[2019 Edition] Experience the Gion Matsuri, Kyoto's Legendary Month-Long Festival
Every year in July, the Kyoto city center is full of the sights and sounds of the Gion Matsuri, or Gion Festival. Known as one the major three festivals in Japan, the Gion Matsuri is held by Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto's Gion area. This month-long celebration includes lively street festivals, important religious events, and parades which features the priceless yamaboko floats the festival is famous for. Read on to learn about Gion Masturi's fascinating history and customs, all the events happening in town, and how to make the most of your time in Kyoto during the event.
Jul 18 2019
History of the Gion Matsuri
The roots of Gion Matsuri reach back as far as 869 C.E., when it began as a purification ritual in the midst of a devastating pandemic. In pre-modern times, the hot, humid, and rainy weather that Kyoto experiences in the early summer made for dangerous conditions like flooding and the spread of tropical diseases. At the time it was believed that these disasters were caused by angering the gods, so Emperor Seiwa ordered that a ritual dedicated to the gods of Yasaka Shrine be held to appease them.
For this ritual, 66 decorative halberds were erected in Shinsen-en Garden, which still remains today in its location just south of Nijo Castle. Yasaka Shrine's mikoshi (portable shrines, pictured below) were placed here as well. In early days, the ritual was repeated as needed in times of disaster, but in 970, it became an annual festival.
Over time, the festival evolved so that the decorative halberds became movable floats that were created by each neighbourhood in the Gion area. A parade and its surrounding festival and cultural events grew in scale to form the month-long festival we see today.
Gion Matsuri's iconic yamaboko floats became more and more elaborate as the wealth of Kyoto's merchant class grew in the 14th century and onwards. In the feudal Japanese social structure, merchants were considered to be the lowest class. Due to this, merchants were strictly prohibited from demonstrating their wealth the way the nobility and samurai classes could.
In Kyoto, the act of decorating the yamaboko floats for the Gion Matsuri was considered an offering to the gods, which presented a loophole that Kyoto's sophisticated merchants, particularly those in the textile industry, could exploit to show off their wealth and influence to the city. This history remains for all to see in these floats today, and the elaborate tapestries used on the floats are still restored and replaced by weavers in Nishijin, the city's historic textile area.
Today, the Gion Matsuri is a symbol of Kyoto's rich historical and cultural assets, and draws visitors from all over the world.
Gion Matsuri's Main Events
There are many public and private events held in Kyoto for Gion Matsuri, including parades, performances and ceremonies. The main Gion Matsuri events, the Yamaboko Junko parade, and the Yoiyama festival nights that precede them, happen twice during the month. The first is called the Saki Matsuri, and the second is called the Ato Matsuri. The following is a guide to the events that are either open to the public or give some interesting insights into how this complex and historic event is run.
July 1st - 5th | Kippu-iri
At the beginning of July, the committee for each yamaboko neighborhood meet to begin the festival. Shinto priests from Yasaka Shrine in Gion also perform purification rituals to pray for its safety and success. These meetings and rites are not open to the public, but play an important role in formally starting the religious ceremonies and logistical work that make up this event.
July 2nd, 10:00 AM | Kujitori Shiki (Lottery Ceremony)
On July 2nd, a lottery is held in a conference room at Kyoto Town Hall to determine the order of the floats in the parade. Nine floats are known as kujitorazu, which means that they are excluded from the lottery because custom dictates their order in the parade. For the other floats, drawing a coveted position can be a very happy event for those involved.
As different groups in Kyoto are responsible for their own floats, the order of the parade has historically been a source of fierce competition and pride. This custom has been in place since 1500 to prevent any conflict over the order.
July 10, 8:00 PM | Mikoshi-Arai Ceremony
Lit with lanterns, mikoshi, or portable shrines, are carried from Yasaka Shrine to a temporary shrine near the Shijo Obashi bridge. Here the shrines are purified using water from the Kamogawa River.
July 10th, 4:30 PM - 9:00 PM | Omukae Chochin (Lantern Reception)
This parade started in the mid-Edo period, and takes place alongside the Mikoshi-Arai ceremony. A procession carrying lanterns and accompanied by classical musicians sets out from Yasaka Shrine and parade on a route that goes to Honnoji Temple, Teramachi Street, and along Shijo Street before welcoming the now-purified mikoshi back to the shrine. The procession then perform ceremonial dances at the front of the shrine at the intersection of Shijo and Higashioji Streets.
July 10th - 14th | Float Construction Begins
Each float is assembled on the Kyoto city streets during this period. This is a highly skilled process using hemp rope and large, needle-like tools to weave the pieces together. Although these floats are strong enough to allow groups of musicians and other men to ride, no nails at all are used in the construction.
If you’re in town during this period, you can walk the streets and watch the craftspeople at work. An easy way to see a number being built is to come to Karasuma Station on the Hankyu Kyoto Line and walk along Shijo Street. The footpaths are wide here, so you won’t be in the way if you want to stop for a while and watch, but there are plenty being built in the backstreets surrouding this area as well. You can find maps of where each float is placed in tourist information centers and often in souvenir stores as well.
July 13th, 11:00 AM | Naginata-boko Chigo (Page) Shrine Visit
The chigo, or page, plays a very important role in the Gion Matsuri. This child serves as a representative of the gods for the duration of the festival, and rides in the Naginata-boko float during the Yamaboko Junko parade. Each year, a boy between 8 to 10 years of age from the Naginataboko-cho area in Kyoto, who has not had a member of his family pass away in the last year, is chosen for this role. In the past, there would be a chigo appointed for each float, but today other floats now use a puppet.
On July 13th, an important ceremony called the kurai-morai is held at Yasaka Shrine. This ceremony purifies the chigo and grants him spiritual status which allows him to perform certain rites, including cutting the sacred rope on the float during the parade. Cutting the rope is said to break the boundary between our world and the world of the gods, and is considered a very important ceremonial duty that starts the parade.
This kurai-morai rite is a sacred event, and not open for public viewing. However, at 10:00 am on July 13 before the ceremony, the chigo will travel by white horse along Shijo Street to Yasaka Shrine, and viewers can also see him riding the float and cutting the sacred rope during the Yamaboko Junko parade.
For the remainder of the festival, the chigo page is considered a representative of the gods, and must live under strict conditions. To preserve his ritual purity, he is not allowed contact with women, including his own mother, and all food preparation and his dressing in the elaborate festival clothing must be performed by men. The chigo is also not allowed to come in contact with the ground, so during this period you might see him being carried on the shoulders of a man called a goriki, and, of course, riding in the Naginata-boko float during the parade.
July 14th - 16th | Saki Matsuri: Yoiyoiyoiyama, Yoiyoiyama, and Yoiyama
When the dusk falls on the three nights before the Yamabuko Junko parade, Shijo Street and the surrounding areas take on a carnival atmosphere. For some Kyoto residents, these are the most enjoyable parts of the Gion Matsuri, and since the date of the parades themselves can fall on a work day, the Yoiyama nights are typically the most well-attended.
You can walk along the street seeing the floats up close, and even climb aboard some of the larger ones. (Unfortunately, for ritual reasons only men are allowed to enter some of the floats, but women are still generally allowed up to the upper structure built to allow access.) This is your chance to take in the incredible details on the floats' decorations and tapestries, which look particularly gorgeous lit by lanterns in the evenings.
Souvenirs and food stalls line the streets, so be sure to try some of Kyoto's street foods and summer festival games.
July 14th - 16th | Byobu Matsuri (Folding Screen Festival)
The Byobu Matsuri coincides with the Yoiyama evenings, and is a chance for art and history lovers to see some true hidden treasures. Prestigious Kyoto households in the Shinmachi and Muromachi areas open the doors to their residences to display some of their artworks, particularly the folding screens the event is named for.
As the culture of Kyoto changes, the number of families participating in this tradition is decreasing, so don't miss this opportunity to see some rare artworks and get a glimpse of what the lifestyles of Kyoto’s influential and historical households are like.
July 17th, 9:00 AM | Saki Matsuri: Yamaboko Junko Parade
The climax of Gion Festival is the Yamaboko Junko parade. From 9:00 am, the first two-thirds of the floats will parade through the streets. There are two types of floats in this parade, “yama” (mountain) floats and “hoko” (halberd) floats, and they are ridden by classical musicians called Gion-bayashi (Gion orchestra) who accompany the parade with the festival’s unique style of music.
The floats themselves are decorated by tapestries made in Nishijin, Kyoto’s traditional textile district, as well as sculptures and the branches of sacred trees. They can weigh up to 1,600 kg, and can take around 30 to 40 men to pull.
If you position yourself near a corner, such as at the corner of Shijo Street and Kawaramachi Street near Kawaramachi Station, you can watch the float bearers manually turn these massive floats using only teamwork and bamboo planks.
July 18th - 20th | Ato Matsuri: Float Construction Begins
Only two-thirds of the floats took part in the Saki Matsuri, so on July 18th, the remaining third start construction for the Ato Matsuri. Make a point to seek them out if you missed the chance to see how these floats are built earlier in the month.
July 22nd - 23rd | Ato Matsuri: Yoiyoiyoiyama, Yoiyoiyama, Yoiyama
The pre-parade street festivals repeat on the nights of July 22, 23, and 24.
July 24th, 9:30 AM | Ato Matsuri: Yamaboko Junko Parade
The parade repeats on July 24 with the remaining third of the floats, this time moving in the opposite direction of the first. While there are less floats in this parade, the Saki Matsuri coincides with the Hanagasa Parade below, so there is still plenty to see.
