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Meet Catherine Pawasarat: Author of The Gion Festival: Exploring Its Mysteries

The Gion Festival by Catherine Pawasarat

My Japan Journey Interview 8:

Catherine Pawasarat: expert and author of The Gion Festival: Exploring Its Mysteries

Catherine Pawasarat

There is no question that the research and understanding within Catherine Pawasarat’s book, The Gion Festival: Exploring Its Mysteries is outstanding.

Over decades, her passion for the 1200-year-old festival and her facility with the Japanese language has allowed her to create close friendships with the Kyoto communities who are at the heart of the festival and painstakingly organise it each July.

My experience of the Gion Matsuri last summer was transformed by the wealth of information within the book's pages. And it has helped me understand far more than this magnificent festival. It shines a light on the history of the city, the spirituality, the art, and the immensely rich tradition.

Catherine's motivation – how do you protect a thousand-year-old festival and help it on its way into the next one thousand years?

This is a book about one person’s absorbing love for a city and for the people who have so generously shared their knowledge with her over many years.

Gion matsuri chigo

Kyoto Journal writes: 

The author first encountered Gion Matsuri in her Kyoto neighbourhood around 1990. Over many years, she has forged close bonds with local residents in chōnai associations, gradually absorbing their oral heritage while observing the impact of significant societal shifts.

The purpose of this book is clearly to raise awareness and appreciation of the unique value of this tradition, as a way of contributing to its long-term survival. A wealth of information is provided on its history, associated events, and how to access specific sites where individual floats and their treasures can be viewed up close in truly astounding detail.

Descriptions of their sumptuous decorations may inspire even long-term residents to revisit with fresh eyes...

It has been a privilege to talk with Catherine.

She joins me from her base in British Columbia, Canada.

Come with us as we talk about the incredible Gion Matsuri, and the place it holds in the hearts of the citizens of Kyoto.



Gion matsuri float

Cathy from Zusetsu: The first thing I would say about your book is it was amazing going back to it, having been at the Gion Matsuri last summer and having allowed everything to settle a little bit in my mind.

Through reading your book last year, and through being there at the Gion Matsuri, and probably understanding it a tiny bit more, and then coming back to your book again - I was impressed by the detail! I think the more knowledge that you begin to have, the more your book unfolds the world of the Gion Matsuri for you.

I think the first time I read it, there were specific things that I was fascinated by: I really wanted to see the chigo festival boys and the yamaboko festival floats. But this time, I particularly enjoyed how you write about the connections between the people and the spiritual side of things.

And that's probably because I really don't know too much about that, if I'm honest, it’s this big area that I'd really like to explore and understand a bit better. So, I've got a lot of questions for you, I'm afraid!

Catherine: Oh, well, thank you for sharing that. That's wonderful. I couldn’t really hope for any nicer feedback. I appreciate that!

Cathy: Well, it's very sincere. I'm fascinated, and I'm really grateful to you for joining me today.

Catherine: My pleasure!


Gion matsuri float


Cathy: You have the most tremendous knowledge, having lived in Kyoto for 20 years.

I was reading at the beginning of your book about how you felt that understanding the language helped build your connections with the Gion Matsuri communities. I'm interested in how that all began to unfold.

I'm always interested in the origins of things; I always want to know how things began and how they got to be the way they are. So, could you take me back to how it all started for you?

Catherine: Oh wow, that's a great approach, Cathy, I commend you for it - it's a great way to approach anything.

Yes, so it was kind of a fluke. I'd lived in Japan for a couple of years, and I wanted to go to Japanese school to improve my Japanese. I was going to go back to the States where I'm from, and as I was starting Japanese school, I suddenly became a student without much income, and I wasn't sure how I would make ends meet. And a friend of a friend said, there's this house that we can live in, there’s an empty house if we volunteer our time.

