Japanese Tradition: Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri: an unique experience

photo credit: Daranice

The Gion Festival or Gion Matsuri (祗園祭), as it is known since the Meiji era, takes its name from a famous area in Kyōto; Gion, Higashiyama district. It’s a religious celebration dedicated to the Susanoo God, also known as Takehaya Susanoo-no-Mikoto, who is worshipped in the Yasaka shrine.
Susanoo, God of the sea and storms, is also the God of the dead, as well as Amaterasu’s brother, from whom the Japanese Emperor’s family line is believed to descend from.

Together with the Aoi Matsuri (May 15th) and the Jidai Matsuri (October 22nd), the Gion Matsuri is one of the three biggest religious festivals in Kyōto and Japan as well. It is held every summer for the whole month of July and is meant to calm the spirits of the dead and ask for protection over the city to the God so that he can keep illnesses and natural disasters away.

As you can imagine it’s a matsuri full of events. The most important and the biggest crowd-drawers are the Yamaboko Junkō ( 山鉾巡行, float’s parade) and the Mikoshi Togyo (神輿渡御, the parade of the divine palanquins). Both of these events are held between July 17th and 24th, when the festival reaches its climax.
One of the main reasons for the spectacularity of this festival is the size of the floats, especially the ones called Hoko. They can be up to 25 meters tall with a weight of over 10 tons that moves thanks to wheels the size of around 2 meters in diameter. Every float is rebuilt every year from scratch and then destroyed at the end of every festival. All the pieces are held together without the use of screws, as tradition dictates.

A little bit of history

gion Matsuri

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Historically, Gion Matsuri began in 869. Since about century ago, the Imperial court moved from Nara to Heiya-kyō (today’s Kyōto) and it was ruled by the Fujiwara family.
It is said that it was during a plague that the Imperial court decided to hold the first goryōe (御霊会), a purification ritual in the small Shinsen’en shrine. At the time, the city was situated in a swampy area and was thus very hot and humid. High concentrations of people together with the absence of a proper drainage system made it easy for waste water to contaminate clean water. It’s not difficult to imagine that illnesses like malaria, smallpox, flu and dysentery became widespread. However, in ancient Japan the, cause of all this was said to be something else entirely.

gion Matsuri

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According to the divination of a master priest, the real cause of the plagues were devious spirits, identified as the ghosts of prince Sawara Shinnō and his companions. They, accused of the murder of the noble Fujiwara no Tanetsugu, died professing their innocence till their final moments.
The first goryōe was held while trying to calm the spirit by invoking the Susanoo God. Furthermore, the noble Urabe Hiramaru raised 66 spears, one for each Japanese region, so to enclose the evil spirits inside and purify the capital.
It was here that the custom of bringing three mikoshis, or divine palanquins, into procession was born, and it was also decided that a goryōe had to be held every time that a plague or illness was spreading.
Everything was accompanied by other celebrations and joyful moments.
It was in 970 when it was decided that the Gion Goryōe (祗園御霊会) had to be held every year.

From the Muromachi period onwards, the event was enriched with floats, the yamaboko (山鉾) which was paraded along the streets of the city. These were built thanks to the collaboration of the merchant class that in this very period lived a moment of success after centuries of denigration. Floats were adorned with decorations that became richer and more sophisticated year after year.
In other words, the parade also became a way to show off the wealth of the merchant class.

In spite of some small interruptions (during the Ōnin war (1467-1477) and during World War II (1941-1945) ), the festival still lives on today as a proud tradition of more than a thousand years of history.

Celebrations

Celebrations that, as we said, go on for the whole month of July involve all the different areas of the city.

It kicks off on July 1st, where a ceremony called Kippuiri (吉符入) is held at the Yasaka shrine, Here, representatives of all the districts of the city in charge of the organization of the festival pray so that it can proceed smoothly and with no incidents.

On July 2nd, at the Town Hall of Kyōto, a lottery headed by the mayor of the city takes place. It is through this that the order of the floats for the parade is decided. Till now, the opening the procession is always done by the Naginataboko (長刀鉾).

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On July 10th, the preparation of the mikoshi (神輿) starts. Three palanquins that will house the three small shrines dedicated to Susanoo is prepared. At the same time, a few buckets are immersed from the Shijō bridge into the sacred waters of the Kamo river to draw the water that will be used to wash the mikoshi. In the late afternoon, there’s also a parade with the exhibition of paper lanterns of traditional manufacturing that will be used to receive the God.

The building of the floats will also begin on this day and if you walk along the central streets of Kyōto, you’ll be able to see them slowly taking shape in the hands of their wise builders.

The days between the 14th and the 16th are those immediately preceding the main celebration. July 14th is known as yoi-yoi-yoi-yama (宵々々山), the 15th as yoi-yoi-yama (宵々山) while the 16th is called yoi-yama (宵山). The same goes for July the 21st, 22nd and 23rd. During these days, the streets closed to traffic from 6:00 p.m and they will be filled with visitors and tourists. Here you can walk around the vending stands, under the light of the paper lanterns always kept alive, while admiring the yamabokos.

