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August 2005

The Star of the Kyoto Gion Festival

Yamaguchi cuts the rope to signal the start of the parade. (Jiji)

The Kyoto Gion Festival is one of Japan's three major festivals. It originated during the Heian period (794-1192), when a plague was causing death and disease in Japan. The festival was a way of offering prayers for the plague to stop. In around the fifteenth century, floats called yamahoko first appeared in the festival. The floats represented each district and were paraded around Kyoto. Yama are smaller floats featuring historical or mythical figures. Hoko are floats on large two-meter wheels, some two stories high, with tall spears protruding toward the sky.

Nowadays, on July 17 every year 32 yamahoko parade along a fixed route through the streets of Kyoto. A boy aged from 8 to 10 years old rides in the lead float, called the Naginata hoko. He is the sacred child for that year, and for boys born in Kyoto being selected for this role is a great honor.

In 2005, eight-year-old Yamaguchi Yoshiteru of Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, was chosen for the role of the sacred child. Yamaguchi's family operates a long-established shop selling Japanese sweets. "I've loved this festival since I was little. I've always dreamed of riding in the lead float, and I'm thrilled to be able to do so," said Yamaguchi. Toward the end of June, he performed a ceremony in which he was ritually adopted into the town of Naginata, and in July he was officially excused from school to focus on getting ready for the festival.

On July 1, a ceremony was held to pray for a safe Gion Festival. At around 10 o'clock in the morning, Yamaguchi arrived at the Yasaka Shrine with his face painted white and dressed in a bright red hakama (loose trousers). After praying for safety at the shrine, he walked slowly around the main sanctuary three times in a clockwise direction, in keeping with tradition.

On July 5, a ritual was held at the town meeting place, where officials offered a list with the child's name written on it and declared the beginning of the Naginata hoko events. On this day, Yamaguchi appeared in a headdress adorned with peacock feathers, a mauve long-sleeved kimono, and a bright green formal overdress. He performed a "peace dance" from the second-floor window of the town hall. For this elegant dance, Yamaguchi's lower body was supported from the rear while he leaned his upper body outward. This was the dance that he would perform during the yamahoko procession. Yamaguchi said that although he was nervous, he was able to dance well.

On July 13, a ceremony was held in which the sacred child assumes the same status as a daimyo (feudal lord). Yamaguchi entered the Yasaka Shrine mounted on a gold-colored saddle atop a white horse, with a large crowd of locals and tourists looking on. From this day forward, the sacred child is a "divine messenger" and may not set foot on the ground. He also does not eat any meat or fish as he purifies his body and mind and awaits the day of the yamahoko procession.

On July 17, the climax of the Gion Festival, the day finally arrived for the yamahoko procession. In 2005, this day fell on a Sunday, and a record crowd of 240,000 turned out to watch. It was a very hot day with temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius. Miyako Oji Street was packed with people eagerly awaiting the beautifully decorated floats, which are sometimes referred to as a "moving art museum." At 9:00 a.m., a voice yelled "Enyaraya!" - the signal to begin - and the lead float containing Yamaguchi slowly began to be pulled forward by the team of pullers. At Shijo Dori Street, a 25-meter-long thick straw rope was stretched across the road, representing the beginning of the sacred area. As the sacred child, Yamaguchi cut this rope with a sword to release the sacred spirits, marking the start of the yamahoko procession. Yamaguchi, who has practiced kendo since the age of four, cut the rope with a real sword, earning him big cheers.

After performing his sacred-child dance several times during the two-hour parade, Yamaguchi got down from the lead float. He then returned right away to the Yasaka Shrine to give up his position, thus completing his role. He has now gone back to being an ordinary elementary-school boy.

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