Japanese Tradition: Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri: an unique experience

photo credit: Daranice

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

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. It 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 attractive are the Yamaboko Junkō ( 山鉾巡行, float’s parade) and the Mikoshi Togyo (神輿渡御, parade of the devine palanquins). Both this 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 surely the size of the floats, especially the ones called Hoko. They can even be 25 meters high with a weight of over 10 tons that can move thanks to wheels about 2 meters of 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 wants.
But let’s move ahead with order…

A little bit of history

gion Matsuri

photo credit: kyotodeasobo.com

Tradition says that Gion Matsuri was born in 869. Since a century or so, the Imperial court had moved from Nara to Heiya-kyō (today’s Kyōto) and it was dominated by the Fujiwara family.
It is said that during a plague, the Imperial court decided to hold the first goryōe (御霊会), a purification ritual in the small Shinsen’en shrine. You need to know that at the time the city was situated in a very swampy area, very hot and humid. High concentration of people together with the absence of a proper drainage system made it easy for waste waters to contaminate clean waters. It’s not difficult to imagine that illnesses like malaria, smallpox, flu and dysentery became widely present. However, in ancient Japan the cause of all this was said to be something else entirely.

gion Matsuri

photo credit: japancheapo.com

According to the prediction of a master priest, the real cause of the plagues were devious spirits, identified in 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 the last 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 head every time that a plague or illness was spreading.
Everything was accompanied by other celebrations and joyful moments.
Until 970, when it was decided that the Gion Goryōe (祗園御霊会) had to be held every year.

Afterward, starting from the Muromachi period, the event was enriched with the typical floats, the yamaboko (山鉾), also parading along the streets of the city. These were built thanks to the collaboration of the merchant class that in this very period lives 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 richness 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 today and can be proud of more than a thousand years of history.


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 the it can proceed smoothly and with no incidents.

On July 2nd, at the Town Hall of Kyōto, takes place a lottery headed by the mayor of the city, through which the order of the floats for the parade is decided. Still, opening the procession is always duty of the Naginataboko (長刀鉾).

photo credit: heterophyllum

On July 10th, starts the preparation of the mikoshi (神輿), three palanquins that will house three small shrines dedicated to Susanoo. At the same time, a few buckets are immersed from the Shijō bridge into the sacred waters of 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.

Also on the 10th, starts the building of the floats and walking along central streets of Kyōto you’ll be able to see theme slowly taking shape by 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 e 23rd. During this days, starting from 6:00 p.m, the streets closed to traffic overflow with visitors and tourists voices. Here you can walk around vending stands, under the light of the paper lanterns always kept alive, admiring the yamabokos.
And it is also in this days that ancient families of the town open up their window so that people passing by can admire ancient treasures guarded 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 during which bamboo truncks are put together in 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 the following day, and all is accompanied with music and dancing events along the way.

July 17th is the long awaited day in which the festival reaches its climax. It is the moment of the Yamaboko Junkō, the great floats parade. Floats are divided into 2 groups, yama 山 (mountain) and hoko 鉾 (spear). The opening group it that of the 9 hoko floats, and they symbolize the 66 spears used by Urabe Hiramaru to drive away the evil spirits. The second group is that of the 23 yama floats, smaller than the hokos, that carry life-size representations of important and famous personalities.
Every hoko carries musicians that accompanying 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.
And along the parade a profusion of many different dancers and acrobats make it even more joyful and lively. Obviously each and every one of them is dressed in colorful and rigorously traditional clothes.

Has said before the parade is lead by the Naginata-boko, called after the naginata (typical 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, a young child dressed up in rich, traditional clothes with a golden phoenix-shaped headgear. This child has the duty to represent the God during the 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 with a single blow a big sacred thatch rope. This is the Shimenawa-kiri (しめ縄切り), an act through which the divinity enters the human world severing the limit that devised the two worlds, and with this act the great celebration can officially starts.

gion Matsuri

photo credit:  picssr.com

In the late afternoon, takes place the mikoshi togyo, 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 the three mikoshis are brought back to their temple. This is the moment of 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 protagonist. 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

photo credit: geimei.tumblr.com

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 this moments. In fact, it is said that being hit by little splash of the water dedicated to the god brings good luck..

To mark the end of the Gion Matsuri there is the nagoshisai (夏越祭) festival, that 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, there is a big thatch rope in the shape of a circle with 2 meters in diameter. It is the Chinowa (茅の輪).
Please do pass through it to be purified, and then you’ll receive a protection charm on with there’s written “Somin-shorai shison nari(蘇民将来子孫也) that means “I’m Somin Shorai’s descendant”. According to the legend, Somin Shorai was a simple man that 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 this charms can push away catastrophe and thieves.

gion Matsuri

photo credit: kyoto-tabiya.com

gion Matsuri

photo credit: kyotoiju.com

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!