Fun with Funeboko

I often come across surprising things when doing research into Japanese carpentry. Looking for information on a particular type of joint, I then find some fascinating stuff on wooden bridges, or boat building. Well, I came across another kind of boat – a boat that won’t float but also a boat that is a float. Lost? This post ties in bit with yesterday’s effort, which looked at a Japanese tradition that takes place around New Years, in that it involves a Japanese traditional event marking a special time of year.

In Kyoto there is an annual festival which spans the entire month of July called the Gion Matsuri. ‘Matsuri’ means festival, and most towns in Japan have one at some point in the year.

Taking its name from Gion, a district in the city, the crowning moment of the festival is a massive parade of floats which takes place on July 17th called the Yamaboko Junkō (山鉾巡行). Yamaboko (山鉾) literally means mountain (halberd (). I imagine the word ‘halberd’ might be a new one to some readers – a halberd, or naginata as the Japanese otherwise call it, is an edged weapon on a long shaft, a bit like a spear, 1.5 to 1.8 meters (5 to 6 feet) long, used two-handed and often incorporating an axe or hook:

The Gion Matsuri began humbly enough as a purification ritual to appease the gods thought responsible for floods, fire, pestilence, etc. In 869 there was an outbreak of plague, and the emperor ordered people to pray to the god of Yasaka Shrine, located in Gion. At that time Japan consisted of 66 provinces, and so at the Yasaka Shrine people set up 66 halberds, stylized and decorated, in the Shinsen-en, a garden of the shrine. Next to the halberds were various mikoshi, or portable shrines. This practice was repeated whenever there was an outbreak of plague, and over time the event became more and more elaborate. Eventually the halberds would be mounted individually, or in groups, upon carts, called yama-dashi (山車):

Yama-dashi literally means mountain (山) on wheels (車). As they grew larger and more ornate, they grew heavier, and could only be moved about on large wheels. Today, many festivals in Japan feature yama-dashi, and these contraptions have become fabulously elaborate in some cases:

In the Gion Matsuri, the yama-dashi are collectively termed ‘yamahoko’ because of the historical tie to the halberd. The floats in the parade are divided into two types, one called simply ‘yama’ and the other ‘hoko’. The hoko are fewer in number but are very large and grandly adorned, and are each topped with a decorated halberd – again, as a representation of the original provinces of Japan. Currently there are 9 hoko and 23 of the smaller yama floats. Hoko are on wheels, while the yama are typically carried.

Looking through the many floats used in the Gion festival parade, one in particular caught my eye: the funeboko, or boat-halberd float, which I first came across in a book on old paintings:

These are wonderful structures, combing many classic solid wood arts: wheel-building, boat-building, lacquering, gilt metal, and, yes,  roof work. These boats on wheels are also called funehoko.

The Gion Matsuri used to have a funeboko, however it has been sidelined since 2009 for some reason. It is a remarkable piece of woodworking:

On the prow of the ‘boat’ is a mythical bird called the geki (鷁). Apparently the funeboko was made to commemorate the birth of the 15th Emperor of Japan (named Ōjin), and is also believed to bring good health to expectant mothers. After Ōjin died his widow, Jingū, then spent three years in conquest of a promised land, which is conjectured to be Korea, but the story is largely dismissed by scholars for lack of evidence. Then, after her return to Japanese islands, the boy was born, three years after the death of the father.

I came across some basic framing schematics for this float:

In Kyoto there is also a museum with a display featuring the lower half of a funeboko:

 You can see to the left of the next picture a wall display showing various types of hoko and yama:

It turns out that Gion in Kyoto is not the only place in Japan where funeboko are paraded about. In Toyama Prefecture’s Nanto city there is a spring festival called the Fukuno Yotaka Matsuri. The festival’s big parade happens in the evening and largely features enormous andon, or paper lanterns, and a battles between different parade floats – literally like a demolition derby:

One of the parade vehicles is a stunning funeboko:

A close up of the geki on the prow:

The wheels are of a slightly unusual design and beautifully made:

The empress Jingū and a warrior ride on the deck:

I love that handrail!

The stern is only half there for some reason:

One more:

The roof combines a cross-wise irimoya (hipped gable) with a lengthwise karahafu (cusped gable). Just a stunning piece of woodwork overall.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way! Hope you liked the boat ride today.

6 thoughts on “Fun with Funeboko

  1. Yes, o-togi for the new year. I need to do some “honorable sharpening” and honorable flattening before starting the next CSG project. Thanks for the encouragement.

    -Charlie Simonds

  2. Hi — Thank you for the information, especially the drawings and the ropework. One small correction (and I am not usually a “grammar nazi”, I'm only telling you so other people might find this article more easily in web searches): the romanization for 船鉾 is funeboko with an 'e', not an 'a'; “fune” means boat. Japanese changes the initial consonant in the second word of a compound under certain circumstances, therefore “hoko” becomes “boko” in “funeboko” (boat halberd). And “yama” + “hoko” becomes “yamaboko” (mountain halberd). That's probably more than you wanted to know, *grin*.

    I found a little more information on the Kyoto funeboko: An approximately 8.4-ton float main body was mounted on wheels with a diameter of approximately 2 meters. The wheels were constructed in 1892. Apparently they retired the wheels and the axles in 2009 and are planning to eventually build a new funeboko, but that's all I could find out. I have a friend in Kyoto, I shall ask him whether he knows anything about it.


  3. Pir,

    I appreciate the correction and will amend the above post accordingly. You're not a 'grammar Nazi' for pointing that out, however i might point out in return that 'funa~' is a common reading for the same character '船', and takes that reading in the vast majority of kanji compounds where it is the initial character, like:

    funabito (passenger)
    Funabashi (a city in Chiba-Ken)
    funaitabei (fence made from old ships timbers
    funatabi (voyage)

    etc.. In fact, among the hundred or so kanji compounds my kanji dictionary lists with 船 as the initial character, not one of them takes the reading of 'fune~'.

    So my guess as to whether to use fune, funa~, or SEN as the reading for that character was entirely reasonable, however i see by looking it up on Japanese Wikipedia that the reading in this case is fune, so, dang, ya got me.

    The other piece you pointed out however, about the change in the initial consonant in the second word of a compound was bit pedantic given there were no errors of that sort in the above text, and is known to anyone who has learned Japanese.

    It is also NOT a consistently applied rule. Take the word for hip rafter in Japanese, 隅木, which is read as 'sumiki' – – the move from a soft to a hard consonant sound for the second character 木 does not take place. Try typing 'sumigi' in your input method editor and it will not suggest the compound 隅木, whereas typing in sumiki results immediately in 隅木. So, there are exceptions to that rule about changing the consonant sound, and I've been wrong in my guesses about that more than a few times myself, the above example being but one case in point.


  4. Pir,

    Postscript: as for the term 'yamahoko', which you wanted to correct me on, it is another exception to the rule about making the initial consonant of the second character a hard sound when it is the second character.

    Do a google search for 山鉾

    Or check this page:

    This page, from the Kyoto tourism association, also gives the reading for the characters as yamahoko (as in yamahoko junkō):

    That's what I went with – seem reasonable to you?

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