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Gion Festival Lanterns Return to the Cultural Village

The Gion Festival Lanterns. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Guests arriving to Portland Japanese Garden this summer may soon notice a large lantern structure in the Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Courtyard of our Cultural Village. They are known as “Gion Festival Lanterns” and were first installed in this space back in 2018 when Portland Japanese Garden held an exhibition called Gion Matsuri: The World’s Oldest Urban Festival.

The Gion Festival Lanterns as seen during our Tanabata celebration in 2019. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

Gion Matsuri, a festival that started in the ninth century in Kyoto during Japan’s Heian era (794-1185), is a colorful and vibrant celebration that takes over the streets of downtown Kyoto each year in July. A month of ritual preparation culminates with a procession on July 17 and again on July 24 when elaborately decorated floats, called Yama and Hoko, are pulled through the streets. Our 2018 show exhibited one of the Hoko floats, Ayagasa Hoko, travelling all the way from Kyoto, marking the first time a Gion Matsuri float was exhibited outside of Japan.

The opening reception for “Gion Matsuri: The World’s Oldest Urban Festival” in 2018. Photo by Jonathan Ley.

During Yoiyama, the three evenings preceding the yamahoko procession, lanterns are illuminated in Kyoto neighborhoods. Not only are the lanterns displayed beside the floats, but each household also lights festival lanterns that hang under their eaves. These lanterns are called komagata chochin (koma-shaped lanterns). The name refers to the unique shape the lanterns create, which is said to resemble that of shogi (Japanese chess) pieces called koma.  

Photo of a float being pull through the streets of Kyoto during Gion Matsuri. Photo by Akira Nakata.

The Gion Festival lanterns bear the crest of the sponsoring neighborhood, and those on view at the Garden in the Cultural Village were custom-made in Kyoto for the 2018 exhibition. They bear the stone lantern crest of the Portland Japanese Garden with “Japanese garden” in kanji on the back.  

The back of the Gion Festival lanterns. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

These beloved lanterns were displayed again in the summer of 2019, and for the first time since, they are back in the Tateuchi Courtyard as a summer of festival celebrations and beautiful weather begins anew. They will be displayed in Portland Japanese Garden until Monday, September 2.

You can see the Gion Festival lanterns from the Strolling Pond Garden. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.