Gion Matsuri, one of the three major festivals in Japan, is a festival held at Yasaka Shrine, where people prayed for the removal of plague and misfortune as far back as the Heian period (794-1185). Various rituals and events are held over the month of July, and the city of Kyoto comes alive. In 2022, the festival was held in its original form for the first time in three years to carry on the tradition, attracting many people from all over Japan.
Many people may think of “Yoiyama” and “Yamahoko-junko” (The grand parade of floats) when they think of the Gion Matsuri, but there are many other fascinating rituals as well. We will introduce various highlights of the Gion Matsuri so that you can enjoy the festival to the fullest.
History and Origin of the Gion Matsuri
The Gion Matsuri is a festival of Yasaka Shrine with a tradition of 1,000 years. In ancient times, it was called Gion Goryoe. It began in 869, when an epidemic spread to the capital of Kyoto and other parts of Japan, and three portable shrines and 66 spears were erected in Shinsen-en, a garden in Heian-kyo, to pray for the removal of the plague.
As time progressed, the people became more involved, and gradually the festival element was added. In the 1300s, an autonomous organization was formed around Shijo Muromachi, and each town created its own Yamahoko float, which paraded through the city in its present form.
What is Yamahoko? What is the difference between a yama and a hoko?
Yamahoko is one of the floats pulled at shrine festivals. There are a total of 33 floats that appear in the Gion Masturi, each of which enshrines a deity and is believed to bring various blessings. The beautiful embroidery, imported textiles, and other ornaments on the floats are so beautiful that they are called “moving museums”.
The “hoko” is paraded by 40 to 50 people called “Hikikata”. It is 25 meters high and weighs 12 tons. The hoko stands about 20 meters high on a roof called “shingi,” and the top of the hoko is decorated with the symbols of the individual floats.
The “Yama” is paraded by about 20 people called “Kakikata” and is about 15 meters high, weighing 1.2 to 1.6 tons, and decorated with unique ornaments and dolls. It is decorated with pine trees called “Shinmatsu”.
Gion Bayashi "Konchikichin"
Gion Bayashi is the musical accompaniment for the Yamahoko procession. A performer called “Hayashikata” plays drums, flutes, and gongs from the top of the float. Gion Bayashi is also played at Hankyu train stations in July. The pleasant melody of “Konchikichin” is a typical Kyoto musical accompaniment that makes one’s heart beat with excitement.
Chimaki (zongzi), a specialty of the Gion Matsuri
Gion Matsuri zongzi is not to be eaten. It is a good luck charm made of bamboo leaves to ward off disease and misfortune, and is only given out during the Gion Matsuri in July. Many people in Kyoto buy zongzi and display them on their doorsteps for a year. During Yoiyama, each town of Yamahoko also offers zongzi that bring good luck.
Saki-Matsuri and Ato-Matsuri
Originally, Yamahoko-Junko was divided into Saki-Matsuri and Ato-Matsuri, but from 1966 to 2013, Yamahoko-Junko was held on the 17th. 2014 saw the return of Ato-Matsuri. The current Yamahoko-Junko is divided into two days: Saki-Matsuri on the 17th and Ato-Matsuri on the 24th.
During the Saki-matsuri procession, the streets of Kyoto are cleansed of impurities and the god of Yasaka Shrine is welcomed back to the city. One week later, the procession is performed once again at the Ato-Matsuri to purify the shrine and return the deities to the shrine.
Main schedule of the Gion Matsuri
July in Kyoto is all about the Gion Matsuri! Here are the main rituals in order.
[The opening of the Gion Matsuri]
●July 1, "Kippu-iri"
Kippu-iri is the first ritual of the Gion Matsuri, and from July 1, people pray for the safety of the Gion Matsuri in each Yamahoko town. In addition, Gion Bayashi rehearsals are held in each town.
●July 2, "Kujitori shiki"
The “Kujitori shiki” is an event to determine the order of the Yamahoko-junko procession. It is held in the presence of the mayor of Kyoto.
The nine Yamahoko floats that do not draw lots, whose order of parade is determined by old custom, are called “Kuji-torazu”.
