Photo by S. via Flickr

The month of July officially kicks off the start of Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. It is not only the largest festival in the city, but is also one of the most famous festivals in all of Japan. It is a festival that can be traced back to the 9th century where it was hoped that the celebration would appease the gods that had the power to inflict a range of natural disasters.

Today the festival is a wonderful way to experience authentic Japanese culture, witness exciting float processions, meet local residents, and enjoy delicious food.

History of Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri came about when a plague outbreak ravaged Kyoto, leading Emperor Seiwa to call on his people to pray to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine that is located in the Gion district of Kyoto. This is how the festival became known as the Gion Matsuri.

Lanterns
Photo by Takashi Hososhima via Flickr

The festival was a way of calling on the gods whenever they were in need and eventually the practice became an annual event. Only during the Ōnin Wars was the popular festival interrupted. The festival went on to become a way for local merchants to show off their wealth by creating impressive floats. Many of the floats that are used today have been used for centuries. They are continually cared for and refurbished by the local people. Influences from the Middle East and Europe due to the Silk Road trade route is apparent by the artwork that makes up many of the floats.

Today, visitors can enjoy a month of intriguing events and celebrations including the Yoiyama which takes place twice during the month in the lead up to the famous float processions. During Yoiyama, one can experience lively night celebrations which run for the 3 nights before each float procession is held.

Yoiyama- Night Celebrations

As previously stated, the Yoiyama night celebrations take place on the three nights before each float procession. The first Yoiyama celebration takes place from July 14-16 and is the more lively and celebrated of the two. During this time there will be road closures and the traffic becomes pedestrian only.

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Photo by Ryosuke Yagi via Flickr

The streets become filled with street vendors selling delicious food and you can watch locals and visitors dress up in yukata, or casual summer kimono. Focus your attention on streets such as Karasuma and Takoyakushi for the most action.

The Float Processions of Gion Matsuri

The Gion Festival incorporates two separate float processions that are held on the 17th and 24th of July, known collectively as Yamaboko-Junko. The procession parades large elaborate floats through the streets of Kyoto, mostly centered on Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike streets.

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Photo by TAKA@P.P.R.S via Flickr

The first procession takes place on July 17th, beginning at Shijō Station and finishing at Karasuma Oike station. The second procession takes place on July 24th and follows the same route as the first, only in reverse by starting at Karasuma Oike station. The parade of floats makes three dramatic turns known as tsujimawashi, which are not to be missed.

The procession is made up of two types of floats which are known as yama and hoko. The hoko floats are less numerous but are the larger of the two varieties, often reaching heights of 25 meters and weighing in at 12 tons. The yama are the more numerous variety of floats and are topped with a pine tree.

Gion Matsuri parade - Hoko float turning
Photo by S. via Flickr

Both types of floats are elaborately decorated and often have themes. The floats are truly a form of moving art as they show off traditional artworks that include sculptures and Nishijin textiles.
The second parade is referred to as Ato Matsuri Junko where you can enjoy fewer crowds but you should be aware there will be fewer yama and hoko floats during this procession.

If you wish to have a close up look of the floats before the procession, they are usually grouped near the Shijo-Karasuma intersection. After the processions, the floats are dismantled and returned to storage for the next year’s celebrations.

Other Gion Matsuri Events

Don’t miss the Omukae Chōchin (Lantern Reception) and the Mikoshi Purification which are both held on July 10. During the lantern reception, watchmen carry lanterns from the Yasaka Shrine along with dance performances from women who carry out the Sagi Odori and Komachi Odori outsides places like Kyoto City Hall and Yasaka Shrine. The Mikoshi Purification involves carrying portable Shinto shrines to the Kamogawa River where they are purified by priests.

Mikoshi of Gion Matsuri
Photo by Run Mizumushi-Kun via Flickr

After these events you can watch as locals spend several days constructing the elaborate floats that will be presented in the upcoming processions. This is known as the Hoko and Yama-tate.

During the first Yoiyama celebrations, you can witness the Byōbu Matsuri or Folding Screen Festival. Local notable families allow the public to see many of their treasures and family heirlooms, which may include painted screens, kimonos, and artwork. Items are usually placed in front of their homes and some may open their doors to allow you in.

During the second float procession on July 24, you can witness the Hanagasa Junkō or Flower Umbrella Procession. Watch as vibrant umbrella floats make their way from Yasaka Shrine accompanied by beautiful geiko, or geisha. The procession allows you to experience several dance performances as well.

The closing of the Gion Matsuri takes place at Eki Shrine on July 31.