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NIPPONIA No.35 December 15, 2005

Living in Japan
An Ancient Festival from a New Angle
Shaheed Rupani
Written by Takahashi Hidemine
Photos by Akagi Koichi
Shaheed Rupani and his wife Miki in front of their home in Kyoto.

Shaheed dressed for the Gion Festival.
The chirimbo stick in his hand is generally used to chase away evil spirits along the parade route. He held it while making sure the volunteers all kept pulling.
Kyoto's Gion Matsuri is one of the three biggest festivals in Japan. Every July, gorgeously decorated floats called yamaboko make their way through the city streets, accompanied by o-hayashi music. The festival began in the year 869 as a prayer to end an epidemic sweeping the country. For more than a thousand years since then, the Gion Festival has added charm and excitement to summer in Japan.
In 2005, a team of 13 people from Canada, the U.S., Australia and other countries outside Japan got together as volunteers and pulled one of the floats. This was a first for the festival and attracted plenty of attention. The 35-year old group leader, Shaheed Rupani, says, “It was hot, we got really tired, and we couldn't stop along the way to go to the bathroom. But spectators on the streets clapped and cheered us on, and this gave us the energy to keep going to the end.”
Rupani was born in Uganda. When he was one year old his family immigrated to Canada, and he was brought up in Toronto. At university he majored in biology, and after graduating he intended to enroll for a master's degree, but changed his mind. “Someone told me I might find Japan interesting. At the time I was fascinated by ninjas—you know, the spies made famous by Hollywood. So I decided to go to Japan and meet some ninjas!”
He arrived in Japan with a working holiday visa and went to Kyoto, “because I thought that would be a favorite ninja haunt,” he laughs. There were no ninjas to be found, but while digging into Kyoto's history he decided to live there a while. “I quickly learned that ninja weren't violent, like in the movies. They developed highly intelligent strategies and kept their special skills hidden, pretending to live very ordinary lives. When I discovered this, I came to admire them even more. I'm glad I ended up staying in Kyoto—it's an excellent place to get close to nature, and the people are friendly. I think it's one of the nicest places in the world to live.”
He got a job teaching at an English conversation school, and began studying Japanese. That is when he learned about the Gion Festival.
“I didn't want to just watch from the sidelines. I wanted to join in, to become a part of Kyoto's heritage and history.”
The festival parade has 32 floats, all maintained by district associations whose aim is to preserve Gion festival traditions. The associations are understaffed, so every year they need volunteers to help pull the floats. Rupani and his international friends were happy to step up to the challenge.
A yamaboko float can weigh up to 12 tons, and its center of gravity is high, so unless it is maneuvered with skill, with everyone working in unison, it could fall over at a sharp turn. And there are strict rules to follow. For example, anything modern, like a cell phone, camera, wristwatch, ring or other jewelry, is not allowed in the parade. When pulling the floats, they would not be allowed to let the ropes, which are considered sacred, pass between their legs.
Rupani told his teammates, “The festival cannot be treated as an opportunity for us to stand out and do things our own way. It is for Kyoto, for Japan, for the people.” His pep talk and leadership convinced them all.
The festival is over and Rupani is still in Kyoto, living with his wife in a house in the city. His plans for the future? “Once you've pulled a yamaboko, you want to do it again. I'd like to help pull all 32 of them, a different one each year!”
The floats still have their ancient design, and they are decorated with sculptured relief works, lacquer, delicately worked gold leaf, and more. There are even Persian and Turkish carpets and Indian embroidery, which demonstrates that the Gion Festival began with the mixing of cultural traditions from different countries. Thanks to people like Rupani, it can also draw on help from abroad. The festival has kept alive ancient and vibrant traditions, and now, it is once more benefiting from input from other parts of the world.

International volunteers in front of the float they pulled through the streets of Kyoto, helped by some Japanese people. Many of them are larger than the average Japanese, so they had their own costumes made for the event. The yamaboko float is decorated with a crescent moon, so it has the special name, tsukiboko (tsuki means “moon”).

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