No matter if it’s your first or fiftieth time to Gion Matsuri, there’s sure to be something for you! This festival is known as one of the big three festivals in Japan, but how exactly did it start? Let’s check out some basic, yet surprisingly unknown, facts about this famous festival!
In 869, Heian-kyō, modern-day Kyoto, was ravaged by a plague. To fight the spread of the disease, the government placed 66 spears—representing the number of Japanese states at the time—in the expansive Shinsenen garden, welcomed the god of Gion and prayed for the eradication of all disasters. This ceremony was called “Goryoe” and eventually turned into what is now known as Gion Matsuri.
It’s said that the festival grew larger and more extravagant year after year and in the Muromachi Period (1138 to 1573) came to be what it is today. However, in the year 1467, the festival was suspended after a war broke out around Kyoto. Thanks to the efforts of traveling businesspeople, who flocked to Kyoto during the Muromachi Period, the festival was revived after a 33-year hiatus in the year 1500. Gion Matsuri flourished from there and grew into one of the most important events in Kyoto. The festival continued as so until the Edo Period when it was once again forced to halt multiple times due to being met with massive fires. However, each time, people banded together and worked to revive the festival time after time.
Originally Gion Matsuri was divided into two parts, the early “Saki-Matsuri” and the later “Ato-Matsuri.” The initial events of the Saki-Matsuri are to welcome the gods at the Yasaka Shrine into the city, and conversely, the later events of the Ato-Matsuri are to see the gods off at the Shrine. This division was, however, not the case for the festivals from 1966 to 2014. As this period was one of high economic growth and saw a massive rise in tourism and traffic to the area, the Saki-Matsuri and Ato-Matsuri were merged and held as one.
A large number of events, including the gathering of Yamahoko floats in downtownKyoto and the offering of various pieces of art to the Yasaka Shrine, are held almost every day.
Here we would like to showcase some of Sharing Kyoto’s most recommended events.
■ Kippuiri & The Taihei-no-mai blessing by the Naginataboko-chigo (3:10 PM ~)
At this ceremony, a young boy, belonging to the Naginatanaboko festival float, gracefully blesses the festival with the Taihei no Mai blessing. The ceremony can be viewed from both the north or south side of Shijo-dori Street.
■ The Shinyosui-kiyoharai-shiki (10:00 ~)
At this ceremony, water later used in the blessing of the Mikoshi divine palanquins at 8 PM (details below), is scooped from the Kamogawa river and blessed.
■ Omukae-chochin (4:30 PM ~ 8:30 PM)
From 5 PM, people prop up large Japanese lanterns and form a train to welcome the Mikoshi divine palanquins which are to be blessed.
■ Mikoshi-arai-shiki (6 PM ~ 8:30 PM)
In this ceremony, three Mikoshi are carried into the Yasaka Shrine, and from there, one is chosen to be taken and blessed atop the Shijo-ohashi Bridge.
■ Saki-matsuri: Hokohikizome & Yamakakizome
This event is to test the recently constructed Yamahoko floats. While this may only be practice, the music, shouts, and chants of the participants are just as powerful as on the big day. These tests are carried out at each Yamahoko float around the city.
■ Saki-matsuri: Yoiyama
The lanterns of the Yamahoko floats are lit, and the whole town comes alive with the color of the festival. People and festival stalls fill the streets as the Gion Hayashi performers provide unique sounds to accompany the festivities.
At this event, family heirlooms, such as Japanese folding screens and tools, are displayed in the townhouses of which the various Yamahoko floats belong to.
*Note that specific times and dates vary depending on the float.
■ Saki-matsuri: Yamahoko Junko – Float Procession
In this procession, a total of 23 Yamahoko floats, headed by the Naginatanaboko float, work their way through the streets of downtown Kyoto. This procession is the most popular and well-known event at Gion Matsuri.
After the ceremonies at the main hall of the Yasaka Shrine, three Mikoshi are carried around the area of which the shrine presides over.
■ Ato-matsuri: Hokohikizome & Yamakakizome
Just as in the Saki-matsuri, this event serves as the opportunity to test the Yamahoko that are to participate in the Ato-matsuri procession.
■ Ato-matsuri: Yoiyama
There are currently no plans to have festival stalls or open and allow foot traffic on the roads of Shijo-dori as in past years.
■ Ato-matsuri: Yamahoko Junko Float Procession
With the Hashibenkei-yama float leading the procession, a total of 10 floats make their way through the streets of Kyoto.
■ Hanagasa Junko Procession
The Hanagasa Junko is a procession of over 1,000 people all draped in traditional Japanese clothes. After arriving at the Yasaka Shrine, a number of traditional dances are performed as prayers to the gods.
The above mentioned three Mikoshi return to the Yasaka Shrine sometime in the evening after completing their route around the city.
A ceremony wherein one of the three Mikoshi are carried and blessed atop the Shijo-ohashi Bridge. Around 8:30 PM, the Mikoshi is returned to the Yasaka Shrine and returned to storage.
This is the final event of Gion Matsuri. In this event, people pass through the Chi-no-wa—a large ring made of strong Cogon grass placed at the Torii gate of Yasaka Shrine’s Ekijinja Shrine—and pray for good health.
Streets are opened for foot traffic from 6 PM to 11 PM on 7/15 & 7/16 (Yoiyama) and Yamahoko, together with festival stalls, fill the streets. However, please note that depending on the street, one-way traffic rules may apply. Below is information from 2018’s Gion Matsuri; however, we believe that there will be no significant changes this year.
● Muromachi Street: Northbound traffic only
● Shinmachi Street: Southbound traffic only
● Takoyakushi Street:West of Muromachi Street is limited to westbound traffic / East of Muromachi Street, until Karasuma Street, is limited to eastbound traffic
List of available public bathrooms
・Kyoto City public bathrooms
Go to this URL:https://goo.gl/maps/g5afzB1PGfF6DyTU8
・KYOTO Economy Center SUINA-MUROMACHI
Eng: 78 Kankobokocho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, Japan 600-8520
・Ikenobo Junior College
Eng: 600-8491 Kyoto, Shimogyo Ward, Niwatoribokocho, 四条室町
✓Depending on the time and place, you may get in trouble for using a sun umbrella or parasol, so we urge you to wear a hat and use a lot of sunscreen
✓As you may get hurt, avoid sandals and wear sneakers instead
✓It will be hot, so watch out for heatstroke and dehydration
Bringing a change of clothes, a fan, and a towel is a good idea
✓To avoid the possibility of being pickpocketed, it’s best to strap on an anti-theft or anti-pickpocket bag