By tradition the Naginata Boko leads the annual Gion Festival procession on 17 July, and it’s easily the best-known float nationwide. It’s easily recognizable by the halberd sword (naginata) on the top of its central pole.
Legend holds that the original halberd sword atop the float’s long crowning pole possesses mystical and healing properties: it was created in the 10th century by craftsman Sanjo Munechika. Munechika and his mystical swordmaking are the subject of the noh play Kokiji.
Though originally all the hoko floats had them, Naginata Boko is the only float that still has ceremonial “celestial children” or chigo-san riding at its front. Historically the chigo-san underwent rigorous month-long purification rituals before the festival, making them better vehicles for the divine energies summoned during the festival.
An admission fee gains you entrance to view some of the Naginata Boko’s beautiful treasures on the second storey of its neighborhood meeting place, one of the festival’s more spacious display areas.
In general festival treasures are best appreciated with an eye for detail: see how different insects (can you name them?) are represented so accurately in each piece of the metal tassel-mounts on display, for example, or marvel at the damask kimono, handwoven before jacquard looms existed. This is the kind of cultural cognizance for which Kyoto’s kimono merchants have long prided themselves, rivaling the ancient capital’s aristocrats.
Alternatively, surrender to the otherworldly sensations of the overall experience: the cacophony of artwork, the ubiquitous Shinto offerings, the rarified music, and mixed fragrances wafting from food stalls and incense.