Mifune Matsuri Festival (三船祭) is a spring festival in Kurumazaki Jinja (車折神社) in the vicinity of Arashiyama, a popular leisure place in Kyoto.
Kiyohara Yorinari was a 12th century Confucian scholar who is enshrined in Kurumazaki Shrine. He led a happy life as a member of a prominent family in the Heian period. He seems to be lucky after his death – too. Every year in May his soul is taken for a walk, accompanied by a number of ladies in colorful attires.
Like usually in such cases, his spirit is transferred to a mikoshi portable shrine and then carried to the otabisho (a temporary resting place) on the bank of the Oi River.
During the climax of the Mifune Matsuri, Kiyohara’s soul is transferred to a boat called gozabune. The boat is taken to the middle of the Oi River where it remains for 2-3 hours. Then ships carrying artists and prominent figures, pay respect by approaching the sacred boat, performing dance, playing music, and reciting poems.
About twenty ships take part in the boat parade of Mifune Festival, but three of them are worth more attention.
Gozabune (御座船) is the most important as it carries the mikoshi – a portable shrine with the spirit of the deity.
Then there are two ships with decorative figureheads: Ryūtōsen (龍頭船) with a head of the dragon and Gekisusen (鷁首) with a head of the legendary Chinese bird. Dragon-head ship carries dancers and artists, while the other one is used by the tea ceremony masters.
The festival originated in 1928, but is said to retain the atmosphere of the late Heian period. At that time both Kyoto’s aristocracy and top members of the Taira family—the new warrior class—were spending their time on leisure and court pleasures.
The name Mifune Matsuri literally means a “festival of three boats”, but according to the materials provided by Kurumazaki Shrine, the name reflects three genres of art performed during the celebrations: recitation of waka (和歌) – Japanese poetry, kanshi (漢詩) – Chinese poems, and sougaku (奏楽）- music performance and dance.
After the parade and boat performances, Kiyohara’s spirit is transferred to a temporary resting place otabisho near the river.
Mifune Matsuri festival in general has three parts:
- rites in the Kurumazaki Shrine (車折神社),
- a parade to the Oi River,
- and performances on the boats (船遊).
During the latter boats with artists approach the gozabune ship with mikoshi. Artists perform in front of the ship as an offering. This take place in the middle of the river, so it is not easy to see. But ships approach also the river banks and artists perform for the audience. Observe and try to be in the right place in the right moment.