Late one afternoon she and I were talking and the subject of the ‘silent pilgrimage’ came up. The ‘silent pilgrimage’ is something that takes place during the Gion Festival, though few people know about it. I had heard a rumour that Yuriko went on the ‘silent pilgrimage’ and I wanted to know if it was true.
The Gion Festival has taken place in Kyoto for over one thousand years, and is considered one of the three most important festival in Japan. The festival starts at the end of June and continues until 24 July, and involves a number of Shinto ceremonies and rituals. On 17 July the local gods are invited to come into their sacred palanquins known as omikoshi and are taken out into the community for the final week of the festival. They are carried on the shoulders of the bearers from the main residence at Yasaka Shrine, down Shijo Street, to their temporary shrines on Shinkyogoku Avenue. The ‘silent pilgrimage’ takes place during this one-week period.
‘I’d like take part in the pilgrimage, too,’ I told her. ‘What do I have to do to be included?’
‘It’s not something you join. It’s something you decide to do by yourself and you do it alone, in private. But, still, if you really want your prayer to come true, they say you have to do it for three years in a row,’ she answered. ‘And you can’t tell anybody else that you are doing it. That’s part of its power. You have to do it in silence. Keep your eyes lowered. Don’t make eye-contact with anyone else. Concentrate completely on whatever is hidden in your heart. Keep your prayer in your mind the entire time, since that is the reason for the pilgrimage.’
I was very moved by her description. Yuriko had very distinct features, unlike an ordinary Japanese face. Her eyes were staggeringly beautiful. They were large, with soft brown centres. She didn’t explicitly tell me what I wanted to know, but she offered me a smile that revealed the truth.
I couldn’t stop wondering why Yuriko was making the pilgrimage. What was it that she wanted so badly?
Geisha of Gion, Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown