All Photographs by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Ill at the Plague Festival

Can a thousand-year-old Shinto ceremony heal us?

THE FIRST TIME I WENT to the Kyoto Gion Festival, my friend Isao insisted I wear a kimono. He had found one for me to borrow, and a friend to dress me. For an hour, a young Japanese woman padded my back with towels to de-emphasize the slope of my rear and tightly cinched my waist and rib cage, tugging and pushing and pulling, all in an effort to turn me into the slim, elegant column that is the hallmark of the Kyoto woman. It was difficult to breathe, but I would do nearly anything for Kyoto. I loved this darkly intricate city full of exquisite secrets, a kintsugi of a place where beauty, like gold, rested in the nooks and crannies of little alleys sheltering hidden gardens, and where wisdom was veiled in the ancient, gabled temples protected by generations of Buddhist priests.

That evening at the festival, there was not a soul in T-shirt and shorts despite the heat; even the dogs were dressed up with ruffled obis tied around their midriffs. The air throbbed with wheedling, reedy music, and we walked from street to street eating squid on a stick and drinking beer, shifting from the darkness toward a bubble of golden light at the center of which stood a forty-foot-tall festival float—a roughly rectangular-shaped wooden cart—covered with candlelit lanterns. Then we passed back into the darkness and on to the next float down the block. The following day, Isao led me to the city center. Up ahead at an intersection stood a department store building on one side and an office on the other. I could see faces pressed against every window on every floor. One of the enormous festival floats from the previous night drifted in between the two buildings like a ship. Light fell on a small, bright figure dressed in orange and gold, like the sun made flesh. It was a child. As he leaned out of the top of the float, the people around me cheered.

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“Chigo-san,” Isao yelled over all the noise.

“Ichigo-san?” I asked, using the word for strawberry.

“CHI-go san,” he corrected me. 

People pressed forward to try to catch a last glimpse of the float as it rattled on. I had a general feeling of largeness, of my own soul expanding up and out, carried by the sounds, the oversize floats, and the relentless joy of everyone around me. But I had no idea what was happening.


JAPAN HAS MORE THAN 200,000 matsuri, or festivals. Of these, the Gion Matsuri is the most famous, dating back to the year 869, the Heian era (794–1185), when art and culture flourished and developed what is still today considered the classical Japanese style. Back then, continuous contact with the continent (modern-day China and Korea) exposed citizens to numerous infectious diseases, which spread through stagnant pools of water accumulated from the summer’s torrential rain. The emperor learned from divinators that the health crisis was the work of Gozu-Tenno, a god believed to bring illness who was located east of the city. He learned that angry gods could be placated and even turned to work on behalf of humanity, and he wasted no time trying to win Gozu-Tenno over through a procession of sixty-six halberds. And, miraculously, things improved—for a while. Then the plague returned, and the ceremony was repeated, eventually becoming the annual event we today call the Gion Matsuri.

The Gion Festival contains two halves. One is sacred, centered around Yasaka Shrine in Gion, where Gozu-Tenno is enshrined along with his wife and their eight children. Over time, Gozu-Tenno has been replaced by (or renamed, depending on whom you ask) Susanoo, the god of storms. On the evening of July 17, Susanoo and his family are moved to the city center, where they stay in a temporary shrine for a week before returning home. The other part of the festival takes place in the town and has thirty-one floats—all built, managed, and decorated by the townspeople. The floats purify the streets the way you might clean your house before your mother-in-law visits. When people say they have seen the Gion Matsuri, they are usually referring to the carts and the boisterous fun around them.



WHEN I RETURNED TO THE Gion Matsuri in July 2023, the festival had been on hiatus for a few years due to COVID. As musicians began to practice in public, my friends Isao and Yuri grew emotional; they had not heard the flutes and drums in three years. The music affected me too, casting me back to childhood and visits to other summer matsuri.

