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Bringing the World’s Oldest Urban Festival to the Portland Japanese Garden

Gion Matsuri is a festival for the people, by the people. Named after Yasaka Shrine (known locally as Gion-sha) in the Gion District of Kyoto, it is said to be the oldest continuous urban festival in the world and one of the largest and most elaborate in Japan. Gion Matsuri is more than a thousand years old and has been held in Kyoto since 869. Originally held to appease the gods and scare away the plague during an epidemic, it continues to be a colorful and vibrant celebration that takes over the streets of downtown Kyoto each July.

The festival culminates with a procession on July 17 each year. Two kinds of elaborately decorated floats are pulled through the streets: yama and hoko, with the latter weighing as much as 12 tons. The floats have unique themes, and are adorned with gilded carvings and priceless woven and dyed textiles from all over the world. They’re so exquisite that they are often referred to as “mobile art museums.”

Photo by Akira Nakata

Starting this month through November 4, the Portland Japanese Garden is bringing one of these authentic festival floats to Portland. The Ayagasa-Hoko float from Kyoto will be on display inside the Pavilion during this exquisite exhibition. The Ayagasa-Hoko has a lacquered cart that features a large parasol, atop which rides a gilded cockerel, representing one of the gods that presides over the festival.

Photo by Akira Nakata

Today, more than half a million visitors from all over the world come to Kyoto each year to participate in the festivities and marvel at the splendor of the more than 30 floats as they pass by, one after another. The Garden will be illuminating that experience for you through a video presentation that runs throughout the exhibition. Watch as the people of Kyoto pull these multi-ton, highly decorated wooden floats through the streets! Additional photographs by Akira Nakata, one of Kyoto’s top photographers, will be on view in the Pavilion and Tanabe Galleries.

The Garden’s celebration includes a troupe of 20 Gion Bayashi festival musicians from Kyoto. In the procession, they perform the unique festival sounds on brass chimes and flutes that accompany the Naginata-Boko lead float.

The performances will take place in the afternoons on opening weekend, September 15 and 16 in the Garden’s Cultural Village. Come experience the lively Gion Matsuri festival as it fills the Garden’s Cultural Village with the sounds of Japanese flutes and bells, just as it has filled the streets of Kyoto for more than a thousand years.