And that sounded great. There were two other Americans and I, and it turned out to be this incredible old machiya right in the centre of downtown Kyoto. It was extraordinary and it was empty, and it had no furniture, and it wasn't being super well cared for when we moved in.

Well, the owners were so nice back then, it was the bubble and they had plenty of money, so, I think they spruced up the garden for us before we moved in, which is extraordinary! But we didn't know what a Japanese garden was really, other than to just go and look at it.

And it wasn't until July that I walked out my door and bumped into a float, and I didn't know what it was. I was wondering what it was doing in front of my door - it hadn't been there the previous day and had never been there before! And I was on my way to Japanese school, and I asked my teachers and they said, oh that must be a Gion Matsuri float.

building a gion matsuri float

And I said, what's Gion Matsuri, and what's a float, and what does it do?

And it was so interesting because it's one of those things, it’s such a part of Kyoto culture that nobody could answer these really basic questions. They said, well, they pull the floats around the streets, and I said, 'Well, why do they do that?'

And, they said, 'Ummmm - to praise the gods.' And I asked, 'Well, why are they doing that?'

So, my teachers couldn't answer those questions super well, even though my teachers were great - you know how it is with things that are so close to you, you feel like you know them so well that you can't describe them exactly.

Cathy: It must feel like they've been around forever when they're in your neighbourhood.

Catherine: Yes, that's right. Everybody knows about it, so you don't need to explain it to anybody. It was kind of like that.

So, when I went home, they were decorating the float and it just got more and more beautiful. And I was really enraptured, especially by the beauty of it.

I was working part-time, freelancing for The Japan Times, an English language newspaper. And I thought, well, I'll go around, and I'll find something to write about. So, it gave me an excuse to go around and ask questions.

Meanwhile, my editors said, 'Oh, Gion Matsuri, that's not very interesting, why would we write about that?'

And that really puzzled me - I thought, really? Gosh, it’s this huge festival and you don't want to cover it?

So, I had to find something unique in the festival, and as luck would have it, that was the first year they allowed some young girls to attend the music rehearsals. And that was the first time in history, that people knew of, that women could participate.

Cathy: Oh, wow!

Gion Matsuri textiles

Catherine: I wrote an article about that. And then it was also the first year that they published a book on the textile collection. It was the first year that it was appreciated that Gion Matsuri held a globally significant textile collection, and I wrote an article on that too.

And those have been two ongoing interests of mine, this whole time, 25 years later. And they are great things to orient around.

Cathy: It's extraordinary what you're saying about the inability to see that it's of interest and that it's newsworthy in any way.

Catherine: I agree. Even with all the people that go there, there's more than a million people and those who go every year are mostly Japanese people.

There's still a lot of people who aren't interested in the festival, they go to people watch and have street food, and the people in the festival themselves, they struggle with this.

And so, that's part of my motivation for why I cover the festival the way that I do is to resolve that issue.

Cathy: Do you mean the issue that people are there to enjoy the street fairs and everything, but not the spirituality of the Matsuri?

Catherine: Yes, it's partly the spirituality, I think. The fact that it's a ritual and that's falling away as the whole world becomes more secular, I think that's been an issue for people, in lots of different ways. But also, it’s just that people don't know what they're looking at and don't really know how to care.

And the more you look, and the more you understand, the more interesting it gets, and I tell you, it goes on forever! I just can't believe how every year I'm like, wow, you're kidding!! Just a whole other layer comes out for me, every single year!

And I think that's true of all of us everywhere, right? We're missing out on so many wonders of our own cultures, and of other cultures of the world, and of the natural world.

And all we need to do is slow down, and look and ask questions and pay attention, and then the marvels emerge.


Gion Matsuri lanterns

Kyoto and Tourism

Cathy: I'm interested in what you're saying. There was a news report in the British press at the weekend, and there seems to be a bit of a hot chestnut around tourism in Gion at the moment.

It was so nice of you and Steve to invite me to come to the talk last July [Generative Tourism: Getting There from Here - with Alex Kerr, Stephen Beimel and Catherine Pawasarat. Please see link to YouTube below], I really enjoyed coming.

I thought the discussion was very thought-provoking, and I think my biggest take away from it was, to be honest, how respectful everybody was about tourism. I suppose because, in some ways, people are always saying that it's a problem, and yet it's something that so many of us love to do.

I noticed in your book as well, you talk about maybe having a slight change of perspective and a slightly different experience rather than just going in with a big to-do list!

I think I'm reflecting as well on my experience when I was there a few weeks ago and I was in Arashiyama on the main street and I walked back by just one lane - I was metres away from the main street and I glanced up at all these visitors crossing - there were a lot of people there for the cherry blossom.

I think it touches a little bit on what you were saying about understanding: if we have more of an understanding of what we're looking at, we benefit from a richer experience?

And is this one of the purposes behind publishing your book - that you're helping people like me know a lot more about the significance of the Gion Matsuri?

Catherine: Absolutely, absolutely. Kyoto attracts so many international visitors every year, and I imagine most of us don't know what we're looking at, and that's not a critique of the visitors because the culture is so vast and so ancient.

And not everyone has the wherewithal or the bandwidth to study before they go. I try to do that myself and I can't always do it, and often I can't do it as much as I would like to.

And so, it's really a way of being able to appreciate what we do, and what we see, and being open to learning. And somehow travel has - I don't know how this happened - but it's gotten so full. It’s about seeing the next thing and the next thing, it’s like a checklist of things.

And maybe we have lost the interest in savouring. Maybe it’s about seeing less and  savouring more, perhaps.

Cathy: That's a really interesting perspective, isn't it?

Catherine: Well, it's so understandable because if we think, oh, I'm going to London, and this is probably the only time I'll be able to go there in my whole life, there are so many things I'd love to see, it's very understandable. But yes, reorienting towards the quality over quantity. It takes a lot of self-discipline to undertake that!


Gion Matsuri float, Kyoto

A Celebration of Impermanence

Cathy: I think it's so interesting as well, what you're saying about how it continues to open up for you, the history and the depth and the richness behind the Kyoto culture.

I'm 20 years behind you on the understanding Kyoto spectrum, but what set me off was The Tale of Genji, and now whenever I go to Kyoto all of this literature is echoing in my head and it's all so amazing!

Catherine: That's such a great entry point through literature. It's wonderful. That hasn't been my entryway and that must be such a fun one.

Cathy: It is really fun. But you were saying that you particularly like the art and the textiles that are on the Gion Matsuri floats, is that right?

Gion matsuri float, Kyoto

Catherine: When I started out, I was really bewitched by all of that, and it's great because it captured my attention and kept me going back and I still appreciate that very much. But I think my interest has shifted more to the community and to the spiritual roots of the festival.

Because it is really in many senses, like so much of Japanese culture, a celebration of impermanence.

And when we fall in love with the artworks, it also produces a lot of anxiety because they are all deteriorating, and they all need constant maintenance and repair, and the festival is really not about that.

Especially with the floats, it's a bunch of regular people who are not necessarily cultural curators by interest. You know, they've done an amazing job of holding this for us in their lifetimes, and then they pass it to the next generation, but to conserve and maintain artwork is a whole different thing.

Cathy: And they do have extraordinary artworks, clearly. Reading your book, you start to appreciate this when you're writing about the Koiyama float and the tapestries of The Iliad from Belgium - how they found their way to Kyoto is amazing!

Catherine: It really is! Yes, and a lot of very interesting stories like that, are still waiting to be uncovered, and that's really exciting. A friend of mine said, ‘I'm waiting for all these PhD candidates to start contacting you!’ - because I feel like the research has only just begun.

Cathy: It's only just begun? And it's waiting for people to pick it up and research and categorise?

Catherine: I hope so, yes, and provide support for the festival patrons to help take care of the treasures that they have, because it's such a tremendous commitment, just to hold the festival for everyone. They could really use all the support they can get.


Gion matsuri rope cutting chigo

The Spiritual and the Secular

Cathy: I was really interested in another thing that I read in your book. I don't know anything about Noh, I'm an absolute beginner, but I was interested that you were saying that some of the smaller floats have platforms which used to be Noh stages?

Catherine: Yes, that's right.

Cathy: Another thing that comes through in your book, is that while the festival is centuries old, there are new things coming in and I wondered, do you think Noh will ever return to the festival? Do you think that's something that could come back?

Catherine: Oh, what a great question. Well, theoretically sure. One of the things that I think about a lot is the festival has been going on for more than a thousand years, and what can we do to help it go for another thousand?

So, when you think in that kind of time scale anything is possible.  And I think it's a mystery, why it went from live Noh actors to sacred statues to begin with. I have never heard anything about that.

It took me many years to figure out how many floats were related to Noh plays and then to make the connection and confirmation that there were actors on those floats. They're still dressed in Noh costumes, and I don't really know a lot about Noh either, so sometimes people will say, ‘well, that's a Noh kimono’, and I can't tell. I don't know what the indicators are. This is all still emerging for me as well, partly because it's so vast.

You know you just learn a little bit each year, and then it takes decades for it to form a cohesive picture.

Cathy: Wow, yes I see!

I just thought, because my understanding is that Noh has a very spiritual root, and so it would seem to connect so well with the origins of the festival.

Catherine: I think you're right about that. I never thought about it that way because there is this dance between the spiritual and the secular.

It is a Shinto festival, and there are all these rituals for some people. The spiritual aspect is very important, but I'd say that's for a pretty small number of people at the festival at this point in time. And I'd say that, in my experience, these are some of the most important people in the festival, for various reasons.

One reason is that the people who live in the traditional Japanese buildings that are remaining in that area, they're so famous and they're such an important part of the Gion Matsuri, and those people seem to have a much more spiritual connection, as a general rule - the ones that I've met.

Yasaka Shrine kyoto

I wonder why that it is? I mean, those houses are very contemplative. You really have to live with nature, because they're almost like indoor camping. You have a roof over your head, but you're definitely living with the seasons when you live in those houses!

Cathy: That's so interesting, because as well as staying at Mugen this spring, I stayed in a little guest house for a few nights when I was in Kyoto, and the experience you're describing was a lot like that! It was an old wooden villa, and there was no heating. My tatami room had a shoji screen before the garden, and it was two degrees centigrade at night and so it reminded me of camping on the boat, where you just have to tough it out!

Obviously, I love Genji and I love the idea of floating around in a juunihitoe. I think it was Ivan Morris who wrote that there was a practical reason behind wearing those many layered kimono and that was just to keep the ladies warm.

And when I stayed for a couple of nights in this guest house, I thought, yes, I get that! I think you would need some layers!

Catherine: Yes, you would, and also if you eat with the seasons it helps you stay warmer as well. There’s a really close connection with food and what's growing right now, and all these tricks in your lifestyle to stay warm - taking baths every night, things like that.

Cathy: Of course, yes! I was thinking about how things can often be associative, and as soon as you said that I was thinking of the yuzu floating in the baths. And yuzu is used in food as well, and presumably it would make you feel cosy, just seeing it or smelling the fragrance.

Catherine: That's right, yes, it prevents all the ailments of that season. When I lived in this beautiful home in the Gion Festival neighbourhood it was wonderful. But it was also terrible. I was freezing in winter, and I was so hot in summer, and the mosquitoes were really bad because I didn't know how to get the water out of the stone basins, so they were just breeding mosquitoes!

Cathy: Were you there a long time?

Catherine: I was there I think two or three years, maybe two and a half years?

Cathy: Wow, you toughed it out then!

Catherine: I toughed it out! And I was really cold, and I'd say that to my Japanese friends, and they’d say, well are you taking baths?

So, I made the cultural shift from showers to baths during that time, and it was so eye-opening – oh, there's a reason they take baths! I just thought it was a case of, I like showers, and you like baths!

I didn't realise then how healthy it was, and because it was pre-internet all that information wasn't so readily available. And again, it was so obvious to Japanese people. They'd just say, are you taking baths? You know, it's good for you. But they wouldn't say, you know, to stay warm you need to take a bath every night! That’s what I had to figure out!

Cathy: I hope you didn't find that out after three years - I hope you learned that a bit earlier on!!

Catherine: Hahaha, maybe halfway through!

But it’s the same with the food, I was eating pasta and salad when I first got there, and my acupuncturist said, no, in winter you need to eat root vegetables. He would say, try eating root vegetables, and I thought that's a really strange health prescription!

And he would say, it'll help you stay warm, and I was thinking, carrots help you stay warm? I really didn't get it at all, but of course, now there’s macrobiotics. But then doing it, I could feel the difference for myself, living with the seasons.

Yes, and now here I am in rural Canada, it's very difficult to eat with the seasons here, for all kinds of reasons. So, it's no wonder that we get so separated from these things that our forebears did naturally for thousands of years.

Cathy: Yes, and it's just such a short window of time where we've lost all this.

Catherine: It really is.


Kyoto machiya

Preserving Kyoto

Cathy: I did read that your lovely machiya house was pulled down and replaced. Obviously, I love machiya, and I'm sure you love machiya, is there good news on the horizon about their preservation?

Cata: That’s a great question. There are some good things - people's appreciation for machiya is definitely higher than it was before, and people don't take it for granted as much. And there are more shops and restaurants that want to be in machiya, which definitely helps them stay.

I saw a hotel that kept the machiya in the front and built a high-rise behind it. I just knew the facade of the building, and then I saw that it was no longer a home and that it was now a hotel. And I wondered, how many rooms could this place have, and I looked back and saw the huge building behind it. I don't know if it was built where the garden once was.

But businesses, I think, can afford to keep those spaces more easily than families. But the tax situation in Kyoto is very unfavourable to conserving traditional family dwellings. And I'm really not sure why they don't resolve that. I haven't gone that deeply into that topic - not out of lack of interest, but just lack of time. And my Japanese, the longer I'm away, the worse it gets and you know, discussing taxes in Japanese would really be pushing my language edge!

Catherine Pawasarat

But that's great that you could come to my presentation last summer with Stephen [Stephen Biemel of JapanCraft21] and Alex [Alex Kerr, author of Lost Japan and Another Kyoto], because I am trying to not spend a lot of time talking about how bad it is, but trying to discuss what can we do to help it improve.

This was to get Stephen, Alex, and I together to talk about it because those two are doing such great things to promote and support traditional Japanese culture. So, we'll see how it goes, I don't plan on stopping.

Cathy: It's fantastic, it's very illuminating I think, and in all of these sorts of circumstances sometimes it's really nice to know that there's a flicker of good news on the horizon. When I was walking through Kyoto, there are still a lot of beautiful, traditional buildings. 


Thank you so much to Catherine for joining me for this fascinating chat.

Her book, The Gion Festival: Exploring its Mysteries truly should be on the bookshelf

for all of us who love Kyoto.

If you would like to find out more about the Gion Matsuri, and the preservation of artworks and buildings in the city of Kyoto, please check out the links below:

Gion Festival Exploring Its Mysteries by Catherine Pawasarat


Catherine Pawasarat, The Gion Festival: Exploring Its Mysteries: buy here

YouTube: Generative Tourism: Getting There from Here - with Alex Kerr, Stephen Beimel and Catherine Pawasarat 

Further Reading

You may also like to read my blog about my visit to the Gion Matsuri armed with Catherine's book:


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