated towers that are dismantled and rebuilt on account of power lines along the path.
Shinto is a hyper-local faith system, so Gion traditions vary wildly from one town to the next and even between neighborhoods. I’m drawing on a handful: The Hakata Gion Yamakasa and the Nakasu Gion are both in Fukuoka City. I’ve been to a Gion in Tagawa and Kitakyushu. I’ve also read about Gion Festivals across Japan, especially the Tajima Gion in Fukushima Prefecture, which was the subject of an anthropologist’s research in 1966.
In Tajima, the high priest sleeps in a cabin reserved for purification rituals, using a fire from a shrine to stay warm. His diet is similarly “purified” and vegetarian. His job boils down to avoiding death in any manifestation.
The main “staff” of a Gion tackles food prep, cleaning, decorating and death avoidance. In Tajima, a volunteer resigned after answering the phone to find out that a distant relative had died. People who’ve had a death in their family won’t enter the homes of the Gion volunteers as long the priest is in the purification cabin.
The homes of the Gion volunteers – usually townspeople who volunteer to make food or send family members to sweep the shrine, etc – are marked by ropes made of paper in a zig-zag pattern; this marks the home as sacred and pure so food can be prepared in it.
Townspeople donate rice, which is purified and brewed into sake by the local shrine.
You can see barrels of sake wrapped in a kind of burlap sack with images of birds outside the shrines year-round; locals find it amusing if you take pictures of the booze. I’ve been to festivals where the shrine serves the sake to the public – New Year’s is a common day for such generosity – but at Gion it’s held for a special ceremony for the key townspeople, like mayors and police chiefs.
These people bring twigs from sacred trees to the shrine while you’re eating barbecued squid on a stick with a can of Asahi Super Dry. No one watches the twig ceremony, though the shrines are swamped with people while it’s happening. It’s not really a public or private display, taking place in the visible but semi-removed inner areas of the shrine.
There’s a lot of praying at the shrine, mostly because there’s a bunch of food and we’re at a shrine so why not? In fact Gion is a weird event for praying, because it’s the one day you know the spirit isn’t home.
Purified Sake Delivery Service
The Hakata Gion Yamakasa starts at 4:59 a.m., so I assumed the city would be up all night in anticipation. Last year I took the last train in and, on the ghostly streets of Oyafuki-Dori, I realized I was wrong. Businesses, save for a Japan-in-the-80s theme bar, had mostly closed early.
People were preparing for the festival at home. Women were up cooking meals, men were up eating them – a midnight feast was once a staple of the Gion, but that ended in the post-war famine years. In some Gion traditions, the local priest sneaks out of the feast to go to the central shrine, taking a secret and unpredictable route. Anyone unlucky enough to come across him gets bad luck – a kind of unSanta Claus – and so people stay in or sleep off their udon comas.
In the morning there’s a procession, as people in traditional kimonos or samurai-era loincloths bring food (mackerel and red bean rice, though traditions may vary) and sake to the central shrine. In some traditions, both of your parents must be living to take part in the elaborate food-delivery parade.
The Housing Market for Spirits
A short history of the rental habits of spirits is in order.
Shinto is animist, so there is an idea of a “god of rocks” but more accurately you would call it “the spirit of a single rock,” and that spirit can be more powerful if the rock is more dramatic, a tree is especially wide or tall, etc. It shows that the spirit of that tree or rock is strong, so it is respected.
In the original Gion festivals, local spirits – kami – kind of left their tree or rocks or river to visit shrines, which became a kind of vacation home. That’s why, when kami arrived, the men got together to take it out on the town.
Ideas evolved over time and the kami moved into shrines permanently. The spirit coexists between its origin and the shrine: The wind spirit is still hanging around in the local breezes; the tree spirit is still in the tree, but the shrine is sort of its business front for its communion with people.
