by Greg Pape
Long before vaccines and the science that produced them, epidemics were thought
to be caused by harmful spirits and bad energies. We’ve learned that it is foolish to
deny the power of science and dismiss the discoveries science provides that help us overcome sickness and disease. On the other hand, it seems to me foolish to dismiss as mere superstitions the beliefs, foundational to many cultures and religions, that harmful spirits and bad energies need to be dealt with, appeased, and overcome by benevolent spirits and good energies.
In early July 2018, just before our scheduled flights to Japan for the Spalding summer residency in Kyoto, Typhoon Prapiroon was bringing torrential rains and flooding to western Japan. Our trip may have to be rescheduled or even canceled, one email warned. A longtime student of Japanese literature and culture, I was so excited to have this opportunity at last to visit Japan. The thought of a canceled trip filled me with gloom. But the typhoon moved out to sea, and we got the green light to fly. Some of us arrived a few days early so we could explore a bit before the busy residency schedule began. After the heavy rains and floods a heat wave settled into Japan. By July 23, just after the residency ended, it was 106 degrees in Kumagaya, the highest temperature on record for Japan.
All during the month of July Kyoto is the site of the oldest urban festival in the world. Founded by the imperial court in 869 C.E., the Gion Matsuri was a response to a deadly epidemic. The Kamo River, which runs through Kyoto, flooded and thousands of people died from a mysterious disease that swept through the populace. Records of the time describe the Kamo River “filled with corpses.”
According to a guide book published in July 2020 (The Gion Festival: Exploring Its Mysteries by Catherine Pawasarat) the festival “is a giant collection of purification rituals and prayers to prevent death, illness and the suffering they bring. At the same time, it is a celebration of the fleeting beauty of this life.” This great festival that went on all during our residency is described and explained in marvelous detail in Pawasarat’s guide book, which she planned to launch at the beginning of the Gion Matsuri in July 2020. Ironically and sadly, this great festival—that has been pacifying and overcoming harmful spirits and protecting the people from epidemics and celebrating life with the collective good energies of the people of Kyoto and Kyoto’s visitors for more than 1,150 years—was for the most part canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I know quite a bit more about the Gion Matsuri after reading this wonderful guide book than I did when I got swept up in the street crowds on the night of July 16, 2018, the night called yoiyama, the eve of the procession of floats on July 17. A very small group of Spalding folks, Katy Yocom, our guides, and I walked with thousands of celebrants through downtown streets and lanes, closed to motor vehicles and temporarily signed “Pedestrian Paradise.” Ancient Shinto music of flutes and bells and drums drifted down from the high floats and out of courtyards along the narrow side lanes and gave a distinctive tone to the celebration.
I was impressed by how the crowd moved, nearly shoulder to shoulder at times but careful not to step on toes, excited and happy but without loud outbursts or displays. Many people wore ordinary clothes, t-shirts and shorts, but there were also lots of traditional summer yukata and gorgeous kimonos. Street vendors sold sweet rice cakes called mochi, ice cream, and savory treats like dried salted fish on a stick.
One stand specialized in large inflated bananas; another grabbed the attention of passing children with a long water trough afloat with inflated cartoon characters. It was a hot night. Lots of people were fanning themselves in the light from chains of paper lanterns associated with the floats.
Each float had its area or parking place; each float was different and adorned with cultural treasures, ancient statues, artifacts, textiles, and embroideries. Each float had its own deities or kamis and its own associated stories and legends. Each float had a stand where girls and women in kimonos sold amulets, banners, and talismans called chimaki, a special bundle of straw to be hung at your doorway to protect your home from epidemics. The sale of these talismans, I now know, is also an important source of revenue for maintenance and preservation of the floats that honor the gods.
Our little group of gaijin (foreigners) must have looked a little weary or thirsty. Someone at one of the vendor stands waved to us, over here, over here, and led us out of the crowd into a quiet little courtyard with benches, and brought us cold drinks. That was a nice moment. A short time later, feeling welcomed and refreshed, we were back in the crowd.
There were two main processions of floats, one on July 17 called Saki Matsuri, and one on July 24 called Ato Matsuri. The big celebrations in the streets happen on three nights before the grand processions through the city. The first night of these big street parties is called yoiyoiyoiyama, one yoi for each night before the ancient floats, some weighing as much as twelve tons, are hauled through the streets powered by nothing but good human energy.
Back in the crowd, feeling part of this big many-layered ritual I knew very little about, I clearly sensed the collective spirit of the evening. Now I know a bit more about the value and beauty of the Gion Matsuri. I remember being charmed by three young girls in brilliant kimonos chanting in Japanese: Come and get your talismans and souvenirs here! Come and get your talismans and souvenirs here!
Flashing big smiles and peace signs they posed for a picture, a picture to hang up right along side the other talismans to ward off harmful spirits.
Greg Pape is the author of ten books, including Four Swans, Border Crossings, Black Branches, Storm Pattern, Sunflower Facing the Sun (winner of the Edwin Ford Piper Prize, now called the Iowa Prize), and American Flamingo (winner of a Crab Orchard Open Competition Award). Greg’s poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Iowa Review, The New Yorker,Northwest Review, and Poetry, among others. He has received the Discovery/The Nation Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, and the Richard Hugo Memorial Poetry Award. He served as Poet Laureate of Montana from 2007 to 2009. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona.