Gion Matsuri

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Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri)
Yoiyama - The Gion Festival - July 14, 2008.jpg
Observed byKyoto
Begins1 July
Ends31 July
DateMonth of July

The Gion Festival (祇園祭, Gion Matsuri) takes place annually during the month of July in Kyoto and is one of the most famous and largest festivals in Japan.[1] It's formally part of Japan's indigenous, nature-based Shinto faith, and its original purposes were purification and pacification of disease-causing entities.[2] There are many ceremonies held during the festival, but it is best known for its two Yamaboko Junkō (山鉾巡行) processions of floats, which take place on July 17th and 24th.[3] Many festival events take place in the historic kimono district[4] in central Kyoto, and at the Yasaka Shrine. The Shinto Yasaka Shrine is the festival's patron shrine. It's located in Kyoto's famous Gion district, which gives the festival its name.[1]

Kyoto's downtown area is reserved for pedestrian traffic on the three nights leading up to the massive procession on July 17. These nights leading up to the festival are known as yoiyama (宵山) on July 16 and July 23, yoiyoiyama (宵々山) on July 15 and July 22, and yoiyoiyoiyama (宵々々山) on July 14 and July 21. From July 14-16, the streets are lined with night stalls selling food such as yakitori (barbecued chicken on skewers), taiyaki, takoyaki (fried octopus balls), okonomiyaki, traditional Japanese sweets, and many other culinary delights.

For centuries kimono merchants were major sponsors of the Gion Festival's yamaboko floats. As a result, it's tradition to wear yukata (summer kimono) and kimono to walk around the Gion Festival. One of its nicknames used to be "the Kimono Festival," because so many visitors showed off the latest kimono fashions.[4]

During the yoiyama evenings leading up to the parade, some private houses in the old kimono merchant district open their entryways to the public, exhibiting family heirlooms in a custom known as the Byōbu Matsuri, or Folding Screen Festival. This provides visitors with an opportunity to visit and observe traditional Japanese residences.


Ancient years[edit]

The parade held in Kyoto in the 1920s
Traditional wooden floats in Gion Matsuri 2014.

This festival originated during an epidemic in 869 as part of a purification ritual (goryo-e) to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes.[5] In 869, when people were suffering from a plague attributed to vengeful spirits, Emperor Seiwa ordered prayers to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, Susanoo-no-Mikoto. Sixty-six stylized and decorated halberds, one for each of the traditional provinces of Japan, were prepared and erected at Shinsen-en, a garden in the south of the imperial palace, along with portable shrines (mikoshi) from Yasaka Shrine. This practice was repeated wherever an outbreak of plague occurred. By the year 1000, the festival became an annual event and it has since seldom failed to take place. During the civil Onin War (under the Ashikaga shogunate), central Kyoto was devastated, and the festival was halted for three decades in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.[3][4] />Later in the 16th century it was revived by the shogun Oda Nobunaga.[3] Over time the increasingly powerful and influential merchant class—particularly kimono merchants—made the festival more elaborate and, by the Edo period (1603–1868), it was using the parade to brandish its wealth.[4]

Over the centuries, some floats have been destroyed or otherwise lost, and in recent years several have been restored. Float neighborhood associations sometimes purchase antique tapestries to replace worn or destroyed ones, or commission replicas from industrial weavers in Kyoto, or design and commission new ones from the weavers of Kyoto's famous traditional Nishijin weaving district.[4] When they are not in use, the floats and regalia are kept in special storehouses throughout the central kimono district of Kyoto, or at Yasaka Shrine.

The festival serves as an important setting in Yasunari Kawabata's novel, The Old Capital in which he describes the festival, along with the Festival of Ages and the Aoi Festival, as "the 'three great festivals' of the old capital".[6]


Schedule of events[edit]

Following is a list of selected annual events in the Gion Festival.

  • July 1 through 5: Kippuiri, opening ceremony of festival in each participating neighbourhood
  • July 2: Kujitorishiki, lottery for the order of floats in the parade order, conducted at the municipal assembly hall
  • July 7: Shrine visit by chigo children of Ayagasaboko
  • July 10: Lantern parade to welcome mikoshi (portable shrines)
  • July 10: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi with sacred water from the Kamo River
  • July 10 through 13: Building of floats
  • July 13 a.m.: Shrine visit by chigo children of Naginataboko
  • July 13 p.m.: Shrine visit by chigo children of Kuse Shrine
  • July 14: Yoiyoiyoiyama
  • July 15: Yoiyoiyama
  • July 16: Yoiyama
  • July 16: Yoimiya shinshin hono shinji, art performances
  • July 17: Parade of yamaboko floats
  • July 17: Parade of mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine
  • July 18 through 20: Building of floats
  • July 21: Yoiyoiyoiyama
  • July 22: Yoiyoiyama
  • July 23: Yoiyama
  • July 24: Parade of yamaboko floats
  • July 24: Parade of hanagasa ("flower parasols")
  • July 24: Parade of mikoshi to Yasaka Shrine
  • July 28: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi with sacred water from the Kamo River
  • July 31: Closing service at Eki Shrine

Yamaboko floats[edit]

Niwatoriboko float, one of the first to begin the parade. Festival-goers take turns getting on the float through a side building.

The floats in the Yoiyama Parade are divided into two groups, the larger Hoko ("halberd") and the smaller Yama ("mountain"), and are collectively called Yamaboko.[1] The ten Hoko recall the 66 halberds or spears used in the original purification ritual, and the 24 Yama carry life-sized figures of Shinto deities, Buddhist bodhisattvas, and other historic and cultural figures.[4] All the floats are decorated with diverse tapestries, some made in Nishijin, Kyoto's traditional textile-weaving district, while others have been imported from all over the world. In fact, thanks to a 1993 survey of the Gion Festival's imported textiles by a team of international textile conservationists and collectors, its unique textile collection is renowned amongst textile professionals worldwide.[4][7] Musicians sit in the floats playing drums and flutes.[5] The floats are pulled with ropes down the street and good luck favors are thrown from the floats to the crowd.[5] In 1979 Yamahoko was listed on the Important Intangible Folk Cultural Properties. And in 2009 Yamahoko was listed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

On the evening of July 17th, hundreds of men carry Yasaka Shrine's resident deities around diverse parishioners' neighborhoods in portable mikoshi shrines to the otabisho, a temporary dwelling in central Kyoto.[8] It's believed the deities purify all the neighborhoods along the way. They reside at the otabisho for a week, between the two floats' processions.[8] On the 24th they are taken back to the Yasaka Shrine to their permanent dwelling.[8] On the way back to the shrine, the procession stops at Shinsen-en, the original site of the first rituals in the year 869, the former Imperial garden.

Each year the neighborhood associations that maintain the floats draw lots at a special meeting in early July to determine in what order the floats will appear in the July 17 and 24 processions. These lots are presented in a special ceremony at the commence of the processions, during which the Mayor of Kyoto dons the robes of a magistrate.

On the Naginata Hoko is the chigo, a young boy in ceremonial robes and crowned with a golden phoenix, chosen from among the Kyoto merchant families as the deity's sacred page. After weeks of special purification ceremonies, during which he lives isolated from contaminating influences (such as inappropriate foods and the presence of women), he is carried onto the float, as he is not permitted to touch the ground. To begin the float procession on July 17, the chigo cuts a sacred rope (shimenawa) with a single stroke of a real sword.

Hoko floats[edit]

  • Weight: about 12 tons[1]
  • Height: about 27 meters[1]
  • Wheel diameter: about 1.9 m
  • Attendants: about 30–40 pulling during procession, usually two men piloting with wedges[1]

Yama floats[edit]

  • Weight: 1,200–1,600 kg[8]
  • Height: about 6 m
  • Attendants: 14–24 people to pull, push or carry


  1. ^ a b c d e f Brumann, Christoph (2009). "Outside the Glass Case: The Social Life of Urban Heritage in Kyoto". American Ethnologist. 36: 276–299.
  2. ^ Como, Michael (2007). "Horses, Dragons, and Disease in Nara Japan". Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. 34: 407.
  3. ^ a b c Chapin, Helen B (1934). "The Gion Shrine and the Gion Festival". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 54: 282–289.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Pawasarat, Catherine (Nov 2020). The Gion Festival: Exploring Its Mysteries. self-published. ISBN 978-0-9985886-6-7.
  5. ^ a b c Jones, Keith (2015). Holiday Symbols and Customs. Detroit: Omnigraphics Incorporated. p. 345.
  6. ^ Kawabata, Yasunari. The Old Capital. Trans. J. Martin Holman. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987. 131. Print
  7. ^ Kajitani, Nobuko and Yoshida, Kojiro (1992). 祇園祭山鉾懸装品 Gion Festival Float Tapestries. Kyoto: 祇園祭山鉾連合会 Gion Festival Float Association.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ a b c d Hondru, Angela (2014). "Matsuri -Essence of Japanese Spirituality-". Romanian Economic and business Review. 9: 51.

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