Summer

Gion Matsuri 2019 – Beautiful Floats Pass Through the Summer Kyoto Streets

Miwa

Writer

Gion Matsuri is one of the three main festivals in Japan. It is held during the entire month of July. The “kon-chiki-kon” sound known as Gion-bayashi (祇園囃子), the traditional festival music, resonates gracefully in Downtown Kyoto. There will be a variety of festival events throughout July, making the city of Kyoto a center of Japanese culture! This festival is a must-go event for those in Kyoto in the summer. Read on to find out more about how to enjoy the best summer festival in Japan!


Many Japanese go to Matsuri wearing yukata (casual kimono). As you can see above, yukata can come in all colors and designs. Like with regular clothes, there are trends. It is astonishing to see different types of yukata at Japanese festivals. At Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, you can also see a variety of yukatas and other traditional Japanese wear. Over 1 million people visit Gion Matsuri area in Kyoto during this period.

Why don’t you come and see beautifully illuminated floats and enjoy local Japanese food at Gion Matsuri? This will become a unique experience for you!

The climax of Gion Festival is “Yamaboko Junko” – the procession of floats. Beautifully decorated floats go through the main streets of Kyoto on 17th and 24th of July. On the three consecutive evenings before the parade on the 17th (from the 14th to the 16th), the streets and alleys in the downtown area of Kyoto are open for pedestrians after 6 p.m. There is a variety of night food stalls called yatai, also providing sweets and games. The booths line both sides of the streets and alleys. Some popular stands include goldfish scooping, takoyaki, or cold pickled cucumbers!

History of Gion Matsuri

The history of Gion Festival dates back to the Shinto ritual in 869. At that time, people suffered from a plague epidemy. So, Emperor Seiwa ordered to erect 66 halberds representing the 66 provinces of ancient Japan in his palace garden (Shinsen-en 神泉苑). This was to drive away evil spirits to get rid of the plague. Later in 970, it became an annual event. Since then, it has continued for over 1,000 years except for some breaks during the Onin War (a civil war in the 15th century) and World War Two.

After the intermission in the 15th century, Gion Matsuri developed into a large-scale event carried by influential merchants and residents of Kyoto. Gorgeous floats show their wealth and power vividly to spectators. Amazingly, this tradition continues even today!

Hoko and Yama Floats

The 33 floats which town communities possess and protect are massive and vary in design. Some of them are 20 meters high and weigh over 10 tons! Gion Matsuri is more significant than most festivals in Japan so that you can see many real floats with their original design. Take your camera and make some great pictures!

From the middle of July, town communities start to set up their floats with a particular assembly technique. Amazingly, they do not use a single nail to build them. Some floats take about three days for assembly work and decoration.

After the 15th century, wealthy merchants and townspeople started to decorate their floats with a gorgeous tapestry imported from all over the world, fine arts and crafts, and some ornaments related to legends. The floats have been kept as the town’s treasury and are inherited from generation to generation over centuries. The events of the Gion Festival are designated as Important Intangible Folk Cultural Properties of Japan, and the floats are known as moving museums.

The Procession of Yamaboko Junko

The procession on July 17th (Saki Matsuri or the Former Festival) is an enjoyable event you should not miss. The parade starts at 9 a.m. near Daimaru Department Store on Shijo Street – a famous shopping street in central Kyoto. A drawing lot ceremony called Kujitori Shiki decides the order of floats in the procession. However, on July 2nd a Naginata-Boko (float) with an impressive long sword on the roof always serves in the head of the parade. It is the oldest and the only float with ochigo – the sacred boy selected from Naginata-Boko town who cuts a holy rope called shimenawa and declares the opening of the procession. 23 floats out of 33 and people wearing a traditional kimono or costumes join the procession and go through  3 main streets (Shijo St., Kawaramachi St. and Oike St.) for 2 to 3 hours.

The highlight of the procession is a dynamic movement of floats to shift direction known as tsuji-mawashi. At the intersections, participants turn floats around by placing wet bamboo under the wheels. Floats slip on wet bamboo and change their direction with a loud creaking sound. It is incredible to see the teamwork of Matsuri participants with your own eyes!

The Latter Festival or Ato Matsuri

Ato Matsuri means “latter festival.” Ato Matsuri is the second half of the Gion Festival on July 24th. The Gion Festival Ato Matsuri resumed in 2014 after about 50 years intermission. 10 out of 33 floats parade the main streets in the reverse direction, starting from Oike St. from 9:30n a.m. The deities of the floats that parade the streets during Ato Matsuri are blessing the city and festival goers for the upcoming year.

After each procession, the artisans disassemble the floats immediately. Can you guess why? The assembled floats attract evil spirits and hold them inside. To get rid of all evil spirits caught during the procession, the floats must be disassembled quickly.

 What is Chimaki?

Chimaki is a good luck charm you can buy during Gion Festival. The design of chimaki varies from town to town, but the character “So-min-sho-rai(蘇民将来)” is printed on all of them. If you go to the festival, it`s an excellent idea to get chimaki as a souvenir.

Chimaki comes from the legend – Susano-o-no-Mikoto. The deity of Yasaka Shrine met a poor man whose name was So-min-sho-rai(蘇民将来) and asked him to sleep over his place for one night. So-min-sho-rai(蘇民将来) warmly welcomed Susano-o-no-Mikoto, so Susano-o promised him to protect his family members and descendants from epidemics by keeping a thatch with an ornament to recognize those who possess it as So-min-sho-rai’s descendants. This is why you can see the name of So-min-sho-rai on each chimaki. Everybody wants to be protected!

