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Gion Festival
Kyoto's largest and most energetic historical festival

July is the month of one of the largest and most historical festivals in Japan: The Gion Festival. Literally, from the 1st of July until the end of the month, traditional rituals and events related to this massive event are held almost every day. Join the Gion Festival and experience the wonder of Japan through this magnificent celebration with more than 1,100 years of history.

The Gion Festival is an annual event dedicated to the deity of Yasaka Shrine. Throughout its history, Kyoto has suffered many times from all kinds of catastrophic events including epidemics, floods, fires, and earthquakes. To keep the bad omens at bay and the good spirits strong and content, special protective or goryo-e festivals have been held here since ancient times.

With its origin dating back to 869, in the early Heian period (794-1185), the Gion Festival is one of Japan's oldest goryo-e. After a series of devastating plagues, the reigning emperor desperately decreed for special prayers to be offered at Yasaka Shrine, one of Kyoto's oldest and most important goryo-e shrines.

The festival became an annual event starting around 970 and, except for brief interruptions, has continued ever since. Though the event 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 tastefulness. Large floats, musicians, dances, comic plays, and artistic treasures were all part of the celebrations by the close of the 10th century.

As the floats became increasingly elaborate and heavy, large wheels were added so that they could be rolled instead of carried. From the late 16th century onwards, as a result of the growing prosperity of Kyoto's merchants, artworks from China, Persia, and even Europe found their way along the Silk Road to the capital. The grand parade now consists of two parts: the Saki Matsuri parade is gorgeous and boisterous with many floats. In contrast, the recently-revived Ato Matsuri is held in a much quieter atmosphere without stalls or extra sideshows.

One of the Highlights of Gion Festival
Shinko-sai and Kanko-sai

There are mainly three highlights during the Gion Festival: the procession centered on yama and hoko floats, the Mikoshi portable shrine event and the traditional dance performances dedicated to the deity. But it is the mikoshi themselves that hold pride of place as the most important spectacles of the entire festival.

Mikoshi are the so-called ''portable shrines'' in which the spirit of a Shinto deity is transferred. Participants carry the mikoshi on their shoulders to move the spirit from place to place on Shinko-sai (17th) and Kanko-sai (24th). At Shinko-sai, three mikoshi will be carried from Yasaka Shrine to Otabi-sho (the resting place for mikoshi). This process is reversed at Kanko-sai, when the three mikoshi are carried back from Otabisho to Yasaka Shrine. These days, dedicated to the deity of Yasaka Shrine, are the centerpieces of the entire festival.

Shinko-sai Festival (17th)

In Chinese characters mikoshi literally means the ''Vehicle of God.'' It is unique to Shinto and carrying mikoshi at village festivals is said to have begun in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Mikoshi are highly sacred objects that help to create a direct connection between the deity and humanity, purifying the area and energizing people. It is for this reason that as a sign of love and respect to the deity they are carried above everybody on the carrier's shoulders. In the same manner, while resting during the procession, the mikoshi is never put on the ground but instead placed on a specially constructed frame.

Kanko-sai Festival (24th)

On the day of the Shinko-sai Festival, all three mikoshi and their carriers gather in front of Yasaka Shrine at around 18:30, creating an extremely powerful and amazing scene.

The climax finally comes at the very end of the Kanko-sai Festival, when the three mikoshi return to Yasaka Shrine (around 22:00-23:30), and the deities are brought back to their home. Around midnight, all the participants are suddenly enveloped in complete darkness and silence -creating a truly sacred moment. Without a doubt, the mikoshi is what connects the people of Kyoto and their guardians with a strong tie in the Gion Festival.

The Gion Festival
Main Event Calendar

1st: Naginata-hoko Osendo

From 10:00 at Yasaka Shrine, this year’s Chigo (the sacred boy who rides on the leading Naginata-hoko) visits Yasaka Shrine and prays for safety during the festival.

10th: Omukae Chochin Welcoming Lanterns

Participants wearing formal yukata depart from Yasaka Shrine at 16:30. They escort children dressed up in gorgeous traditional outfits and head west along Shijo to Kawaramachi. Their role is to welcome the mikoshi portable shrines carried out of Yasaka Shrine later in the evening (see below).