I rented a machiya, the kind of traditional wooden home my grandparents lived in. My machiya had been remodeled to include air-conditioning, a smart lock on the door that required a password in lieu of a key, and an automated bath whose robotic voice told me when the water was ready. But most of the other details were classic Kyoto. The windows were covered with heavy paper squares called shoji. At night, I sat on a square pillow and matched the sounds I could hear—laughter, footsteps, and cars—to the shadows cast on the shoji. There wasn’t a chair in the space. When Isao—who had been born in Japan—came to visit, he ended up sitting on the stairs because his body had grown unaccustomed to the floor. 

In those early days, I alternated between the sacred and secular halves. I watched the hauling up of sacred water from the Kamo River, and one of the ceremonies for the Chigo-san (which I learned were divine messenger children) at Yasaka Shrine. On the evening of the 10th, Susanoo’s portable shrine is ritually purified by river water. While waiting for the event to start, I met a woman who told me she had been coming to the Gion Matsuri every year since she was a child. She had been torn that day as to where to stand. People weren’t really supposed to go to Doutor Coffee for the purpose of staking out a window seat to watch the sacred washing of the portable shrine, but her friends had arrived there around 4 p.m., and were still nursing their coffees and texting her to join.

She decided to ignore them. “Follow me,” she said, “I know where to go.” 

Along the way, we picked up two other women traveling solo like me. I was with my anonymous companions when men dressed in white carried the portable shrine with the phoenix on top out of the gates and flicked coals on the ground, ritually purifying the path with fire. The coals hissed when they hit the humid pavement. “Watch out!” the police shouted. I stood with the women on Shijō bridge and watched the shrine whirl in the evening light as priests tossed water from buckets onto its roof. Some people moved themselves close, hoping to be splashed with the water too. The air was electric, the police were screaming, the tourists were dazed. This, I thought, must be the heart of the festival. 

I was already feeling woozy by the time my guide shouted that it was time to cross the bridge back to Yasaka Shrine. We would see children dancing there in beautiful costumes, she said. I followed, swallowed up into a crowd of so many people that the body heat raised the temperature by several degrees. I grew lightheaded and began to panic. 

“I have to go,” I said to our small party of women. They understood, and though I was loath to leave the procession, I retreated into cooler evening air. As I backed away, people moved in to take the space I had occupied. The children in their pastel clothes and the men in white seemed to dissolve in front of me, like chalk drawings washed away with water. 



JULY 2023 WAS THE HOTTEST summer recorded in Japan for the past 125 years. I remember summers here as being hot—certainly hotter than coastal California, where I am from. But that summer, the sharp heat bit through the shield of electric fans, shaved ice, and cold drinks in the shade. I felt trapped and fearful.

Isao scolded me. “Kyoto people do not run around in this heat,” he said. If I insisted on seeing the entire festival, I should keep certain items that could assist me. I should drink Pocari Sweat, Japan’s answer to Gatorade. I should buy a freezable
necklace and wear it all the time; this could reduce my body temperature by several degrees. I should buy specially chemically treated cold wipes and carry a parasol. Most of all, I should not go outside.

But I had to go outside. I had to see the building of the floats.

The Gion Matsuri has thirty-two floats divided into two kinds: the yama, which means “mountain,” are generally smaller and are carried, and the hoko, which means “spear,” are larger and are pushed. Historically, neighborhood groups maintained the yama and hoko; if you lived in a particular part of Kyoto, as had your parents and grandparents, then you thought of a specific float as being “yours.” 

I have “my” festival float, “Asayama,” though it is not in Kyoto. Every year my mother’s hometown of Okkawa puts on a festival, which at three hundred years old is considered fairly young. My mother’s childhood friend Nobata is one of the main patrons of Asayama, and I’ve been at his house with his family around a low table eating handmade sushi when a delegation from the festival would come by and dance in the doorway and carry Nobata outside and toss him up and down to thank him for the role he played in helping to maintain the cart. I’ve seen him in a red coat, the privileged dress of the man who directs the cart’s actions, while young men push from behind and pull from the front. I’ve walked with him in the dark, following Asayama on its way home to a specialized storage house, and felt the sadness of the lanterns being slowly snuffed out, the festival music retreating to silence. 

I recalled these experiences when I was introduced to Mr. Koyama, one of the chief builders of Tsuki Boko, the moon float. Weighing five tons, the Tsuki Boko is capped by a five-story-tall spire crowned by a crescent moon. Maruyama Ōkyo, the most famous painter of the eighteenth century, painted gilded flowers and all fifty-four chapters from The Tale of Genji on the float’s ceiling. Hidari Jingorō, the most famous sculptor of the seventeenth century, carved wood relief on the gables. Intricately embroidered and brightly colored Middle Eastern tapestries cover the walls; metallic shells and rabbits shield the joinery. The whole float is a series of interlocking treasures, deserving of the term “movable museum,” which is sometimes used to describe the floats of Gion.

In those early days, I alternated between the sacred and secular halves.

Over a few days, I watched the Tsuki Boko take shape. First it was a pile of lumber on the street, then a tesseract composed of wood beams and rope. Float builders never use nails, which split and damage the wood and make reuse impossible; recycling is a core value of the festival. There is no manual or video to watch for reassembly. “You can only learn by doing,” Mr. Koyama said cheerfully to me. I was given a tour of the Tsuki Boko’s storehouse, and Mr. Koyama introduced me to his son, who was there with his two young boys. “Women aren’t allowed in here,” Mr. Koyama said, stopping my movements at the edge of the storehouse; it was a privilege even to venture in this far. 

The first time I saw the Gion Matsuri, I understood it as a spectacle whose main event was a procession, but now I see it as a physical activity. Men push and pull pieces of timber two or three times their height. Later they push and pull the large floats. Wasn’t working through a pandemic like this? A rediscovery of what the human body could do?

After lunch, musicians entered the second floor of Tsuki Boko and began to play, serenading a group of schoolchildren who pulled the float for its inaugural run that year. Farther up the street, another group pulled the Kanko-hoko, one of the few floats to include women. By 3 p.m., I could feel deep exhaustion in my body, as though the lining between my skin and my muscles was swollen. By nighttime I was nauseous, weak, and in terrible pain. My eyes pulsed. I dutifully took a medication for migraines, drank some water, and went to sleep. 

When I woke, I felt feverish. I stopped in a pharmacy to ask for a thermometer, and when all were sold out—along with the COVID tests—the man behind the counter kindly offered to take my temperature for me. “Thirty-six point eight,” he said cheerfully. “You aren’t sick.”

But I was sick. I was stuck in bed, alternating between sweating and chills. Hours passed. Occasionally I looked at the calendar of events I was missing. The floats were now on display, and nearby homes would open their doors so visitors could see the treasures inside. Mr. Koyama would think I didn’t care about his moon float when I failed to show up. 

For those days, I only went outside for food. Sometimes my foraging excursions were in the evening, and I intercepted the geishas heading out for their appointments. Sometimes I went out in the morning and saw men splashing water on the sidewalk.

Once, when the fever had finally subsided, I stopped by to see some armor on display in my neighborhood, and a man patiently explained what it was for. Did I know that the lowest castes in the medieval period had lived here? They were called the inu-jinin, the “dog shrine workers,” because they answered the beck and call of the shrine masters the way a dog does. The inu-jinin had cleaned Yasaka’s surroundings and worked
with leather to make bows and arrows. Did I know that a dragon slept under the main structure of Yasaka Shrine in a pool? It was the dragon who caused it to rain and who spread disease in contaminated pools of water.

