Home > Kyoto This Month >> GION MATSURI FESTIVAL

A living symbol of Kyoto’s 1,200 years of rich, colorful history

Beginning on July 1st, the Gion Matsuri Festival is a magnificent festival lasting the entire month showing pageants of history, pride, life and the spirit of Kyoto. Join the Gion Festival and experience the wonder of Japan through this magnificent event with more than 1,000 years of history.

The Gion Festival is an annual festival dedicated to the deity of Yasaka Shrine. The origin of the festival dates back to 869, the early Heian period (794-1185), as one of Japan’s oldest special protective Goryo-e festivals to stop a series of devastating plagues. In desperation, the reigning emperor decreed that special prayers be said at Yasaka Shrine. The festival became a yearly event starting around 970 and, except for brief interruptions, has continued ever since.

Though the festival began as a religious 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, musicians, dances, comic plays, and artistic treasures were all part of the celebrations at the close of the 10th century.

As the floats became increasingly elaborate and heavier, large wheels were added so that the floats could be rolled. In the 14th century, the floats 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, artworks from China, Persia, and even Europe found their way along the Silk Road to the capital.

For nearly 50 years until 2014, the two grand parades (today, Saki Matsuri on the 17th and Ato Matsuri on the 24th) had been united as one and, therefore, the parade was held only once on the 17th. However, the citizens of Kyoto were eager to have it come back to its original form and their wish became true in 2014. The Saki Matsuri parade is gorgeous and boisterous with many floats while the revived Ato Matsuri is held in a much quieter atmosphere.

The Yama & Hoko Floats
There are two kinds of floats: Yama and Hoko. There are 33 floats in the grand parade: 23 Yama floats and 10 Hoko floats. Yama are smaller floats (weighing about 1.5 ton, about 6 meters high) and carried by people on their shoulders. The Yama floats depict scenes from Chinese and Japanese history and mythology and often depict pine trees, shrines, and mannequins.

Hoko are massive 2-storied floats (weighing about 5-12 ton, about 25 meters high) on large wooden wheels and pulled by people. One float requires at least 12 or 13 people and large ones have 50 people, and still, it is very tough and tiring work to pull these massive floats in the city without a break under the severe summer sun.

In the 15th century, when Kyoto’s kimono merchants’ fortunes grew, they began to compete against each other to see who could build the biggest and most beautiful floats. During the Edo period (1600-1868) and early Meiji period (1868-1912), the floats and the city of Kyoto were badly damaged by the fires of war on several occasions. However, each time the citizens worked hard to rebuild everything and the festival continued to grow in popularity and fame. For this reason, the floats are also called “moving museums.”

Vehicle of Deity connecting people and their guardians
Although the Yama & Hoko Grand Parades on the 17th and the 24th have become the central symbols of the Gion Festival today, it must be remembered that the grand parade is just one of the many events in the festival. More than anything, the most important part of the festival is that this day is dedicated to the deity of Yasaka Shrine.

In Chinese characters mikoshi literally means the “Vehicle of Deity.” 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.

© Jeremy Hoare

On the day of the Shinko-sai Festival (17th), all three mikoshi (Naka-goza, Higashi-goza and Nishi-goza) gather in front of Yasaka Shrine at around 18:30, carried by nearly 2000 people, which is such a powerful and amazing scene. The mikoshi will be carried from Yasaka Shrine to Otabisho. This process is reversed at Kankosai (24th), when the three mikoshi are carried back from Otabisho to Yasaka Shrine.

The climax comes, when the three mikoshi return to Yasaka Shrine (around midnight), finally returning the deities to their home at the end of Kanko-sai. Suddenly, the area will be immersed in complete darkness and silence – it is such a sacred moment. People are even hesitant to open their eyes, immersing themselves in the aura of the deities. Mikoshi is what connects the people of Kyoto and their guardians with a strong tie in the Gion Festival.

Interview with Alex Davies
Alex Davies, from UK, the head distiller of the Kyoto Distillery and a resident of Kyoto for over three years, had an opportunity to take part in the Shinko-sai and Kanko-sai mikoshi rituals last year for the first time. What does it mean to him to be involved in such a special cultural display?

What do you find special about this extraordinarily long-historic festival that Kyoto people have continued for over 1200 years?

Alex: I think the sheer length of time that event has been upheld is so impressive and the enthusiasm that people still have for the tradition. It’s a wonderful thing to experience. You can really feel the spiritual significance of the festival, not only for Kyoto but the entirety of Japan. Being asked to be a part of a festival that is revered as one of the most illustrious in the country’s ancient summer celebrations is a very special feeling.

Was your impression about joining the festival different before and after carrying the mikoshi?

Alex: Absolutely! Carrying the Yasaka Mikoshi with the Sanwaka team certainly left it’s mark... both physically (my shoulder was black and blue for a few weeks following!), and emotionally as it is such a grueling ordeal.

As a spectator of the festival, you only ever see a small stretch of the route. You only ever see the shrine carried over a fraction of its 6 hour journey through the city, but when you are a part of that team and right in the thick of it for the duration of the procession, shouting encouragement and smiling and laughing with one another through the pain because you are proud to be a part of something so special, it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

What made you decide to continue to join the Mikoshi again this year?

Alex: I was completely blown away by the openness and the dedication of my fellow team members. They were so welcoming to me and keen to teach me the history of the event and the importance of the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto culture. I felt so proud to be a part of this and it just really inspired me to want to come back. Unfortunately, this year I am away on business for the actual parade dates, but I’ll be joining the training sessions as usual as part of the community.

The weather in July is so hot in Kyoto, how did you cope and did it give you a different perspective on what people go through to partake in these special matsuri?

Alex: Definitely! It was so tough last year. The mikoshi are incredibly heavy and the carrying is very physical, I gave myself a little heatstroke at the procession as I wasn’t completely prepared! It really brought home to me just what people will go through to celebrate their faith. It’s amazing. No heat stroke on round two thank goodness, lesson learnt.

Have you ever been involved in anything similar before? Do you have any comparable events like this back in the UK?

Alex: This was a real first for me, I’ve not been involved in anything quite as monumental in scale or as steeped in history nor have I ever been through anything as physically and mentally challenging before. I don’t know of anything quite like the Gion Matsuri in the UK.

Has the event changed your opinion on living in Kyoto at all?

Alex: Absolutely, I have a much greater appreciation for the culture of Kyoto and its people. The way that history and religion are so entwined in modern day culture is aweinspiring and something that I’m not used to seeing in the UK. Kyoto is a really special place, I feel honoured to live and work here and being involved in Gion Matsuri only increased my love for the city.

The Gion Festival
Main Event Calendar

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.

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.

Mikoshi Purification

During the festival period, the deities of Yasaka Shrine reside in a temporary shrine called the Otabisho on Shijo Street. Before carrying the deities on the mikoshi, 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.

Hoko and Yama Construction

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

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.

Yoiyama & Byobu Matsuri Folding Screen Display

The festival’s energy reaches its peak during the Yoiyama evenings. 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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Shinko-sai Festival

At 16:00, the shrine deities are transported in three special mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine to the Otabisho. More than 1,000 people will participate in this important procession.

Hoko and Yama Construction

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

Hoko & Yama Trial Pulling

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

Yoi-yama & Folding Screen Display

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

Biwa Lute Music Dedication

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

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.

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.

Kyogen Performance

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

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.

Nagoshi Summer Purification

This event completes the one-monthlong 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.

Junko Grand Parade Route & Yama & Hoko Locations

The Gion Festival Grand Parade Viewing Seat Tickets 3,180 yen with a brochure, 4,500 yen with brochure & English guidance (available only on 17th Saki Matsuri Parade); 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/