Gion Matsuri, one of three biggest festivals in Japan, is a festival held by Yasaka Jinja Shrine and is known for its long history, splendidness and the fact that it is held for a month. Powerful and gorgeous yamahoko built on streets around Shijo-Street are one of the most famous and popular events in Gion Matsuri. Floats called yama or hoko are the stars of Gion Matsuri and the festival starts from building yamahoko, for they are taken to pieces and put in storage until the festival starts. Not many people know about this, but “yamahoko tate (building floats)” is one of the must-see events of Gion Matsuri.
[How hoko is built]
One does not get to see yamahoko unless during a festival, but how is it built? Hoko is especially huge with a roof and wheels, and there are many building processes.
It starts with assembling the foundation with “nawa garami (tying ropes)” and installing shingi (the wood situated at the center part of hoko) with hoko gashira (ornament) at the top. After that, they make a roof, put wheels on hoko and finally, adorn it with gorgeous kesouhin (decorated curtains).
■Assembling without nails: “nawa garami”
A huge hoko is assembled with only wood and ropes, and not with nails. This is called “nawa garami (tying ropes)” and is the traditional technique with history which is unique to Gion Matsuri.
In nawa garami, the spots to be tightened are precisely specified, and the order of tying a rope alternately from outside and from inside is very complex too. Mistakes are not allowed; no wonder you can sense the tension at the construction site; a group of two or three checks and confirms the rope position, hit a rope or wood with a wooden mallet and cautiously proceed with the process.
By binding a rope in cross direction on the already tied rope like a spring, the rope is tightly knotted to absorb any shock, like a cushion.
■The most exciting part of hoko tate: putting on the shingi (the wood situated at the center part of hoko)
Shingi, the wood situated at the center part of hoko which shoots through hoko to be approximately 20 meters in height cannot be put as it is; they let the hoko lay on its side once to put shingi.
To lay the hoko on its side, they tightly tie the piles inserted on the ground to stay put, logs to be used as the axis of rotation and hoko, then wet them with water so they would roll easily. After that, the hoko is pulled slowly to lay on its side and a couple dozens of people carry the shingi to be inserted in the hoko.
At the tip on the other side of the inserted shingi, hoko gashira (ornament), which would be the symbol of each hoko, is decorated.
Then, the rope is again pulled, and the shingi is raised straight in just about 5 minutes. The body, which weighs about ten tons, making sounds while being pulled or raised is a spectacular view to watch.
When the symbol at the tip of hoko is pointed to the sky, cheers and applause naturally arise. You can say that this process is the highlight of yamahoko tate.
■Putting wheels is a dynamic process too
The weight of a wheel, which supports hoko and is required for the tour around the city, is about a ton per one!! The principle of leverage is used to put wheels on, and a group of approximately twenty people work in putting them on. Wheels are carried from the back of a town council office one by one; since there are tourists around, four to five people carefully carry them together.
Hoko assembled in a short period of time
After putting wheels on, hoko tate is completed with decorating kesouhin; all these processes are completed in mere two to three days. When you actually see the procedure, you will be surprised by the accuracy and the speed of craftsmen’s work. Yamahoko tate can be watched from walkways as well.