A Gion Matsuri Float parades through the streets of Kyoto during the 2017 festival [Image: Wikimedia Commons, 江戸村のとくぞう ]

Japanese Parade Float Makes International Debut in Oregon


A float from the Japanese festival Gion Matsuri, one of the oldest continuous festivals in world, is being exhibited for the first time outside of Japan in Portland, Oregon. The float is on display as part of an exhibition on Gion Matsuri in the Portland Japanese Garden, and puts a cultural highlight of Kyoto on full parade in the Pacific Northwest. To commemorate the historic occasion, the opening weekend of the exhibition saw a performance by a troupe of Kyoto musicians, bringing the sounds of the festival to the Portland Japanese Garden. The six-week exhibition runs from September 15 until November 4 in the Garden’s Pavilion Gallery.

The Gion Matsuri is a Kyoto-based festival held since 869 and is one of the oldest continuous festivals in the world. The month-long festival began as a religious ceremony to combat an epidemic but is now known for its elaborate parade of floats. Two varieties of floats are prepared — yama and hoko — with hoko floats reaching up to 25 meters in height and 12 tons in weight. Each float is crafted by hand and has different thematic elements. While the float on display in Portland is considerably smaller, the ornate details exemplify the masterful levels of craftsmanship needed to produce this moving work of art. In addition to the float, the exhibition will include photographs as well as costumes worn during the parade.

The display of the float in Oregon highlights Portland’s deep and enduring cultural connections with Japan, built through a long history of intercultural exchange. The sister city relationship between Portland and Sapporo, established in 1959, is one of the oldest in the United States. The Japan America Society of Oregon (JASO) is the 3rd oldest Japan America Society in the US and headquartered in Portland. The Portland Japanese Garden is one of eight in Oregon. Opened in 1967 and built to foster cultural understanding after World War II, it is often considered the finest example of a Japanese garden outside of Japan.

Jonathan Banasihan is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate student at American University majoring in International Studies, concentrating in Foreign Policy and National Security in East Asia.