Hoka-Boko at Gion Matsuri

All of the floats in Gion Matsuri’s Yama-Hoko Junko (Procession of Floats) are unique, but one that stands out to me is Hoka-Boko. And from the photo above, you can see why.

Hoka-Boko is the only one of the more than 30 floats in the procession that has a puppet chigo that “dances” with the help of puppeteers. The Japanese word chigo can be translated both literally (sacred festival boy) or more poetically (celestial child). I prefer celestial child, but sacred festival boy gives a much clearer description.

The first float of the procession every year, Naginata-Hoko, is the only one that has a real live chigo, and this boy has a role in several rituals during the month-long Gion Matsuri, which takes place every July 1 - 31 in Kyoto. The main event, Yama-Hoko Junko, is held on July 17 and begins at 9:00 a.m. at the intersection of Shijo Dori and Karasuma Dori. You can see a photo I made of the Naginata-Hoko chigo by clicking on this sentence.

Several of the other larger hoko (floats) have chigo dolls, but only Hoka-Boko has a chigo puppet, a tradition that started in 1929. Gion Matsuri itself began about a thousand years ago as a ritual to ward off evil spirits and disease from Kyoto, which was known as Heian-kyo at the time.

Although Gion Matsuri is quintessentially Japanese, there is a foreign flavor to the event. Many of the floats are decorated with tapestries from countries from Belgium and China to India and Persia. As you can see in the photos below, the long tapestry (miokuri in Japanese) on the back of Hoka-Boko depicts a scene from Baghdad.

I don’t brave the heat and crowds to see Yama-Hoko Junko every year, but it is definitely an event to watch at least once in a lifetime. There really is nothing else like it!