My 8th day in Kyoto was the day of the Gion Matsuri Parade which, as I’m told, is the highlight of the summer in the city. The Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival) originated as a purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause natural disasters. In 869, there was a plague that had befallen Kyoto. The Emperor at the time ordered that the people should pray to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, erect 66 decorated Halberds (one for each province of old Japan) at Shinsen-in Garden, and erect the portable shrines at Yasaka. Historically, the Japanese culture doesn’t mess around when it comes to appeasing gods.
Today the festival is continued as a cultural festival and to bring good fortune to the city. The climax of this event is the parade in which portable shrines, like floats, are pulled through the Gion district of Kyoto.
All of this information had been told to me by a very friendly lady standing next to me in the crowd who spoke English. She had introduced herself after using me as a landmark to help her rendezvous with a friend. Suffice it to say that a 6’1” white man stands out in a crowd in Kyoto. The lady informed me that we had expertly positioned ourselves at the major turning point of the parade. Why the turn was such a big deal would become apparent momentarily.
When I said earlier that the floats were pulled was an understatement. Better words would be “hauled” or “tugged” (as in a tug boat) by a team of at least 30 men. The lead shrine was absolutely massive. The wheels on it where at least as tall as me. Supported by the wheels was a compartment carrying around 15 flute players (they were playing the Nohkan, a transverse, bamboo flute) to my immense enjoyment. This compartment also contained 4 people leaning out of it in order to ring bells attached to the spire of the shrine via pull-chords which dangled down beside the ringers. The spire itself was at least 20 feet high and I worried for its integrity every time it bent backwards when the shrine leapt forward.
But the most impressive part of the shrine was that its wheels were not on rotating axels which meant the thing did not turn. And yet, as I said earlier, I was standing within view of a turn in the parade route. What I was about to see was an amazing spectacle.
First, the biggest and burliest of the men carefully positioned bamboo shoots (like 2-by-4’s but thinner) under the wheels. Then the army of pullers moved around so that they were pulling ropes attached to the shrine at a perpendicular angle to where the shrine was currently facing. After much fussing about positioning (I deduced), it was now time to pull. The whole effort was led by a team of men armed with fans who were hanging onto the front side of the structure. When it was time for everyone to pull, the fan wavers (in perfect synchronization with the flute music) performed a routine sweeping their fans to the left, to the right, above their heads and then, with a great shout, forward. It was at this point that the army of people, in perfect timing, pulled the shrine.
To my amazement, the shrine turned about 45 degrees to its left. And I was not alone in my incredulousness because a great cheer leapt up from the crowd. In that moment, the energy with the onlookers motivating the pullers and the pullers wowing the crowd was incredible. These two groups needed each other in this event that we had all become a part of. It was not unlike a classical music performance to me.
The shrine eventually turned all the way around with 3 more spectacular displays of grunting teamwork and headed off down the street. More shrines followed the first but they were much smaller and could simply be picked up, rotated, set down, and then pushed off in their new direction. The crowd was appreciative of these efforts but clearly not as excited as they were when that behemoth was able to turn.
This is because a struggle is an impressive thing to watch. Just like, as I have written about, a person gains confidence by huffing and puffing up a mountain, people gain inspiration and awe by watching the process of overcoming adversity. We were all excited to see the seemingly impossible happen when the mammoth shrine with no rotating axels was able to turn by the force of will and brute strength of its caretakers.
Audiences are similarly drawn to see music performances because they can inspire awe. Standing ovations, in my experience, very commonly follow the performance of a concerto by a soloist. The artist on stage achieves the seemingly impossible not only by walking onto stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people but by performing something written to be virtuosic and difficult. Seeing a soloist overcome the pressures of the stage lights and make something extremely taxing seem effortless moves people out of their chairs and onto their feet. In many cases, the soloist may as well have moved a 20-foot-tall shrine by his or herself.
So the next time you are looking for inspiration, look for a struggle being conquered. Go watch a marathon runner cross a finish line. Go see a physical therapy patient learning to walk again. Go see a music performance, any music performance. Chances are, that person needs your support as much as you need their inspiration.