How to Know What You’re Looking At

many yamaboko gion festival procession kyoto japan

Four hoko wait to start the main procession on 17 July.

The true luminaries of the Gion Festival are the panoply of deities that the festival is dedicated to. Deities are generally invisible, however, so the festival’s eye-catching floats capture most of our worldly attention. They are collectively known as yamaboko, and can be separated into two different kinds of floats: yama and hoko.

The festival is divided in two parts: the larger saki-matsuri (“early festival,” from July 10-17) and smaller-scale ato-matsuri (“later festival,” from July 18-24). Click the links in the dropdown menus at right for more on the individual yamaboko.

In general – though not always ­– the hoko are larger, two-storey floats, moved by tens of men pulling thick, long ropes. Six of the ten floats feature an elaborate central pole or shingi adorned with various ornaments as their crowning glory.

The 23 yama are generally smaller and feature a pine tree as their connector to the heavenly element, and are propelled along by men grasping shoulder-level wooden supports.

abura tenjin yama gion festival procession kyoto japan

Abura Tenjin Yama – dedicated to the scholar Sugawara Michizane – in the Gion Festival procession.

While less opulent than their hoko counterparts, each yama provides us with the opportunity to experience the festival in a way more like yesteryear. Some of their display areas are located down narrow walkways that open onto quiet courtyards, where residents enjoy their float’s decorative treasures as well as one another’s company in the display areas.

Beyond the attachment to form that Japan and Kyoto are famous for, there is enormous flexibility. Some of the yama look like hoko (such as Kita Kannon Yama), and some of the hoko look like boats (Fune Boko) or umbrellas (Ayagasa Boko).


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