Typically, the spirit of the shrine is connected to a special item kept in the room in the back of the shrine, accessible only to priests. This is where the spirit chills out when it’s not outside being all nature-ey.
For Gion festivals, a priest will secretly remove the symbol of the kami and place it into the portable shrine. The symbol is secret to everyone but the priest (spoiler alert: it’s a mirror). The shrine is carried to four corners of the city or ward to define a sacred border, the area inside it purified for another year.
Gion is my Anti-Drug
Emile Durkheim is the father of modern sociology, up there with Karl Marx, but Durkheim was fascinated by the function of religion in contemporary society. Religion, he noted, was most useful when it eased anxiety. Perhaps isolation is one of the greater anxieties in Japan, a nation where profound importance is placed in interconnection and relationships. Durkheim also sees religious rituals as a bonding activity; the Gion is a bit of a Durkheim Grand Slam.
Generally, new members of the community are invited to join in a Gion team as soon as they arrive. These groups have nothing to do with any other kind of social connections. You can join a team with your boss and the mayor and the 19-year-old grocery store clerk and high school dropout; this intermingling is extremely rare in Japan.
There are feasts and a lot of sake to bond over. Women cook the food and serve it, bonding over the preparation of the feast, while men bond over eating it.
The connection to tradition provides a continuity, something connecting one to the past and into the future; but in the present it serves the more practical purpose of getting people out of their house and working together on some huge task: Carrying the kami around town.
The Festival as Narrative
There is a sense of drama, and even a kind of story arc implied in most Gion festivals. Yanagawa Kei’ichi, a sociologist who studied festivals, says the start of the ceremony marks a break from the everyday life, the end marks a return to “normal time.”
It’s the space between them that tells a story – the shrine is on a journey; in the case of the Hakata Gion, there are competitive elements as well, a battle of wills against not just the distance and weight of the shrine but against the other teams. People test themselves.
This “special time” and sense of continuity with tradition, is preserved by the distinct dress and foods eaten specifically at these festivals; this ties the festival more directly to its past.
If you ate a sacred food every day, it would lose its power on the day of the sacred ceremony; the same goes for the distinct period of dress. People at these festivals don’t exactly dress like feudal peasants, they dress the way feudal peasants dressed for this particular ceremony.
These rituals connect history to the present and forward; the same ceremonies will be performed 300 years from now as were performed 300 years ago. This accounts for some of the conservatism on display in things like gender segregation and shunning those who have had a death in their family; but to adapt those aspects to modern times threatens the continuity between past and future.
Often, this makes for surreal moments as the present world smashes up against the ancient: Sometimes the shrine stops inexplicably at gasoline pumps or parking lots for elaborate ceremonies. These sites may once have been the homes of prominent lords, priests, or important industries. The stop is preserved to connect the ritual to past rituals, as if the modern practitioners were walking through a holographic reproduction of an ancient village, superimposed by their imaginations onto the modern landscape.
These sites have been forgotten by most, and it’s irrelevant – ask someone why they stop at a 7-11 to purify the float, and I doubt they could tell you if it was the site of a samurai’s residence, a pottery kiln or silk-weaving stand or whatever. They stop here because it always stopped here, and the key is carrying that past into the future, one annual ceremony at a time. In an essay on Shinto, Naofusa Hirai writes,
“Shinto has been called a “ religion of association.” It views the individual as the point of intersection between the long vertical association from ancestors to descendants and the broad horizontal associations of the individual as a member of society. As a person, the individual may be insignificant, but nevertheless he has a responsibility as one link which must not be broken in the chain of history. He also has a mission with regard to social solidarity. This fact is connected with the meaning of life for the individual.”
The festival provides a colorful celebration of this continuity, bonding people together in the present-day but also linking them to their past and future communities. The festival fulfills Durkheim’s promise of religion by stripping away the isolation of Japanese society. Along with bringing some vertical culture to an otherwise horizontal society, it’s also a brilliant chance to feast on choco-bananas.
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