This Weekend Enjoy a Gion Festival (祇園際) in or around Tsukuba, at a neighborhood near you (or beyond!)
By Avi Landau
According to A. Takahashi’s impressively comprehensive TRADITIONAL EVENTS IN AND AROUND TSUKUBA website, there are at least ten Gion Festivals taking place at Yasaka Shrines within the Tsukuba City limits alone this weekend , and about a dozen more Gion-Sai (祇園際）of interest happening in the surrounding area. Since no machine has yet been invented which would allow me to be at all the events at once, and since I never want to rush around getting quick and superficial looks at the different matsuri around town, I usually select one or two areas at which I spend a lot of time examining ( and enjoying) the festivities. This year, I have been to the festival in Onozaki, but in the past I made it a habit of attending the Gion Festival in Hojo, the old town near Mt Tsukuba (where I used to live in a renovated old farmhouse!). I am also fond of the festival in Konda, Tsukuba, where I long lived (in a house rendered unlivable after the earthquake of 3/11), and still to stop by and observe its goings on.
Here is an account of a a past Gion Matsuri in Konda – and I believe it is quite representative of this type of festival as it is held in this region.
As I have explained in previous articles, Gion Festivals originated in Kyoto in the 9th century as a way of trying to rid the city of summertime epidemics by appealing to the Gods enshrined at the Yasaka Jinja, Gozu Tenno (actually a Buddhist deity) and his native Shinto counterpart Susanoo no Mikoto. These early events must have done the trick, with their music and strange floats, because the same rites have subquently been carried out almost every year for more than a millenium, and offspring Gion-type festivals have spread from the ancient capital to all corners of the archipelago.
From my house in Tsukuba, there are two Yasaka shrines within easy walking distance. One, in the neighborhood called Higashioka is located in a woods on the grounds of the Sakura City Office. The other is down the road in an old village (buraku) called Konda. The characters used to spell this name are 金 and 田, which are usually read kaneda and which literally mean golden rice fields. As I walked towards the shrine I thought these characters perfectly appropriate with the sprawling paddy fields a deep green, rustling in the wind, and the impressive and large (by any country’s standard) homes, surrounded by walls, with imposing gates through which could be spied well groomed Japanese gardens. The forested hills on which lie the ruins of the medieval forts of Hanamuro and Konda framed this picturesque scene.
For this weekend each home had put out a special festival lantern and older residents had set up chairs in front of their gates from which to watch festivities. Those participating were all dressed in their specially made Konda festival wear and everyone was in good cheer, with many obviously having had more than just one beer.
There was a portable stage set up on the back of a pick-up truck upon which the local musicians and dancers performed their Konda Hayashi, with flute gongs and dancers dressed in lion masks or comic masks. These performances are based on the Hayashi of the Ishioka Gion Festival.
I followed this musical pickup truck towards the shrine itself which was full of fresh offerings. Tents were set up on the precincts to dispense beer and I was quickly given a heaping cupful.
The portable Shrine (O-Mikoshi) was all ready to be paraded through the town and the locals insisted that I join them. Konda’s mikoshi is said to be more than 300 years old and it is NOT LIGHT. Shouldering portable shrines can often lead to a feeling of religious euphoria as the great effort required, the dealing with the pain and the heat, the rhythmic chanting and shouting can carry you into a trance-like state. We paused at several places, had some more beers and had plenty of good ole male bonding.
As the sun went down and the air got cooler the excitement built. The people lining the roads cheered, the music from the pick-up picked up, and our mikoshi carrying worked into a frenzy.
I took a pause and looked around at the amazing scene: smiling families dressed in traditional wear; the antique omikoshi; the masked dancers; the grand old houses.
I was really happy to be in Japan.
Check A. Takahashi’s website and try to get to a Gion Festival near you.
For many foreign residents living in Tsukuba, the most convenient Gion Festival to observe will begin tomorrow at the Yasaka Shrine in Onozaki- Just across the road from Ninomiya house!