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How This Site Came To Be

catherine pawasarat shibori kimono gion festival tokyo japan

In the bubble-era early 1990s, I lived in a beautiful traditional Japanese home with a gigantic garden right in downtown Kyoto. Owned by a kimono company, the building had stood empty, because living in traditional Kyoto homes (that means no air conditioning in summer and no heating in winter) had fallen out of fashion with Japanese people.

One day I ran out my front door and nearly bumped into a gigantic wheel about the same height as me, as workers ignored me and busily lashed wooden timbers together. “What the … ?!” I thought. By the time I got home later that day, the wooden timbers had taken shape as a festival float, adorned with a magnificent array of textiles the likes of which I’d never seen.

I had no idea what any of it was or what it was doing there. I got out my Japanese dictionary, started walking around the neighborhood and asking questions. I’ve been researching the Gion Festival ever since. As its mysteries continue to unfold, it gets more interesting!

catherine pawasarat gion festival kanko boko elder friends kyoto japan_3982

I’ve experienced how one of the festival’s greatest treasures is its community.

Over the last 25 years I’ve interviewed festival elders and innovators, and spoken to representatives at each of the Gion Festival’s 33 floats, accumulating hundreds of pages of notes. I’ve also grown an archive of nearly 20,000 festival images. Having lived in a traditional Japanese home in the neighborhood has given me insights into the festival history, culture and way of life.

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Much of the Gion Festival history and experience is still transmitted by word of mouth, making elders living archives.

Some of the festival elders have participated in it since they were small children, and some families have supported the festival for hundreds of years. Focused on the privileges and requirements of their own community’s floats, few have had the opportunity or inclination to get to know all 33 floats. I hope that my overview makes up for my lack of depth.

Given that I didn’t grow up in the Gion Festival neighborhood nor in Japan, I’ve learned about it all starting at close to zero. I hope my learning and exploration may enrich – and speed up – yours. Most of all I hope that sharing the wonders of the Gion Festival inspires visitors to be supportive – if temporary – members of the festival community, so that we may honor its origins and gift its riches to another millennium of future generations.

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