The Yamahoko that will not be raffled off are as follows.
Saki-Matsuri : Naginata-hoko, Kanko-hoko, Hoka-hoko, Iwato-yama, Fune-hoko
Ato-Matsuri : Hashibenkei-yama, Kita kannon-yama, Minami kannon-yama, Ofune-hoko
Every year, the Naginata-hoko floats lead the procession. Unlike other hoko, in which dolls ride, Naginata-hoko is the only one in which a real child ride.
[Preparation for the Gion Festival]
●July 10, “Saki-Matsuri Yamahoko-Tate (Assembly of Yamahoko floats)”
After July 10, visitors can watch the erection of yamahoko floats throughout the streets. The process of assembling the floats is called “Nawagarami”, a technique that does not use a single nail. Once completed, the floats are put up for the first time at the “hokohikizome” and “yamakakizome” ceremonies to make sure they are in good working order.
[Highlight scene of the Gion Matsuri]
●July 14-16, “Saki-Matsuri Yoiyama”
When the Komagata lanterns are lit and the sounds of musical accompaniment can be heard, the area is filled with a festive mood. At each Yamahoko-cho, good luck charms such as zongzi are given away. Depending on the float, you may be allowed to go up to the float to purchase the gifts.
●July 17, “Saki-Matsuri Yamahoko-Junko”
The Gion Matsuri is known for the Yamahoko-Junko, a procession of floats. The Yamahoko- Junko is a procession of floats used to clear the streets before the portable shrines are brought to Yasaka Shrine. 23 gorgeously decorated Yamahoko floats parade through the streets of Kyoto, starting near Shijo-Karasuma. The highlight of the festival is the “Shimenawa-kiri” (cutting of the sacred straw rope) by the Naginata-hoko and the “Tsujimawashi” (turning a corner at an intersection).
Changing the direction of the floats, some of which weigh as much as 12 tons, is called “Tsujimawashi,” which means to change the direction of the floats using only human power. After green bamboos are laid on the road and water is sprinkled on them to make them slippery, the conductor on the float calls out a signal and a large number of Hikikos change directions. The scene is breathtaking, and when the direction is successfully changed, the crowd applauds.
●July 17, “Shinkosai”
Three portable shrines carrying the deity of Yasaka Shrine depart from Yasaka Shrine, and with shouts of “Hoitto, hoitto” they walk through the Ujiko community to the Otabisho on Shijo Street. This is an important event in which the gods riding on the portable shrines go around the city to purify it.
[The second highlight scene of the Gion Matsuri]
●July 21-23, “Ato-Matsuri Yoiyama”
The atmosphere in the streets of Yoiyama during the Ato-Matsuri is more subdued than that of the Saki-Matsuri. The stalls are also regulated, so visitors can enjoy the atmosphere of the original festival.
●July 24, “Ato-Matsuri Yamahoko-Junko”
11 Yamahoko floats depart from Karasuma Oike. The course of the procession is the reverse of that of the Saki-Matsuri. The last of the procession will be the Ofunaboko float, which will not be raffled off.
●July 24, “Kankosai”
The “Kankosai” is to send the three portable shrines carrying the deities that were welcomed at the Shijo Otabisho during the previous festival back to Yasaka Shrine. Around 9:00 p.m., the Yasaka Shrine quietly holds a ceremony to return the spirit of the deities to the shrine.
[Closing of the Gion Festival]
●July 31, “Ekijinja Nagoshisai”
Passing through a large cogon grass ring at Yasaka Shrine to pray for good health. The festival is the last event to conclude the month-long Gion Matsuri, which started on July 1 with the Kippu-iri.
The Gion Matsuri is a summer tradition in Kyoto. This festival has a long history and is a wonderful opportunity to experience the traditions of Kyoto. You can enjoy “Yoiyama” and “Yamahoko-junko,” which you cannot miss. You can also enjoy the other rituals in a different way.
Summer in Kyoto! Please take the Hankyu train to “Karasuma” and “Kyoto Kawaramachi”, the center of the Gion Matsuri!