Gion Festival participants celebrate Ofune-hoko Machiya, Kyoto, Japan, July 2017.
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Witnessing the Celebration of Ofune-hoko Machiya

Gion Festival participants celebrate Ofune-hoko Machiya, Kyoto, Japan, July 2017.

Mitsuo Inagaki, WMF Regional Representative for Japan, reflects on his experience at a 2017 Watch Day celebrating the newly restored Ofune-hoko Machiya, held in tandem with the Gion Festival in Kyoto, Japan.

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On July 20, 2017, the Shijo Ofune-hoko Float started moving slowly with a unique intonation of "konchikichin,” the Gion Festival music known as “Gion Bayashi.” This was the float’s run-through before its official procession on July 24th at the Gion Festival in Kyoto, Japan. It also marked the kick-off to the site’s 2017 Watch Day, where Kyoto residents celebrated their newly restored Ofune-hoko Machiya – the float’s renewed home.

The machiya of Kyoto are traditional townhouses dating as far back as the 17th century that functioned as both residences and workspaces, including housing Gion Festival floats. Following World Monuments Watch inclusion, WMF partnered with local groups for the conservation of several of these structures. The restoration of the Ofune-hoko Machiya marks the completion of phase three of the project, made possible by support from The Freeman Foundation.

On this day, I stood with more than 30 musical performers – second grade children in the youngest – on board the nearly ten-ton float hauled by local people and tourists. Following the float’s debut, the machiya and its float were made open to the public until the commencement of the festival.

The one-month long Gion Festival, inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, began in the 9th century and maintains its ritual ceremonies today. The Ofune-hoko Float, which concludes the parade each year, took a 150 year leave of absence after it was destroyed in 1864. It was reentered in 2014 following a massive community-based rebuilding effort. Simultaneously, restoration work began on its machiya (or kaisho), the float’s storage place that also serves as a community center and music practice space throughout the year.

Today, 26 of the 33 floats in the Gion Festival have their own float machiya, of which 21 feature traditional interiors and exteriors that have been restored over the years. Their latent historical and social value seems to have surfaced through a fusion with intangible cultural heritage, the Gion Festival. At the Watch Day, participants held up fans featuring "Triumphant,” the iconic letter of the Ofune-hoko Float. The letter couldn’t be more fitting to celebrate the completion of such a triumphant project.