Often called the most famous festival in Japan, Gion Matsuri is the festival of Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto that occurs over the whole month of July. There are many different events during this festival, all of them unlike anything else you’ll find in the world. This festival is considered one the most famous summer festivals in Japan.

Gion Matsuri dates all the way back to 869 when it was a religious ceremony that sought to placate the gods during a disease epidemic. The particular gods it sought to please were those associated with fires, flood, earthquakes, and other disasters. Gion Matsuri prominently featured 66 decorated halberds (hoko), one for each of the traditional provinces of Japan, were erected in a garden alongside portable shrines (mikoshi) from Yasaka Shrine, all a part of a purification ritual. It was originally celebrated whenever there was an outbreak. In 970, it became an annual event and has been celebrated yearly ever since.

The procession of the Gion Festival, Kyoto. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The nature of the festival did change, however. In 1533, the Ashikaga shogunate banned all of the religious practices of the festival. The festival grew increasingly elaborate and any wealthy families began to use it as a way to showcase their wealth for all to see. The religious elements have become a part of the festival again. Gion Matsuri today is a culmination of a long and storied history, influenced by many different groups and interest, making it a fascinating cultural experience.

The festival kicks off with opening ceremonies in each participating neighborhood from July 1st through July 5th. The order of Gion Matsuri’s floats is decided by lottery. The early part of the festival is full of smaller parades and shrine visits. Float construction begins on July 10th and continues to July 13th.

A Fune (shaped like a boat) float. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

These floats are the largest draw of Gion Matsuri. Collectively known as Yamaboko or Yamahoko floats, all of these floats are decorated with traditional tapestries from throughout Japan and even the world. They are divided into two distinct categories: 23 Yama (halberd) and 10 Hoko (mountain).

The Hoko represent the original 66 halberds used in the ancient festival. Hoko feature life-sized figures of famous people. The Yama can be very large, reaching up to 25 meters tall, weighing up to 12 tons, with massive wheels. Every float has its own unique theme and all of them are elaborately decorated by hand using no nails. Visitors can actually observe them being built before the parades!

Musicians perform on the float during the procession. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The processions of floats (Yamaboko Junko) take place twice. The floats first parade is on the morning of July 17th from 9:00 and 13:00 and again on the morning of July 24th from 9:30 to 11:50 and follow a three kilometer long route along Shijo, Kawaramachi and Oike streets.

Traditional musicians sit and perform on the floats as they process. These parades are incredible spectacles. They have a long route. There are few paid seats available in front of city hall that need to be reserved in advance, but there is plenty of room to see the parade in all its glory elsewhere. The floats are displayed while not moving and visitors can enter some of them.

The floats are only one major aspect of the festival. Another is the local boy chosen as the divine messenger. This child is selected by the city mayor and sends the entire festival in a place of honor. He wears Shinto robes and is crowned with a golden phoenix.

This divine messenger, meant to serve as the page of the god Susanoo, undergoes weeks of special purification ceremonies and isolated living. Afterward, during the festival, he is carried by a float and cannot touch the ground until he has been paraded throughout the town on July 17th. To begin the festival, he must cut a sacred rope with a single strike. If you attend the parade, you’ll get a chance to see this sacred child in person!

The Chigo (sacred child). Photo Credit: 江戸村のとくぞう

The floats and the sacred child are the daytime events, but the evenings of the Gion Matsuri are just as delightful. Several roads are closed on July 15th and 16th. Food stands, drink stands, souvenir stands, and stages open up. This occurs again on a smaller scale leading up to the July 24th parade. The Yamaboko Junkō was registered by UNESCO as an example of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.

These are only the major events. As a month-long, city-wide festival, there are many other events for you to attend, ones that are especially tied to Kyoto’s long heritage. Byobu Matsuri occurs on July 23rd, is when local families open their doors to display heir family heirlooms to passerby.

On July 16th,  you can view traditional performances at Yasaka Shrine, including the stories of Shoki the demon queller, a fight between heavenly gods, and the defeat of the serpent Orochi by the god Susanoo. These performances feature elaborate costumes and masks. They are a step into another, older world.

On the evening of July 17th, the portable shrines (mikoshi) parade from Yasaka Shrine to the Otabisho. This involves carrying the shrine’s god from its place in Yasaka Shrine in a wheeled portable shrine, usually carried by men on their shoulders. These shrines will do a return parade on July 24th.

The Hanagasa Junko parade. Photo Credit: MShades at Flickr.

On July 24th at 10:00 AM, there is a colorful flower umbrella procession (Hanagasa Junko) from Yasaka Shrine, which is a little less massive than the main parade but no less impressive. The parade features many dances. This procession is a loop and finishes in a final dance to honor the gods of Yasaka Shrine.

The final event of Gion Matsuri is the purification at Eki Shrine, a sub shrine of Yakasa Shrine, that occurs on July 31st. Initially, only participants in the festival’s organization and floats are blessed and pass through a sacred reed ring, after which the public can also pass through.

Gion Festival is deeply steeped in tradition and history. A preservation society works hard to restore artwork and return the festival to a form closer to its original one. Many traditional musicians and dancers perform throughout the festival, often the result of months and months of training and preparation.

There is no festival in Japan that compares to the Gion Matsuri. Its length, heritage, and community come together to make it an amazing experience. It is one of the gems of Kyoto and something you definitely don’t want to miss!