Home > Kyoto This Month > The Gion Matsuri Festival
The Gion Matsuri Festival
A living symbol of Kyoto's 1,200 years of rich, colourful history
If you are visiting Kyoto this month, you have heard the sound , 'kon-chiki-chin', like a sound of bell around Kyoto Station or along Shijo Street. July is the month of the Gion Matsuri Festival, one of the largest and most historical festivals in Japan.
The highlight of the Gion Matsuri Festival are the elaborate floats (see map for individual locations) that has made this festival so famous. The 32 floats of the festival are of two types, yama and hoko. Yama floats depict scenes from Chinese and Japanese history and mythology and often bear pine trees, shrines, and mannequins. The hoko are massive 2-storied, nearly 10-ton combinations of music hall and museum that are hauled by teams of up to 50 men.
This month, you will encounter something related to this grand festival everywhere in the city.
History of the Gion Matsuri
Kyoto has suffered on many occasions from all kinds of bad omens, including epidemics, floods, fires, and earthquakes. To keep the spirits from being angry, special protective or goryo-e festivals have been held in Kyoto since ancient times. The first Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's oldest goryo-e festivals, was held in the early Heian period (794-1185) to stop a series of devastating plagues.
Though the festival began as a religious purification ritual, by the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) it had also become a way for craft guilds and merchant families to compete in showing off their wealth and taste. Large floats (still known as hoko), musicians, dances, comic plays, and artistic treasures were all part of the celebrations at the close of the 10th century. As the hoko became increasingly elaborate and heavier, large wheels were added so that the floats could be rolled. In the 14th century, the hoko acquired a second story for musicians and page boys. From the late 16th century onwards, as a result of the growing prosperity of Kyoto's merchants, artwork from China, Persia, and even Europe found their way along the Silk Road to the capital.
Gion Matsuri Festival Event Calendar
Hoko and Yama Tate (float construction): On these five days, the festival's 32 floats are assembled. No nails are used.
Omukae Chochin (welcoming lanterns): At around 16:30, men wearing formal kimono and carrying long bamboo poles from which lanterns are suspended, depart from Yasaka Shrine, heading west along Shijo to Kawaramachi.
Mikoshi Arai (mikoshi purification): During the festival, the deities of Yasaka Shrine reside in a temporary shrine called the Otabisho. Before moving the deities on the mikoshi portable shrines, the mikoshi are purified with water from Kamogawa River. The mikoshi depart from Yasaka Shrine at 19:00 and arrive at the bridge at 20:00, then come back to the shrine at 21:00.
Hoko Hikihajime & Yama Kakizome (trial pulling): On these days, the people of each respective float neighbourhood try pulling the newly constructed floats.
Yoiyama (eve of the grand parade): On the three nights before the grand parade, the festive atmosphere reaches its peak. The streets are crowded with people, many in traditional dress, Gion bayashi music fills the air, and many stalls are set up along the main streets.
Byobu Matsuri (folding screen display): Especially on Shinmachi and Muromachi, families open the front parts of their homes and shops, allowing the public a first-hand look at their valuable folding screens and other treasures.
Traditional Entertainment Performance: On this day, at Yasaka Shrine, from 15:00 to 18:00, traditional Japanese entertainment (kabuki, biwa lute, harp, kyogen, dance, etc.) will be performed.
Kencha Matsuri (tea ceremony festival): From 9:00 at Yasaka Shrine, formal tea ceremony will be performed by the Omote Senke School to pray for the development of tea ceremony.
Iwami Kagura (ancient court dance): From 19:00 at Yasaka Shrine, ancient court dance will be performed to the music of flute and bells.
Yamaboko Junko (grand parade): At 9:00, the main Naginata-boko starts moving. When it reaches Fuyacho, the chigo sacred child on the float cuts the sacred rope and the parade begins.
Hanagasa Junko (flower umbrella procession): At 10:00, about ten large umbrella floats attended by nearly 1,000 people depart from Yasaka Shrine. Various dances will be performed.
Kyogen Performance: At 13:00, the Shigeyama Family will perform special kyogen (comical theatre) plays at Yasaka Shrine.
Mikoshi Arai (mikoshi purification): As on the 10th, the mikoshi are again purified on Shijo Bridge at 20:00 before the deities are carried back to Yasaka Shrine from their temporary home, the Otabisho.
Nagoshi-sai (summer purification ceremony): This event completes the one-month-long festival. The ceremony starts from 10:00 at Yasaka Shrine and a huge wreath made of rushes is set up. Passing through it is believed to purify the spirit and ward off illness.
Gion Matsuri Festival
Yama and Hoko Locations