This image courtesy of  “Indiana jo”

Other Events During Gion Matsuri

Folding Screen festival (屏風祭)

From the 14th to the 16th and the 21st to the 23rd of July, some noble families open their collection of folding screens or fine arts and crafts to the public. Japanese folding screens have beautiful designs and are signs of wealth and power of those who possess them. Folding screens have been an essential part of Japanese culture since the Nara Period. When Japan started to trade with Western countries, folding screens were one of Japan’s chief exports. Many famous art collectors and nobles in England, France, and America collected Japanese folding screens.

Shinko Festival (神幸祭)

Compared to the elegant atmosphere of the Yamaboko Junko procession, you can also enjoy the powerful and energetic parade on the evening of July 17th. After some rituals, hundreds of men in white costumes walk through Downtown Kyoto. They carry Mikoshi, or three portable shrines(神輿), to the temporary sacred place – Otabisho, during Gion Festival. The procession starts with a powerful call around 6 p.m. in front of the Yasaka shrine and ends around 9 p.m. at Otabisho. They roughly shake and jiggle portable shrines to excite the deities. Otabisho is in front of Shinkogogu Shopping street.

Kanko-sai (還幸祭)

Three portable shrines, lodging at Otabisho from 17th July, leave Otabisho around 5 P.M. and come back to the Yasaka shrine around 9 P.M. on 24th July. Kanko-sai is an essential ritual because the priests will say special prayers to welcome the spirits back to their “home.”

Pull the Floats!

If you want to participate in pulling the floats, there is a practice day for pulling big floats through the streets. Anyone can join in this practice. Usually, women and children cannot pull the floats during the actual festival due to the rigid enforcement of traditions. It may be hard also for tourists to take part in pulling floats during the actual festival. So why not try practice pulling the floats with many locals when you are in town! You may want to consult with the organizers or shrine offices is you want to participate in the main festival. Below is a link to the official website for more information.

Details and Access

Dates: In 2019 from Jul 1st to Jul 31st.  Yamaboko Parades are on July 17th and 24th.

Place: Yasaka Shrine

Address: 625 Gionmachi Kitagawa, Higashiyama Kyoto, Kyoto

Official Homepage: http://www.gionmatsuri.or.jp/foreign/en/

Access:

If you want to attend Gion Matsuri, you can get off at any of the subway stations between Kyoto station, Karasuma-oike station, Kyoto-shiyakusho-mae station, and Kawaramachi station. Since the festival area will be full of pedestrians, I would advise against using a car to go to Gion Matsuri! By the way, the festival is free to attend. You can watch the festival from the sides of the streets in Kyoto.

Last Words

Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is one of the most exciting summer festivals in Japan. I don’t think that any event in the world can recreate the unique Japanese atmosphere of excitement and tradition than the Gion Matsuri. The floats, atmosphere and a long history of the Gion Matsuri make it one of the best summer events of Western Japan. Whether you are a first-time visitor to Japan or a returning one, there is no doubt that Kyoto’s Gion Festival will offer something special for you!

Besides, Gion Festival is among Japan’s three great “dashi” festivals, the two others are the Takayama Festival in Gifu and the Chichibu Night Festival in Saitama. Both festivals are also in the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Assets list.

If you want to participate in the Gion festival with local guides, please check the banner below!

An Ultimate Idea Source for Your Kyoto Stay!

Kyoto is an old capital of Japan and a cultural and historical mecca for everyone who visits this country. It is the most popular city among tourists and a must-see destination indeed. Kyoto boasts over 4000 historical places including shrines, temples, and attracts visitors with its charming atmosphere of an ancient city. This city is great for shopping, bicycling, hiking, museums, galleries, green spaces, and features many famous festivals. In the following article, you will find 100 things and many ideas on how to spend your time in Kyoto! Please, have a look! URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/events/100-things-kyoto-sightseeing-spots-traditional-japanese-events

An Ultimate Idea Source for Your Osaka Stay!

Being the third largest city in the country, Osaka is one of the major gateways of Japan. Even if it is not the main place of your destination, it would be a great idea to stay in this great city for a few days. Whether you want to go sightseeing, shopping, eating out, or trying something special that you can experience only in Japan, Osaka has it all and even something extra. In the following article, you will find 100 things to do in Osaka and many ideas on how to spend your time in the city!

Please, have a look, URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/events/100-things-osaka-sightseeing-spots-traditional-japanese-events

Are You Curious About Japanese History?

Many festivals in Japan boast hundreds of years of history and preserve local traditions. If you are a history buff or would like to know more about Japanese history but don’t want to spend many times reading books, festivals are the best option for you. You can study local history, socialize with locals, and have a great time by attending various traditional festivals in Japan. The following article assembled the best festivals that represent the Edo Period, and I am sure, that you can get much out of joining these unique historical events!

URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/5614/

For All Matsuri Lovers

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and it made you want to visit this great festival. Gion Matsuri is very popular, and it is one of the celebrations to enjoy seeing traditional costumes. If you would like to know more about other festivals to enjoy watching traditional costumes, please click on the link below and you will find an article on the best ten festivals to enjoy Traditional Japanese Costumes!

URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/5164/

Would You Like to Know How to Enjoy a Japanese Festival Even More?

A lot of people when they get to a Matsuri for the first time feel a bit lost. They confuse about what is happening around. If you are new to Japanese Festivals or want to know an alternative way of how you can enjoy these events, the following article will provide you with a set of helpful tips on how to choose a proper festival and activities you should try there. Please don`t hesitate to take a look at it!

URL: https://festivalgo.huber-japan.com/events/5363/

Miwa

I'm an English speaking tour guide in Kyoto. You can enjoy a variety of events in each region throughout a year. I hope to see you soon.

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