Jun. 14, 2019 UPDATE
A Comprehensive Guide to Enjoying Yourself at Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri!
Part 2

Yamahoko Floats

In part two of our feature on the Gion Matsuri Festival we explain about the Yamahoko wooden floats. In total, there are 33 different floats, all of which are worth seeing; however, seeing all the floats during the festival takes both a lot of time and a lot of effort. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of floats that we think are worth seeing or are unique or interesting.
1. What are Yamahoko Floats?
1 Firstly, what are Yamahoko floats?
A Yamahoko float is usually a “dashi” float, used in shrine celebrations, with a base or area on top, where people can often be seen singing or dancing, that resembles either a large house or a mountain. At the very top of the floats long spears, such as ancient Japanese “Hoko” spears or “Naginata” Japanese long-handled swords, are placed standing straight up.
These floats were created in this way to imitate the mountain like objects used in prayers to the gods during ancient imperial handing over ceremonies.
2 What are Gion Matsuri Yamahoko Floats?
In total there are 33 Yamahoko floats used in the Gion Matsuri Festival, all of which are completely unique from one another (the areas they leave from are also entirely unique).
The Gion Matsuri Yamahoko are often also called “moving art galleries” as they are beautifully decorated with “Kesohin” decorations, which include beautiful embroidery and fabrics shipped in from all over the world.
The largest of the floats weighs an impressive 12 tons and requires a team of 180 people for the initial construction, parade, and eventual deconstruction.

Trivia: In 2016, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, added 33 of Japan’s “Yama, Hoko, Yatai float festivals” across 18 Japanese prefectures representatives to their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
2. Editor’s Recommended Yamahoko
1 Naginatahoko
Google map: Blue No. 01
The Naginatahoko is a massive and impressive float. The float gets its name from the huge “Naginata” long-handled sword that juts out from the top of it. This sword was used in particular because it was believed to fend off disease.
The float has also become the symbol of Gion Matsuri and every year heads the procession of floats. This is also the only float in the entire festival which uses a real child instead of a doll as their “Chigo” festival child.

hokotate – Float Construction: July 10th (Wed) ~ Morning of the 12th
Hikizome – Float Test Run: July 12th (Fri) 3:30 PM ~
2 toroyama
Google map: Blue No. 16
The toroyama is a unique float which features a massive mantis sitting atop an imperial bullock cart. This float was born out of the story in which a praying mantis raised its sickle-like arms and bravely took on an aristocrat’s cart.

The toroyama float is also the only float in the festival with a gimmick. The mantis moves and raises his arms high up in the air! This is a definite must-see.

hokotate – Float Construction: July 13th (Sat) 8:00 AM ~
Hikizome – Float Test Run: July 13th (Sat) 12 PM ~
3 Kitakannonyama
Google map: Red No. 01
The Kitakannonyama float is a gorgeously decorated float amongst gorgeously decorated floats. It features a carving of cranes and clouds in the bargeboard and is wrapped in an embroidered golden cloth and Japanese decorative “mizuhiki” cords which beautifully highlight the magnificence of the float.

In addition, carpets from central and western Asia decorate the front, back, and right of the float, while large willow branches can be seen on the right side reaching around from the rear. This is truly a float to be enjoyed from all sides.

Yamadate – Float Construction: July 19th (Fri) 6:00 AM ~
Hikizome – Float Test Run: July 20th (Sat) 3:00 PM ~
4 Kankohoko
Google map: Blue No. 02
The Kankohoko is one of the most storied floats in the festival. It is said that the float is based on the story of the Chinese statesman Lord Mengchang who managed to avoid death after escaping from King Zhaoxiang by pretending to be a rooster and fleeing through the Hangu Pass. Look at the Kankohoko; you can see the Hangu Pass story expressed in the mast of the float.
At the front of the float, there are also depictions of scenes from the Old Testament, which are definitely worth a look as well.

hokotate – Float Construction: July 10th (Wed) 7:00 AM ~
Hikizome – Float Test Run: July 12th (Fri) 2:00 PM ~
3. hokotate – Float Construction
At this event, you can see the Yamahoko floats being constructed around the city. Even though the floats as absolutely humongous, there is not a single nail used in their construction. Instead, ropes and a technique called “Nawa-garami” is used. The areas which need to be fixed down and the order in which the ropes are tied are strictly determined, and their construction sites usually have quite the tension in the air.

Example) Naginatahoko: July 10th (Wed) 7:00 AM ~ Morning of July 12th (Fri) (The start dates of the Yama/hokotate float constructions differ from float to float. However, the floats will be constructed from July 10th (Wed) ~ July 14th (Sun) for the Saki Matsuri and July 18th (Thurs) ~ July 21st (Sun) for the Ato-matsuri. Also, note that the periods the floats will be constructed differ depending on the float as well)
4. Hikizome
The Yamahoko, of course, do not move for the first time on the day of the Gion Matsuri procession, they undergo rigorous checks and test runs prior to the procession.
If you want to see the floats moving about outside of the procession, the Hikizome event will be your only chance. Also, the Chigo festival child of the Naginatahoko can be seen carrying out the “Taihei-no-Mai” festival blessing during this time.

・Saki Matsuri (23 Float Test Run)
July 12th (Fri): Kankohoko: 2:00 PM ~
Niwatoriboko: 2:30 PM ~
Tsukihoko & Kikusuiboko: 3:00 PM ~
Naginatahoko: 3:30 PM ~
July 13th (Sat): Toroyama: 12:00 PM ~
Hokaboko, Funaboko & Iwatoyama: 3:00 PM ~

・Ato Matsuri (10 Float Test Run)
July 20th (Sat): Ofuna, Minami-kannonyama & Kita-kannonyama: 3:00 PM ~
Hachimanyama: 4:00 PM ~ (Test-run participation not available to public)
July 21st (Sun): Hashibenkeiyama: 11:00 AM ~ (Test-run participation not available to public)

Example) Naginatahoko: This float heads east down Shijo-dori Street and turns around at Shijo Tominokoji-dori to return to Naginatabokocho

Tips: At the Hikizome event, the public can join in without the need for a reservation and try their hand at pulling the floats. However, in Naginatahoko’s case, there are usually quite a few people who want to participate, so we recommend lining up at least an hour early.

Tips: Pedestrian Zones and Festival Stalls -
The Saki Matsuri and Yoiyama events are planned for July 14th (Sun) to the 16th (Tues); however, there are no plans to have a pedestrian-only zone or festival stalls on Sunday the 14th. On Monday the 15th and Tuesday the 16th there will be festivals stalls and the roads will be blocked off to allow for a pedestrian-only zone.

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