July 24th, 10:00 AM | Hanagasa (Flower Hat) Parade
Starting at Yasaka Shrine, this parade includes around 1,000 performers, including dancers with flower hats the festival is named for, as well as lion dances and performances by children and even maiko (geisha apprentices). After returning to Yasaka Shrine at around 12:30 pm, taiko drummers and lion dancers will perform as an offering to the gods.
July 28th, 8:00 PM | Mikoshi-Arai
The mokoshi shrines are carried again to Kamogawa River for purification.
July 31st, 10:00 AM | Eki Shrine Nagoshisai
Held at Eki Shrine, which is a sub-shrine of Yasaka Shrine, this ceremony draws the Gion Matsuri to a close. Nagoshisai is a Shinto purification ritual held in the summer, and at Yasaka Shrine involves passing through a chinowa reed ring erected at the Eki Shrine’s torii gate. Passing through the ring is said to prevent misfortune and ensure good health. You can see a picture of a similar ceremony held at Nohara Shrine below.
Those involved in the running of the Gion Matsuri take part in this ceremony first as a closing ceremony for the festival, but after they are done, the public can also come to take part.
Enjoy the Festival Atmosphere
Japanese festivals have a special culture all of their own. Particularly on the Yoiyama nights, men, women, and children often choose to wear yukata, which are lightweight kimono-style robes for the warmer months. If you want to try this style out for yourself to get in the mood, Kyoto has a wealth of yukata rental shops that can make you over from head to toe in Kyoto fashion. Prices in Kyoto typically start from around 3,000 yen, with add-ons like hair and makeup services available.
Of course, street food is a highlight of any Japanese festival. Popular choices in Kyoto are Kansai-style street food like takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), as well as foods that are loved all over Japan like yakisoba (fried noodles) and yakitori (grilled chicken skewers). If you like sweets, dango (rice dumpling) skewers are a staple of festival food, and Japanese style shaved ice called kakigori is perfect for the hot weather.
Gion Matsuri has its own unique treat called chigo mochi, named after the festival's chigo pages. The legend behind this treat is that at a long-ago Gion Matsuri, a chigo who had gone through the kurai-morai ceremony visited a tea shop near the Yasaka Shrine's gate, where he there treated those in attendance to mochi (soft rice cakes) with miso paste. It's said that those who ate the mochi were spared from all illness for a year.
Today, they're still known as a lucky food for good health, and are also said to help regain your appetite in the summer heat. You can buy these at the Japanese sweet shop Sanjo Wakasaya during the festival, where they come topped with a sparkling, freeze-dried mochi that looks like freshly-shaved ice.
Gion Matsuri Tips and Tricks
The best place to stay if you're coming to Kyoto for the Gion Matsuri festival is around the Kawaramachi area. This area is right in the heart of where the festival takes place, and also has plenty of shopping, dining, and transport options.
While the situation is improving as more hotels are built in Kyoto, the city still suffers from booked-out accommodation and expensive hotel prices during busy periods like cherry blossom and autumn foliage seasons. The Gion Matsuri is no exception, as people come from all around for the event. If you're having problems finding somewhere to stay in Kyoto city, Osaka is around a 30 minute ride away. The Hankyu Kyoto train line takes you directly to Kawaramachi Station, which is in easy walking distance to most Gion Matsuri events. If you stay in a hotel along this line, like at Umeda Station in Osaka, you may be able to find accommodation at a better price, and have the chance to experience Osaka as well.
Stay Safe During the Gion Matsuri
Kyoto's summer can be intensely hot and humid, and the three-hour long parades and other crowded outdoor events can be particularly hard on children or the elderly. No matter your age or physical condition, don't underestimate the weather. Heat stroke can be a real risk in Kyoto, especially if you're coming from a cooler climate. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids, and if you're in the sun, consider taking some candies or drinks with salt in them, too. You can buy these in any drug or convenience store. If you experience symptoms of heat stroke like dizziness, nausea, and headaches, move to an air-conditioned space and seek medical help.
Japan's crime rate is very low, but any public event as busy as this can draw pickpockets and petty thieves. If you're attending the Yoiyama nights or the parades themselves, try to remain aware of your belongings if you find yourself in a crowd.
Consider Booking a Seat
The parade goes for three hours, and it can be tiring standing in the crowds in the heat. There is paid seating available, some under tents, but tickets can sell out quickly. If you’d like to secure a seat, you can book one with or without an English audio guide online via Voyagin.
As you can see, there's so much to participate in during July's Gion Matsuri in Kyoto. Since the major parades and street festivals run twice, if you're in town in July, you're likely to be able to experience this amazing festival.
Even if you can't be in Kyoto for the event, we hope you enjoyed reading about the history and culture behind the Gion Matsuri!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.