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Gion Matsuri: July Is the Month of This Big Festival from Kyoto!

Thirty-one days to learn about Japan’s history and culture.

360-degree Panoramic Photo of Gion Matsuri 2023

The Yamahoko parade is amazing!

In July, people in Japan can take part in one of the country’s most famous celebrations, the Gion Matsuri, or Gion Festival.

It’s a one-month-long festival that tells a lot about Japan’s culture and history. And two of its most anticipated activities are the processions that clear the path for the gods.

Grab a snack and enjoy this brief explanation about Gion Matsuri and its origin.

The Notorious Gion Matsuri

yoiyoiyama - Gion-matsuri in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
nekonomania, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gion Matsuri is a religious festival whose origins date back over 1000 years and takes place in Kyoto annually from July 1 to 31. Its purpose is to appease the gods and prevent epidemics from spreading.

The festival follows a series of rituals rigorously:

  • It starts with preparations for the procession of floats and the deities' transportation from the Yasaka shrine to the center of Kyoto.
  • Their return to the shrine.
  • A purification ritual as a closing to the festival.

Throughout the month, Gion Matsuri holds big and small events inside and outside the shrine. The most remarkable are the two float parades and the three evenings that precede each: yoiyoiyoiyama, yoiyoiyama, and yoiyama.

During those times, visitors can buy street food and lucky charms, watch artistic performances, and even get into some floats!

The History of the Festival

Gion Matsuri 1905
Stillman, E. G., 1884 - 1949, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The history of Gion Matsuri begins in the year 869 when Kyoto was the capital of Japan.

During the already difficult rainy season, epidemics like cholera and malaria broke out in Kyoto, spreading across the country. People attributed those occurrences to Gozu Tenno, a god that controls diseases and disasters.

They believed that Gozu Tenno would protect them from epidemics if they worshiped him. So the emperor ordered that Yasaka Shrine conduct a purification ritual to appease the gods.

This was done by erecting 66 stylized spears (called hoko) to represent the provinces of Japan and carrying Mikoshi—portable shrines—containing the deities of Yasaka Shrine to a sacred imperial garden.

The ritual was successful, and people felt safe again.

So whenever the country was stricken with epidemics, they repeated the ritual until it became an annual event in 970. The Festival became known as Gion Matsuri because Yasaka Shrine is in Gion District.

It remained an ongoing event. People kept this amazing tradition even with a temporary interruption due to war and other setbacks. Though the Gion Matsuri format changed throughout the centuries, adapting to evolving times before becoming the huge celebration we know today!

Yamahoko: The Imposing Floats

Fune Boko is always the last Float of the procession of July 17
Fune Boko - Gion Matsuri 2023

The Gion Festival is best known for the July 17 and July 24 processions and their floats. Tickets to watch the parades were sold for up to $2770 this year!

The Yamahoko floats are assembled every year and pulled through the streets to purify the way before the passage of the mikoshi.

In 2023, 24 yama were prepared for the festival.

For the first parade (July 17, 23), yamahoko floats head to where the mikoshi will be allocated later. The following week, on the 24, a smaller parade with 11 floats goes the reverse route so that the deities can be brought back to the shrine.

The term yamahoko, used to refer to the floats in general, derives from the two types of floats: yama and hoko. Both have strong colors, each paying homage to a Japanese legend or deity.

Aside from a few exceptions, they are also generally easy to tell apart. Yama outnumbers the hoko and has a pine tree on the top. Most are around six meters tall, and groups of men carry them on their shoulders.

Shijou Kasa Boko was the 15th float of the procession of July 17
Shijou Kasa Boko - Gion Matsuri 2023

In contrast, Hoko (has the same name as the spears) can be up to 25 meters tall and are multi-storied. They are so tall that some men must stay on the roof to push away the power line. And they are so heavy it takes dozens of people to control them, despite having wheels!

There are only ten hoko, and six have a pole on the top.

There’s So Much More to Learn!

Several other important and wonderful events are part of the festival, both on the religious and entertainment side. Even the assembling of the floats is worth watching.

Do you have a similar festival in your country? Have you ever been to a Japanese festival? Let’s share experiences in my Otaku Community and make new friends!

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