10th: Mikoshi Arai Purification

During the festival, the deities of Yasaka Shrine reside in a temporary shrine called the Otabisho (on the south side of Shijo, just east of Teramachi). Before moving the deities on the mikoshi portable shrines, the mikoshi are purified with water from the Kamo River. The mikoshi depart from Yasaka Shrine at 19:00 and arrive at Shijo Bridge at 20:00.

10th-14th: Hoko and Yama Construction

The preceding festival's 23 floats are assembled in the communities they belong to. This is a great opportunity for getting a close up look at the floats.

12th-13th: Hoko & Yama Trial Pulling

Community members connected to each float try carrying or pulling the newly constructed floats, accompanied by Gion-bayashi music, to ensure that they are ready for the parade on the 17th.

14th-16th: Yoi-yama

On the three nights before the grand parade, the festival's energy reaches its peak. The streets west of Karasuma and south of Oike are crowded with people looking at the lit up Yama & Hoko floats. Gionbayashi music fills the air, and countless stalls are set up along the colorfully decorated streets.

14th-16th: Byobu Matsuri Folding Screen Display

On these days, the old textile merchant homes and businesses on Shinmachi and Muromachi open up the front parts of their homes and shops to show off their valuable folding screens and other treasures.

15th: Traditional Theatre Performance Dedication
From 15:00 to 18:00, traditional Japanese theatre performances (biwa lute, harp, kyogen, dance, etc.) will be performed on the stage in the center of Yasaka Shrine.

16th: Iwami Kagura
From 18:30 at Yasaka Shrine, an ancient court dance called Iwami Kagura Shinto will be performed to the music of flutes and bells.

17th: Saki Matsuri Grand Parade

At 9:00, the leading Naginata-hoko starts forward. When it reaches Fuyacho Street, the float's Chigo (sacred boy) cuts a straw rope with a sword and the parade officially begins.

17th: Shinko-sai Festival

At 18:00, the shrine deities that preside over the festival are transported in three special mikoshi (portable shrines) from Yasaka Shrine to the Otabisho. More than 1,000 people will participate in this important procession.

18th-21st: Hoko and Yama Construction
The latter festival's 10 floats are assembled in the communities they belong to.

20th-21st: Hoko & Yama Trial Pulling
Community members connected to each float try carrying or pulling the newly constructed floats to ensure that they are ready for the parade on the 24th.

21st-23rd: Yoi-yama & Folding Screen Display
Because there are no stalls lining the street, it is a quieter festival compared to the Saki Matsuri. People can see not only the Hoko, but also each local community's beautiful craft decorations in an unhurried way on this occasion.

23rd: Biwa Lute Music Dedication
From 13:00 at Yasaka Shrine, traditional biwa (Japanese lute) music will be played for the deity.

24th: Ato Matsuri Grand Parade & Hanagasa Flower Hat Procession

At 9:30, the leading Hashibenkei-yama starts forward. Bringing up the rear will be the Ofune-hoko. At 10:00, about ten large umbrella floats attended by nearly 1,000 people depart from Yasaka Shrine. The Hanagasa procession will go up Teramachi Street from Shijo to Oike and follows the Yama Hoko parade.

24th: Kanko-sai Festival

From 17:00, many people gather to carry the three mikoshi back from Otabisho to Yasaka Shrine. When mikoshi arrive at the shrine, special prayers will be held to welcome the spirits back to their main ''home.'' This ceremony ends around midnight.

25th: Kyogen Performance
At 11:00, the Shigeyama Family will perform special kyogen (traditional comical theatre) plays at Yasaka Shrine.

28th: Mikoshi Arai Purification
As on the 10th, the mikoshi are again purified on Shijo Bridge at 20:30 before they are stored away until the following year.

31st: Nagoshi Summer Purification

This event completes the one-month-long festival. The ceremony starts at 10:00 at Yasaka Shrine. A huge circular chinowa wreath made of long green rushes is set up in the shrine precinct. Passing through the wreath is said to purify your spirit and ward off illness in the coming year.

*The Gion Festival Grand Parade Viewing Seat Tickets (available for both Saki & Ato Matsuri; non-refundable): 3,180 yen (a seat with a pamphlet), 4,500 yen (a seat with English guidance) Seats set on Oike Street Ticket available at: Kyoto Tourist Information Center (KYO Navi; 8:30-19:00); Kawaramachi Sanjo Tourist Information Center (10:00-18:00); KANSAI Tourist Information Center Kyoto by JTB (10:00-18:00); Osaka Tourist Information Center by H.I.S. (9:00-17:30).