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Kuronushi Yama 黒主山 – An Immortal Poet

Kuronushi Yama

Sakura viewing is a poetic and beloved Japanese pastime.

The tenth-century poet Ōtomo-no-Kuronushi was considered one of the six poetic geniuses of the early Heian period. It’s said that his poetry was so great that he became a deity, enshrined in the neighboring province of Shiga. Kuronushi enjoying the beauty of cherry blossoms—a favorite Japanese pastime—forms the central image for a famous yōkyoku or noh theater song called “Shiga.”

A senior festival patron who grew up in the Kuronushi Yama chōnai told me that before the 15th-century Ōnin War the Yama was called “Saigyō Yama.” Saigyō Hōshi was a 12th-century samurai who gave up battle and life at court to become a Buddhist monk and prolific poet. He authored many famous poems related to the splendour of cherry blossoms, a common metaphor for the youthful warriors whose lives of glory come to a sudden end. Saigyō’s most famous poem related to an old man enjoying cherry blossoms.

kuronushi yama treasure display explanation gion festival kyoto japan

One of Kuronushi Yama wonderful features: at regular intervals this man regularly explains the provenances of its treasures to the public (in Japanese only).

Like many yamaboko, Saigyō Yama was destroyed in the Ōnin War, which ravaged Kyoto. When it was relaunched, my acquaintance said, it had the name Kuronushi Yama. The “new” float featured an elder man enjoying cherry blossoms, and the elder wasn’t sure how or why the name change took place.

This story exemplifies how much of the Gion Festival’s history is and has been an oral tradition, as well as how many of its mysteries remain to come to light. Interviews with chōnai members combined with other research methods reveal the rich and varied history of this ancient festival.

Note Kuronushi Yama’s remarkable collection of Chinese textiles. Unusually, its modern display area is  spacious enough we can enjoy viewing and comparing originals and contemporary reproductions side by side.

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Access free interactive maps with locations and description of all 34 Gion Festival floats, plus procession routes!

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