And it is also on these days that ancient families of the town open up their window so that people passing by can admire ancient heirlooms that have been kept for generations.

On July 15th, the imitaketate (斎竹建) and the yoimiya-sai (宵宮祭) are held. The first one is a ritual in which bamboo trunks are put together in a square shape to delimit the area of the procession and protect it from contamination. On the other hand, the yoimiya-sai is held at Yasaka shrine, and durig this ritual the spirit of the god is transferred into the 3 portable mikoshi that have already been purified.

gion Matsuri

photo credit:  Tomomi Onishi

In July 16th the musicians from all the floats go to the temple to pry for good weather for the next day, and they are all accompanied by music and dancing events along the way.

July 17th is the long awaited climax of the festival. It is the moment for the Yamaboko Junkō, the great floats parade. Floats are divided into 2 groups, yama 山 (mountain) and hoko 鉾 (spear). The opening group carries the 9 hoko floats which symbolize the 66 spears used by Urabe Hiramaru to drive away the evil spirits. The second group brings 23 yama floats, smaller than the hokos, that carry life-size representations of important and famous characters.
Every hoko carries musicians who accompany the procession with their music.
Kon-kon chiki-chin, kon-kon chiki-chin… This is the distinctive sound of the Gion Matsuri, a traditional rhythm dating back to the Edo period.
Along the parade, a profusion of many different dancers and acrobats make it even more joyful and lively. Each and every one of them will be dressed in colorful and rigorously traditional clothes.

It was earlier mentioned that the parade is lead by the Naginata-boko, named after the naginata (traditional Japanese spear) that springs up from its top, and that is said to have the power to drive away evil spirits and plagues. The original Heian naginata had been forged in metal, but the one we can admire today is made of bamboo.

It is on the Naginataboko that a chigo (稚児) is carried. The chigo is a young child dressed up in rich, traditional clothes with a golden phoenix-shaped headgear. This child represents the God during this festival.
The chosen one, usually selected from the most powerful and important merchant and commercial families of the town, has to undergo a long preparation period before he is allowed to take on this role. Weeks of purification rites and complete isolation, away from everything that could contaminate him, including women. He is not even allowed to walk on common ground but he is carried by men in charge of this duty.
He will have the duty to cut a big sacred thatch rope with a single blow. This is the Shimenawa-kiri (しめ縄切り), an act through which the divinity enters the human world by severing the limit that devised the two worlds, and it is with this act that the great celebration officially starts.

gion Matsuri

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In the late afternoon, the mikoshi togyo takes place where the three mikoshis leave the temple. It is the long awaited Shinkō-sai (神幸祭), or the emerging of the divinity from the temple with its palanquins carried on shoulders around the streets of the city.

On July 24th, this double procession is repeated and in the evening and the three mikoshis are brought back to their temple. This is the Kankō-sai (還幸祭), through which the spirit of the God finally returns to the world he belongs to.
At the end of the parade, the floats are immediately dismantled and all pieces kept until the next festival.

gion Matsuri

photo credit:  Tomomi Onishi

On the same day takes also place the Hanagasa Junkō (花傘巡行), an event that, as suggested from the name, has flowers as its main feature. In fact, it is written with the kanjis of hana (花) or flower, and kasa (傘) or umbrella. During the parade, the floats and all participants parading along the streets are all decorated with umbrellas and hats embellished with flowers.
The parade is opened by small mikoshis carried by young children, then follows a large parade of people in traditional clothes. There are representatives of social and cultural associations, musicians, dancers, acrobats and in particular some of the most famous geishas and maikos of the town. And they surely are the loveliest flowers displayed the event.

gion Matsuri

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On July the 28, takes place the ceremony of the mikoshi-arai (神輿洗式), or the ritual of washing the mikoshis at Yasaka shrine, to purify the three palanquins, till next year.
If you are around, don’t miss them. In fact, it is said that being hit by a little splash of the water dedicated to the god brings good luck.

The nagoshisai (夏越祭) festival marks the end of the Gion Matsuri and is held every July 31st at Ekijin shrine.
Tied to the tori, the entrance gate that marks the beginning of the sacred area of the temple, is a big thatch rope in the shape of a circle 2 meters in diameter. This is the Chinowa (茅の輪).
Please do pass through it to be purified. You’ll then receive a protection charm on which “Somin-shorai shison nari(蘇民将来子孫也)” is written. It means “I am a descendant of Somin Shorai”. According to the legend, Somin Shorai was a simple man who one day happened to give hospitality to a traveler that had already been refused by a rich man. The traveler then reveals himself as a God and to thank him for his hospitality teaches him how to make lucky charms. Since then it is believed that these charms can push away catastrophe and thieves.

gion Matsuri

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gion Matsuri

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That of the Gion Matsuri in a long trip in which History and legend, religion and entertainment are entwined together. It is real a one-of-a-kind event.
And you? Have you ever been able to take part to it? We are waiting for your comments and experiences!