I suddenly recognized where I was. I had been here before. This charming neighborhood was located at the crossroads of an area called Rokudo, the six roads, a border between the living and the dead. Bodies had been abandoned here and left out for crows to eat. The remains were cremated in the open air. Even in The Tale of Genji, the smoke in this area makes Genji shudder. At some point, I began to wonder if I had been possessed by an evil spirit or if my house was haunted by a forgotten ghost. The man at the pharmacy had said I was not sick. What was wrong with me?

One night I sat by the window and watched curved white lines slice through the sky. In the electric calligraphy, I could almost make out the shape of an angry dragon. It rained and hailed, and water began to seep inside through the front door and onto the concrete landing where I placed my shoes. I sensed something in the atmosphere extending back, beyond my fever and heat exhaustion, and beyond COVID, back to a time of even greater illness, to the suffering of the inherited position of the inu-jinin, which had forced them to clear cremated remains. Against such multifaceted bleakness, the Gion Matsuri had been born.


THE MORNING OF JULY 17, I felt well enough to go back to the festival and watch the procession.

The Naginata Hoko, which is topped by a giant spear that refers to the halberds in the original Gion procession, is always the first float. A Chigo-san, now dressed as the celestial child, was riding inside, wearing a towering, gold headdress sprouting with flowers and a phoenix about to take flight. The Chigo-san’s face was painted white and his eyes ringed with red. His small body was covered in layers of red, gold, and silver. Behind him, men held on to his waist as he leaned forward and moved his arms in a gesture of blessing. His confidence and the clarity of his motions astonished me. How had a child turned into something that seemed to exceed an ordinary human? I felt the wide gap between his youthful health and all my sickness.

Later I saw Mr. Koyama with his son and grandchildren. He was focused on helping his float turn the corner, a highlight
of the Gion Matsuri. Because the wheels are not on an axle, they cannot swivel; each five-ton hoko must be pushed. Bamboo slats doused with water are placed just beneath the front wheels to create a slick surface on which the wheels can slide. When everything is in place, the crew pulling the float angles the ropes and, on cue, heaves. Most of the time, the float will at least make a slight turn to the side. It often takes several tries to turn the float enough that it can make its way around a corner. The whole thing is a feat of physical strength and teamwork. 

That evening, I attended a private gathering with my friend Yuri. While we ate a Kyoto bento on the fourth floor of a building overlooking Yasaka Shrine, petite Professor Katada dressed in a violet kimono recounted the history of the Gion Festival. Most of it I had heard before, but she included one new detail. She told us that Susanoo, whom we were about to celebrate, actually spent most of the year separated into two halves. Only one half, the constructive, kind, loving half of his spirit, was kept in Yasaka Shrine. The other part of him, the destructive part, lived in an entirely different location. During the Gion Festival, these two halves were brought together via the body of a young, healthy boy, and only then was Susanoo transferred across the river with his family. The boys were used as mediums.

When she finished speaking, I went out with the others onto a balcony. In the distance, hundreds of men dressed in white began to pour out between the vermilion torii gate of Yasaka Shrine. The men were chanting and clustered around the three separate mikoshi, the portable shrines that now housed Susanoo, his wife, and their children. Somewhere down there were the descendants of those men who had worn armor to protect him. And sure enough, at the head of the group, riding a white horse, was one of the two Chigo-san wearing a pendant in the shape of a horse’s head, a sign that, in his body, the two halves of the powerful god had been merged. 

The ecstatic energy from the street floated up like a physical force, like the wind. The men shouted in unison, “Hoito, hoito,” a term that has no real translation other than to convey effort and exultation. At one point the mikoshi were assembled side by side and began to turn in circles. “Mawase! Mawase!—Turn it! turn it!” the men in white exhorted, and we watched as the sun caught these large, portable gold shrines as they sparkled and spun. 

As the mikoshi came close, I saw that they sat on a wooden lattice, with poles extending out the front and back. The men holding on to these poles rotated themselves in and out of the job every few steps. Beside the man holding the pole in one spot was another man who placed his hand on that man’s shoulder. And beside this second man was another man, and so on, so the crowd of men were not in a disorganized jumble, but a thoughtful and self-regulating order. Every few steps, the man holding the bar relinquished his position to the man beside him. 

