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Discover Gion Matsuri's Special Hakugayama Float And Byobu Festival

Discover Gion Matsuri's Special Hakugayama Float And Byobu Festival

Translated by Jelena Kitamura

Written by ふじき ゆみこ

Kyoto 2017.12.12 Bookmark

Gion Festival is an event that symbolizes the lively summer days in Kyoto. Today we will introduce one of the 33 floats that are displayed during the festival parade, the Hakugayama, and tell you about its history and lavish decorations.


Gion Matsuri, or Gion Festival, is the lively event that announces that Kyoto is enjoying the summer. One could say that yamaboko (also called yamahoko), the festival floats being pulled by the people celebrating, robed with magnificent decorations, stand out of the colorful crowd the most.

Today we will show you one of the 33 yamaboko floats up close – the so-called Hakugayama, with all its glorious ornaments and long tradition. We will also introduce the machiya called Sugimoto Residence, listed as one of Japan’s Important Cultural Properties, which serves as the place where the floats get decorated, and its well-known byobu (folding screen) exhibition, and tell you more about the joyful Yoiyama held at Yamabokocho (Yoiyama: a small festival that is held prior to a big, well-known festival, such as Gion Festival).

Sneak a Peek at the Ultimate Decoration Collection

The “moving art exhibition”, as the yamaboko patrol is also called, which gathers the attention of people from all around the world, made a comeback after a break of almost 50 years in 2015, and has once again become part of the festival (held twice each event). A queue of 23 yamaboko floats make their appearance on the 17th, or the day of the First Festival (Sakimatsuri in Japanese), and the remaining ten floats form a row and parade during the Later Festival (Atomatsuri) on the 24th.

It is a marvelous sight to witness a group of those magnificent floats with decorative spears parade through the streets, and to know that there isn’t a single nail used when making them – truly a wonderful display of craftsmanship.


The Hakugayama float we are going to introduce today is also called Kotowariyama, as the deity residing in it is Hakuga, the master of koto (a Japanese traditional instrument). It originated from the old Chinese tale of Hakuga grieving and moaning after the passing of his friend and koto enthusiast Shoshiki, so he cut the strings on his koto.

All of the decorations are based on the Chinese tradition so the yamaboko itself is a rare and admirable sight to behold. We visited the decoration house which is open for visitors from the 14th until the day of Yoiyama, or the 16th.


The room in the Sugimoto Residence is the place where all of the float decorations are done.


Here you can see the miokuri painting of a sage, which was made in the famous Nishijin district in Kyoto, with its maker’s name Ryushiken embroidered on it.


This is the Hakuga statue. You can feel the suppressed sadness from its angry expression.


Here we can see the koto upon which Hakuga swings his axe mercilessly.


This is a the famous Keijugire, the portrait painting which is hung in the middle of the float spear.


Here are some protective metal corners of a quite peculiar, butterfly-shaped design.


This is what it looks like underneath the butterfly-shaped metal corners – we got an exclusive peek at that interesting detail.


We got to see these metal protectors for the scarlet umbrellas, too. Truly superb works of art, don’t you agree?


This is a photo of a young referee from Yada district, practicing the kuji-aratame ceremony, which is usually done on the 17th to confirm the exact order in which the floats and the participants in the festival will appear.

On the day of the First Festival on the 17th, visitors are able to see the magnificent Hakugayama, with all its wondrous decorations completed and on. At the kujitori ceremony that was held on the 2nd, during which the order of the appearing floats is decided, it was determined that Hakugayama should arrive on the stage third. Its spear does seem somewhat smaller when compared with the long spear parading in front of the line, but you should be able to recognize it immediately as soon as you notice the statue of Hakuga swinging around with his axe. It might be interesting to pay closer attention to how it is all put together and ornamented to form such an intimidating and striking picture.


Discover the Installments Portraying the Seasons at Machiya

One of the events during the Yoiyama festival is showcasing the byobu (folding screens) – the treasured traditional objects found at the machiya houses of each Yamaboko district. This event is commonly known by the name Byobu Matsuri or Byobu Festival. It is a unique chance to admire the private collection of these precious works of art while experiencing the heat and the excitement of the Gion Festival. Another place where you can appreciate the byobu exhibition is machiya Sugimoto Residence, where the Hakugayama is put together prior to the festival, and which is also famous for being an Important Cultural Property. Since it is forbidden to take pictures inside the residence, we decided to inquire about the exhibition to the curator Ms. Utako Sugimoto.


What you can see in the background is hiougi, or the formal folding cypress fans, which are said to come to life during the Gion Festival, and protect you against evil and misfortune.


Ms. Sugimoto: [about the period when the Gion Matsuri is held] "It is a time when people can witness how a special day in the everyday lives of the citizens looks, especially in their environment. That way you can experience the handicrafts animated and vibrant, because they are not being displayed surrounded by a glass wall in a gallery, but are installed in their original environment. Even if you display the same thing every year, it still somehow creates a different atmosphere and gives off a different mood each time. As organizers, we would be thrilled if our visitors would come to visit the display to verify that subtle changes with their own eyes and create their own beautiful and unforgettable memories in that unique space. Our goal is to keep showing the ever-changing spirit of the Japanese each season, as well as the culture and tradition that occupies the way of life of the Japanese people.“

The year 2015 marks the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Rimpa School in Japan, so during the festival it is possible to see Tawaraya Sotatsu’s Akigusazu Byobu (the illustrated byobu folding panel that shows the beauty of the grass in autumn) hung in the tokonoma, or the fragrant screwpine brought in from the southern countries and arranged in the traditional art form of ikebana or the special transom exhibition we mentioned earlier. A chance to admire all of these wonderful art forms would make any enthusiast of the art, or a visitor of an earlier year, thrilled – because they would get the opportunity to experience an installment with a totally new and refreshing feeling to it.

The Lingering Taste of Yoiyama before the First Festival


As we admired the decorations and strolled through the Byobu Festival, we didn’t even notice how the time flew by – it was already pitch black around us. We could see the chess piece-shaped lanterns glowing in the dark in each of the districts, and feel the excitement rise in the air around us as the orchestra accompanying the traditional event livened up the atmosphere with their energetic music. It makes a truly spectacular feeling to welcome the First Festival held on the 17th with the mood of Yoiyama still lingering in the air around you – so why not experience it yourself, and visit Kyoto during this special occasion?


Sugimoto Residency
Address: Kyoto, Shimogyo, Ayanokojidori Shinmachi Nishi-Iru Yada 116
Phone: 075-344-5724
Website: Foundation Naraya-Sugimoto Residence (partial English page available)
Website: Public Utility Foundation for Gion Festival Preservation Associations

Kyoto Travel Guide

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