The Gion Festival Community
The Gion festival exists thanks to a unique coming together of essentially autonomous neighborhood associations, called chōnai. The chōnai are essential: each one is in charge of its own float and its treasures. The festival’s 1100 years of illustrious history represents a triumph of community collaboration difficult to match anywhere on the planet.
Each chōnai consists of half a city block, with the block cut diagonally across the middle like a sandwich: each half comprises a chōnai. Traditionally each chōnai sponsored, funded, maintained and celebrated its own yamaboko float. The rise and fall of the festival yamaboko and its treasures mirrored the fluctuations in fortunes of chōnai members.
Chōnai members were, historically, families and companies located in the neighborhood. Until Japan’s economic bubble burst, this part of Kyoto was the epicenter of the kimono world, boasting merchants in kimono, silk, dyers and the like.
With the collapse of the kimono industry, the neighborhood has shifted to apartment buildings, seasonal residents and modern businesses like restaurants and convenience stores. With major growth in non-chōnai support of the Gion Festival – World Heritage status, National Treasure and Important Cultural Property status, tourism, related government subsidies – the festival’s foundation is morphing. More than ever, the festival patrons are champions of its traditions.
In a sub-festival called the Byōbu Matsuri (Folding-Screen Festival), resident families and companies even now graciously open their doors and windows to display priceless folding screens, suits of armor, kimono and other family heirlooms.
I’ve often wondered, as festival visitors, how can we respond in kind to the festival patrons’ hospitality and generosity? This website is my attempt. Focusing on the spiritual roots of the festival allows it to continue as a meaningful ritual rather than a tourist event for well-intended but ignorant visitors. Highlighting the festival’s sustainability helps support its continuation for centuries to come.
What are your thoughts and impressions? You’re invited to share them via the Contact page.