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Gion Matsuri
The Festival of festivals




In the early Heian period, Kyoto was ravaged by a series of plagues. When one epidemic reached national proportions in 869, Emperor Seiwa ordered prayers to be said at Kyoto's Yasaka Shrine. He also gave instructions that 66 floats were to be erected, one for each of the 66 provinces that then made up Japan.



The plague abated and a grateful country held a festival to give thanks. Starting around 970, the festival became a yearly event, and except for brief interruptions caused by civil disturbances and wars, has continued ever since. Today the Gion Festival is an inseparable part of the summer of Kyoto.



What started as a religious purification ritual, however, was quickly secularized. Soon the various guilds and merchant families of the capital were seeking to outdo each other in displays of opulence, and by the end of the 10th century, large floats with musicians, dances, comic plays and artistic treasures were a part of the celebrations. During the civil unrest of the Muromachi period (15th century), when all large gatherings were prohibited by the authorities, the festival halted. But the common people eventually ignored the edict and by 1500 were again celebrating their beloved festival.



When fires destroyed many of the floats (along with most of the city), citizens contributed their energy and money to rebuild them on an even more grandiose scale. As the prosperity of Kyoto's merchants increased, artworks from China, Persia, and even Europe found their way to the capital and were proudly displayed on the floats. They can still be seen today - the objects of meticulous care costing large sums of money!



Although translated as a festival, Gion Festival is not a carnival or something for fun only. Some festivals in Japan do get wild, but Gion Festival is not one of them. While there is plenty of merrymaking, the overall mood is one of dignified fun. More than anything else, the Gion Festival is a welcome sign to the inhabitants of Kyoto that summer has arrived. With the twilight comes the insistent rhythm of the Gion Bayashi sound of ''kon-chiki-chin.''



Yama & Hoko Floats
The pride and tradition of each community


Ofune-boko, the massive float representing a ship

The 33 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 manequins. Once carried, these ponderous objects now move on hidden wheels. 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. Upstairs about 18 musicians play Gion Bayashi music. Unlike the Yama, the roofed Hoko have long, mast-like poles ending in an identifying ornament. Like the pines of the Yama, the branches attached to the masts are symbolic resting places for the deity.


Yoiyama (14th-16th, 21st-23rd)
The nights before the grand parade



During the Gion Festival, Yoiyama is brightly lit by paper lanterns. The Gion Festival music and the dolls, tapestries and other beautiful furnishings that decorate the festival floats all create the feeling of Kyoto's most famous and largest festival.



Yoiyama is also known as the Byobu Festival, or Folding Screen Festival, because this is the only time of the year when some of Kyoto's old families place their folding screens (byobu), kimono, antiques and other priceless works of art on exhibit in the homes.


Old merchant homes and shops open up their house and show their valuable folding screens during the Byobu Matsuri.

Many of the houses that participate in the Byobu Festival are located north of Shijo, between Muromachi and Shinmachi streets. The Byobu Festival is an art lovers' dream come true: a chance to visit exquisite old houses, and to see some of Kyoto's most fabulous, private art treasures.




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


People, both children and adults, wearing formal yukata depart from Yasaka Shrine at 16:30 and head west along Shijo to Kawaramachi. They welcome the mikoshi portable shrines carried out of Yasaka Shrine later in the evening.


10th
Mikoshi Purification


During the festival period, the deities of Yasaka Shrine reside in a temporary shrine called the Otabisho on Shijo street, just east of Teramachi. Before carrying 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


23 floats joining the Saki Matsuri festival are assembled on the streets.


12th-13th
Hoko & Yama Trial Pulling


Community members practice carrying or pulling the floats, accompanied by Gion Bayashi music, to ensure that they are ready for the parade on the 17th.


14th-16th
Yoiyama


On the three nights before the grand parade, the festival's energy reaches its peak. The streets will be extremely crowded with people looking at the lit-up Yama & Hoko floats. Gion Bayashi music fills the air, and countless stalls are set up along the colorfully decorated streets.


14th-16th
Byobu Matsuri Folding Screen Display


The old textile merchant homes and businesses on Shinmachi and Muromachi streets 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 Yasaka Shrine.


16th
Iwami Kagura

From 18:30 at Yasaka Shrine, an ancient court dance called Iwami Kagura 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 and 22 other floats follow.


17th
Shinko-sai Festival


At 16:00, the shrine deities 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

10 floats joining the Ato Matsuri Festival are assembled in the communities they belong to.


20th-21st
Hoko & Yama Trial Pulling

Community members try carrying or pulling the floats to ensure that they are ready for the parade on the 24th.


21st-23rd
Yoi-yama & Folding Screen Display

People can see not only the floats, but also each local community's beautiful craft decorations and legacies.


23rd
Biwa Lute Music Dedication

From 13:00 (TBA) at Yasaka Shrine, traditional biwa (Japanese lute) music will be played for the deity.


24th
Ato Matsuri Grand Parade & Hanagasa Procession


At 9:30, the leading Hashibenkei-yama starts forward. Bringing up the rear will be the Ofune-hoko. At 10:00, Hanagasa Procession, about ten large floats with decorative umbrellas, attended by nearly 1,000 people depart from Yasaka Shrine.


24th
Kanko-sai Festival


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


25th
Mikoshi Purification

The mikoshi are again purified with water from the Kamo River 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 Gion Festival. 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
3,180 yen with a brochure, 4,500 yen with brochure & English guidance; Seats set on Oike Street; Tickets 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); www.tourist-information-center.jp/kansai/en/kyoto/


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