I stayed on the roof and watched the gods go by in their gold boxes, but their procession and the movable floats and the beautiful gestures of the Chigo-san no longer seemed central to the Gion Matsuri. It was about this: the men working together in tandem to move the god they had brought back to life. 


THEN I WAS SICK AGAIN. I developed an earache and a persistent cough, and the fever came back. Isao and Yuri insisted I visit the doctor for antibiotics. The irony of being ill at a festival designed to counteract a plague was not lost on me.

Everyone decried the heat. Something had to be done, they said. The reality of climate change is not generally debated in Japan, and there is overwhelming support to take action to combat it; the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was named for this city, after all. But after an earnest effort at reducing emissions, the Great East earthquake and subsequent nuclear power plant catastrophe of 2011 have severely curtailed Japan’s efforts to lead in constructive energy policies. COVID has further slowed down progress.

At one point during my recuperation, Isao called to let me know that the rainy season was over. The dragon was gone. Now a long spell of even drier, hotter temperatures would set in. I felt despair. And though I did make it out to see both the second procession of floats and the “flower” parade, so named both for Kyoto’s geishas and for the large umbrellas covered with flowers, it all swirled by me. I was exhausted. On the evening that the gods would return home and Susanoo would be split back into his two halves by the third Chigo-san, I lay in bed, asleep. 


I HID IN THE AIR-CONDITIONING and limited my movements. It took until October for the temperatures to finally cool down and for my feelings of alarm about the weather to subside. Then my Nobata texted me, worried I wouldn’t make it to my hometown matsuri, which was holding a special, once-every-five-years autumn float gathering. (The festival is usually held in the spring.) I had promised long ago to attend, so that weekend I watched another round of float construction, chanting, cheering, and corner rounding. Everything here was on a smaller, more intimate scale than in Kyoto.

On the first day, as we waited for Asayama, Nobata said, “This may be the last year I go. I am getting too old.” The admission alarmed me. I had been to this hometown festival so many times, with my mother and Nobata and his wife, and then later with my son. In the last five years, Nobata’s wife and my mother had died, and now it was just Nobata, my son, and me. 

Asayama, like the Tsuki Boko, is a float just for men. My son had been invited to walk with the float but had been frightened by the near-violent energy of the men maneuvering the float up hills and around corners. Elsewhere in the procession were other floats that, as in Kyoto, included women. “I think I like those better,” Ewan said to me.

“Some neighborhoods don’t have enough men for their floats,” Nobata said. “I guess those places have to include women.”

The newspapers continuously warn that such matsuri are in danger of dying out. Many of the smaller festivals had difficulty reviving after COVID. I told Nobata that even people I had spoken to in Kyoto were worried about the Gion Festival in this way too. 

“The most famous festival in Japan, in danger of disappearing?” he scoffed. “I don’t think so.”

I felt a little bit guilty then, having given so much attention to the Gion Matsuri over a festival that had meant everything to my mother—to my own family. In the morning, Nobata asked us to visit the grave of his wife, and as we gave her incense and flowers, he told me that he would be buried here too. Then we went back for the second procession.

I continued to think of Nobata taking me to the cemetery and telling me how and where his story would end before we returned to look at Asayama, whose story would continue in this festival float. I knew then that I would keep going to the Handa Festival to see Asayama, even after Nobata was gone. I would even go back to the Gion Matsuri, despite the heat. I would be in ritual time with everyone who was gone, with everyone who had touched the carts and shrines, with the never-ending story at the heart of the matsuri that kept adapting to what we all need. I would go back to them all again and again and again.  

Read more from Orion‘s Spring 2024 issue Rites of Nature here.

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Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the author of two novels, The Tree Doctor and Picking Bones from Ash, and two books of nonfiction, American Harvest and Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye.