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Looking Forward to Next Year's Gion Matsuri Festival – A Father & Son's Insider Story on the Festival Float's Musical Tradition

Insider Blog

festivals_events

Looking Forward to Next Year's Gion Matsuri Festival – A Father & Son's Insider Story on the Festival Float's Musical Tradition

Mr. Yoshinori Nishiura and his son Teruki are musicians that play on the festival floats of the Gion Matsuri Festival. During the festival processions called Yama-hoko Junko, floats decorated with elaborate textiles parade through the downtown streets in time with the slow, yet entrancing, music played by the “hayashikata” musicians riding on the high, veranda-like float platforms. The hayashikata musicians play a vital role in livening up the festival while setting the rhythm and tempo for the processions. Also, residents of all ages come to stroll around the floats lit up with lanterns and enjoy the music during the Yoiyama evenings before the parades. Thus, the sound of the flutes and drums, accompanied by the chiming of small gongs, resonates with summer memories for many locals.

The parade processions were cancelled both this year and last year due to the global pandemic, but this year, some of Gion Matsuri Festival’s float communities decided to assemble the floats and allow music practice, in order to preserve the tradition, and the skills, required to carry on this annual event. There are over thirty floats in the festival today, each belonging to a neighborhood community, and each with at least five hundred years of history. Mr. Nishiura and his son belong to one of these floats called Kankoboko, the Kankoboko Float.

Although the Gion Matsuri Festival is one of the most visited festivals of Kyoto, probably few of us know what it’s like to be on the side of the people who carry it out. Hoping to provide you with an insider view for when you visit the Gion Matsuri Festival in the future, we asked this father and son about the festival as experienced at their float.

 

1. Why did you become a member of the festival music band?

– It’s my pleasure to be able to interview you today. First, could we begin with this question: Why did you, Mr. Nishiura, join the Kankoboko Float’s hayashikata music band?

 *Hayashikata: hayashi means “festival music” and kata means “the group/role,” thus literally translates as “the festival music band”

Mr. Nishiura: I joined the hayashikata, the festival music band, when I was in the third grade of elementary school. My mother’s parents’ home was in another neighborhood that hosted the Kakkyoyama Float, so I had always been familiar with the activities of the Gion Matsuri Festival. Then, I saw my uncle play in the Kankoboko Float’s music band, and I was so impressed by it. That was how it all began.

– I see. I also think the musicians look absolutely fabulous when they are riding on the Gion Matsuri Festival floats and playing the music. Now, is it true that your son, Teruki, joined the band from this year?

Mr. Nishiura: Yes, usually kids start when they are in the second grade of elementary school, but he already had his heart set on joining the hayashikata, so we let him start this year.
The interviewees: Mr. Yoshinori Nishiura and his son Teruki Nishiura

– How nice! Teruki, why did you want to join the band?

Teruki: I thought my father looked so cool playing the drum, so I thought, “I want to join the hayashikata!” I think, I might have been feeling so since I was three years old. 

– That resonates with your story about wanting to join the band after seeing your uncle play the drum, doesn’t it, Mr. Nishiura?

Mr. Nishiura: That’s true. Actually, many members of the local community participate with their young ones. We have about ten pairs of parent-child participants at the Kankoboko Float. 

– Ten pairs! Amazing! About how many members does Kankoboko’s hayashikata band have in total?

Mr. Nishiura: About seventy members belong to our band. The youngest are about six, while the oldest are in their seventies. Maybe about twenty to thirty members are around or below the age of a university student. However, most students tend to get busy with their afterschool activities once they enter high school, making it difficult for them to participate in the festival, so I guess just about fifty of the seventy members are really active. 

2. What exactly does the hayashikata music band do?

– What role does the hayashikata play in the festival?

The kanekata musicians’ tools used for striking the kane gong that Teruki treasures were given to him by his father and other older members of the band.

Mr. Nishiura: The band comprises three parts: the kanekata gong players, the fuekata flute players and the taikokata drummers. Until around high school, everyone plays in the kanekata gong part.The Gion Matsuri Festival’s signature onomatopoeia, “kon-chiki-chin,” perhaps something like “dong-chitty-ding” to English speakers, represents the sound that the kanekata part creates by striking these kane gongs. The kane is a type of gong that’s made of a bronze alloy and measures twenty centimeters in diameter by six centimeters in depth. The thickness and the proportion of bronze and tin differ from float to float, meaning that the timbres and tones also vary. 

Players strike the inside of the kane gong to create the iconic “kon-chiki-chin” sound of the Gion Matsuri Festival.

Mr. Nishiura: The children first familiarize themselves with the tempo and other basic aspects of hayashi music. Once they have acquired enough basic skills, they then choose which instrument to specialize in. In my case, I chose to become a taikokata because, since I was a child, I had always wanted to play the drum like my uncle.

Teruki: I also want to become a taikokata drummer like my dad when I grow up!

Mr. Nishiura: The taikokata drum part also plays a role that is like the conductor of the whole band. When we are on the float, we sit at each side of the chigo doll at the front center. The drums set the tempo of the music. Also, the drummers are in charge of deciding the next piece of music to play. This role is called “yobidashi” (lit. “calling”), and we instruct the other band members on the next piece of music to play by choosing and showing them the title of the piece using a notebook with all the titles inscribed in it. 

Mr. Nishiura riding on the float and playing the drum

– That does sound like conducting an orchestra! By the way, about how many pieces of music are there?

Mr. Nishiura: Each float has a different repertoire, but the repertoire passed down in Kankoboko Float has about forty pieces. Each piece has its own score, and the drum patterns also differ from score to score. During the procession when the yama and hoko floats parade the streets, there are four corners where the Kankoboko Float needs to turn ninety degrees, and there are certain tunes that we play in a certain order at each corner. For example, we play Kagura, Karako, Hakusan and then Modori-Bayashi at the first turn at the corner of Shijo-dori Street and Kawaramachi-dori Street. Karako has a slow tempo, but Modori-Bayashi is upbeat. Kankoboko’s music band adds an extra, intermediate-tempo piece called Hakusan between these two tunes. This gives the music a smooth transition and improved flow.

The process of turning the corner is called “tsuji-mawashi” and is one of the highlights of the parade.

– I didn’t know that the pieces that are played while turning the float were predetermined. By the way, it must be hard to remember all forty tunes.

Mr. Nishiura: It is hard. However, there are some pieces we don’t perform anymore. A tune titled “Kimigayo,” the same name as the national anthem, is one of them. Apparently, it was played during the war. 

– It seems natural for a festival with such a long history as this to have episodes like that. By the way, what kind of hayashi music pieces do you like personally?

Mr. Nishiura: I like a piece called “Chidori.” It’s a tune we play around the turn at the last corner at Shijo-dori Street and Shinmachi-dori Street. It’s a mellow tune highlighting the timbre of the flute and the gong. Each time we play it I think, “Ah, the parade will be over when we turn this corner!” and I go through mixed feelings of sadness and relief. I also like how the music speeds up as we play with extra fervor towards the festival’s grand finale.

 

Teruki making his debut as a kanekata band member.

– I’d really love to listen to that! How about you Teruki, what’s your favorite piece of hayashi music?

Teruki: I like Jibayashi and Ichi-ni-ssan.

Mr. Nishiura: Those are the two songs he can play (laughter). You’re going to practice and learn how to play more tunes, right Teruki?

Teruki: Yeah!

 
*You can try listening to some of Kankoboko Float’s music here.

3. How are the hayashi music skills passed down through generations?

Music practice on the second floor of Kankoboko’s community house

– I’m also looking forward to seeing Teruki play an active role in the band! How do you usually practice?

Mr. Nishiura: There’s a practice day once a month on the second floor of the Kankoboko Float’s community house. But, its primary purpose is to tune up as a band. So, naturally, we have to practice in our own free times too. We have older members of the band teach us, or we practice by ourselves listening to CD recordings. As for the drum, as much as learning how to play it, it is also necessary to first learn how to assemble and tune the instrument using its cords. The tone changes depending on how you fasten the cords around the drum. Mastery of this tuning requires two to three years of learning under an older member of the drum part. In particular, the high tone is a unique feature of the Kankoboko Float’s drums, so we need our seniors to teach us how to tune it perfectly.

Teruki: My dad teaches me how to play my part, but when he’s practicing his drum, an older member would teach me, too.

Teruki’s first lesson: He started out by practicing the strokes while listening to the music.
Mr. Nishiura: Yes, it’s the custom to learn the skills from older members of the band. That’s also the case for the flutists, as much as the drummers. The flute beginners spend their first year visiting the homes of senior members just to learn how to make the basic flute sounds. I’ve been told it takes a lot of practice. 

– I see, so that’s how the skills are passed down from older to younger members of the band. I imagine you must practice a lot, but isn’t it hard to balance that with other responsibilities such as work and school?

Mr. Nishiura: Actually, I went to university in another prefecture, so I had some time away from hayashi music while I was studying. But, in my third year, I couldn’t get the festival off my mind, so I secretly came to watch how everything was going during the festival... and, an older member of the band found me! He said to me, “Why don’t you come back, instead of sneaking around like that?” That caused me to make up my mind; I thought, “I want to move back to Kyoto and find a job there after I graduate.” The company that I work for is run by a band member too, so I’m able to get off work early on lesson days and take the day off for the parade day. I’m lucky my workplace is very understanding of my participation in the Gion Matsuri Festival.Also, my son’s elementary school officially accepts absences from school for the first day of the festival, the day of the test run of the floats, and the day of the parade; all he needs to do is submit a document issued by the organization that hosts the float.

Teruki: There was even hamo in the school lunch during the festival!

– Wow! Hamo, pike eel, for school lunch? Gosh, that sure sounds like a Kyoto school.

Mr. Nishiura: (Because pike eel is a local favorite that comes into season during the festival period,) the Gion Matsuri Festival is also called the “hamo festival,” so there are schools that serve it in keeping with a culinary tradition. 

– I envy you, Teruki (laughter).

Teruki: It was deep-fried and tasted great!

4. What is the best thing about being a hayashikata musician?

During 2021’s festival, the musicians sat apart from one another, and the flutists wore specially-designed shields as a part of counter-COVID measures.

– I imagine that the cooperation of other members of your family must have been essential for you to be able to participate in the festival as you do.

Mr. Nishiura: Certainly, yes. I think it’s hard at times, especially for my wife, because I often leave the house to go to practice or to meetings related to the festival. But, since our son started participating this year, I’ve been noticing a slight difference in her supportiveness. I think her perception of the festival changed a little. As for myself, It’s been my dream to wave to my family from the float with my child on my lap, just as I’ve seen older members of the band do. I think that is one of the greatest privileges of being a hayashikata member. There was no parade this year, but hopefully I’ll be able to be accomplishing this dream of mine during next year’s festival. 

– Fabulous! On the other hand, is there anything you feel especially challenging or hard about being in the hayashikata?

Mr. Nishiura: This may not be so relevant to the hayashikata, but I had a mentor in the hayashikata, a person who looked after me since I decided to become a drummer and who taught me all about the festival. When this person passed away due to illness, it felt like the hardest thing that could ever happen. 

– Oh, really… Well, the more you tell me about it, it seems that you members of the hayashikata have deep bonds like a family.

Mr. Nishiura: That’s true. Not only me, but everyone prays for that member during the festival period. 
A view from the float. Two drummers play facing each other.

– Finally, Mr. Nishiura, what does the Gion Matsuri Festival mean to you?

Mr. Nishiura: Well, I feel that there are only so many things in life that you can make life-long commitments to, but the hayashikata is one of those things to me. It’s always been one of my top priorities, and I hope to continue it all my life. 

– Wonderful. Now, how about you Teruki, how do you see yourself in the future?

Teruki: I can’t wait to learn how to play the drum. And then, I want to play the drum with my father. That’s my dream. It might take about twenty more years until I can become a drummer, so I hope my father will stay healthy and live long! 

– Mr. Nishiura, it seems like you’re really bound to play the drum for the rest of your life!

Mr. Nishiura: It sure does. (laughing) I’ll do my best! 


Just as Mr. Nishiura’s heart was kindled by watching his uncle playing in the band, now his son is dreaming to become a hayashikata drummer. The music of Gion Matsuri Festival is passed down from older to younger members of the hayashikata, who are tied by deep bonds, much like an extended family.When the festival month of July is over, the practice days for the next summer will begin. Let us hope that we will be able to enjoy watching the floats guided by the festival music once again parade the streets of Kyoto next summer.

   

         Kankoboko Preservation Society
         Website: https://www.kankoboko.jp/(Japanese)


Text by Rakutabi
July 27th, 2021