Every year since 869 AD, one of Japan’s most celebrated and impressive festivals has dominated the city of Kyoto for the month of July. The Gion Matsuri festival has a fascinating history, and was thought to have been first held as a collective worship (matsuri) calling for cleansing spirits to purify the populace, who were suffering from plagues. The prayers were directed to the gods of Yasaka Shrine which is located in Gion district, hence the name Gion Matsuri. The festival incorporates many ancient traditions as well as a few modern twists, and although worship is the original function of the event, in modern times the festivities have become more secular and have the feeling of a cultural celebration rather than a religious ritual.
The Gion Matsuri festival today
July is a busy month for anyone involved in the preparations for Kyoto’s biggest festival. The two major processions take place on the 17th and 24th, but right from the first day of the month there is lots of action going on behind the scenes to get everything ready. Indeed, on 1st July there are local opening ceremonies in each participating neighbourhood, marking the beginning of the celebrations. On 2nd July, the parade order is decided by lottery, and from 10th July the traditional wooden floats which will appear in the first procession are under construction.
Each year, the building of the floats is started afresh, using large timber beams which are bound together with hundreds of metres of hemp rope and, remarkably, no nails. The mast is then attached, which is another engineering puzzle with rope and timber the only permitted materials. Masts are often huge, up to 25 metres tall, and each float will have unique decorations at the top. The decorations are usually comprised of tapestries, gilded illustrations, tassels and lanterns, and elevate the procession of floats into the realm of the exquisite. Testing the floats usually takes place in each neighbourhood’s streets on around 14th July, and is the only occasion when women and people who are from outside the neighbourhood are allowed to pull the float. It’s quite a sight to experience these test drives, which usually have a couple of men sitting on top of the roof in order to make sure the float doesn’t get tangled up in the wires strung along the narrow streets.
The Gion Matsuri opens with the time honoured tradition of welcoming spirits with a parade of mikoshi, which are portable shrines that house the spirits during their visit. At the conclusion of the festival, there is a second parade of mikoshi intended to show respect to the spirits before they return to their world. There are all sorts of complex rituals and traditions attached to the mikoshi which are carried out by Kyoto’s inhabitants with pride, but for the visiting tourist who doesn’t have any connection to the Shinto faith, it is usually the two Yamaboko processions and the general carnival atmosphere that are the most memorable aspects of the Gion Matsuri festival.
In the days preceding the major processions, known as yoiyama (one day before); yoiyoiyama (two days before); and yoiyoiyoiyama (three days before), a sense of excitement and anticipation builds. Streets are closed to traffic, food stalls line the streets selling yakitori and all sorts of other Japanese treats, and everywhere you look there are girls dressed in colourful yukata or summer kimono, brought out for the occasion. Visitor numbers swell for this culturally and visually rich event and the centre of Kyoto is always thronging with people enjoying the spectacle.
The climax of celebrations comes with the two Yamaboko Junkō parades, on 17th and 24th July, when 33 floats - 23 yama and ten hoko - process through the streets, pulled or carried by hordes of people from each participating neighbourhood. Many of the decorations used to adorn the floats are treasures from centuries past, which explains how the floats came to be known as ‘portable museums.’ So intrinsic to the local cultural heritage is the Gion Matsuri, UNESCO has registered it as an important example of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
July in Kyoto is a wonderful time to see Shinto tradition and Japanese artistry intertwined, and it’s a great month to witness ancient culture come alive. Listen to the distinctive sounds of the Gion-bayashi percussion music being practised in the neighbourhoods or performed on the floats. Enjoy browsing the stalls for delicious snacks, special souvenirs and local drinks, and admire the fabulous yukata outfits worn for the festival. It’s a time to let the barrage of sensory highlights overwhelm you and to enjoy the celebrations and cultural insight this incredible festival offers.
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