November 24, 2019
by Momoyo Matsuoka, Yumika Yamaguchi and Momoka Yamada
Japan has a lot of traditional and local festivals. For example, the Aomori Nebuta festival and Sapporo Snow festival are world-famous and well-known. Many foreign tourists actually enjoy the festivals to get in touch with Japanese culture. However, according to a survey by a travel company, the Gion festival is the most famous one for foreign people. They are fascinated with the powerful performance, and gorgeous festival floats and mikoshi; a small and portable shrine that is believed to house gods. In 2017, about 1,800,000 people came to the Gion festival in all.
What is “Gion festival”?
Gion festival is a local festival, which is held in Kyoto from July 1st to 31st. In Japan, it is one of three biggest festivals, along with the Tenjin festival (Osaka) and Kanda festival (Tokyo). The Gion festival has a very long history and it is known as the large-scale festival because it is held for one month.
History of Gion Festival
Over 1100 years ago, in 869, an epidemic spread in Kyoto, and there were countless sick people and deaths among the public. People believed this must have been a curse by the god, called Emperor Gozu, so in order to put down this disturbance, they had deep faith in Gion-sha; the old name of Yasaka shrine. Then, they made 66 Hoko at Shinsen-en and held Gion Goryo-e to pray for the disappearance of disease. Hoko is a long-handled spear or pike with two blades, set at right angles, which was used from Yayoi Era (5th century B.C.- 3rd century A.D.) to Kohun Era (the middle of 3rd century A.D.- around 7th century A.D.) That was the beginning of Gion festival. After that, the name of the festival Gion Goryo-e was shortened to Gion-e. At first, it was held only when an epidemic was spreading, so it was an irregular festival. However, it has been held every June 14th from the first year of the Genroku Era (970). According to historical records, Gion-e died out temporarily during the Hogen revolt and Heiji revolt, but it revived in Muromachi Era (1336-1573). After that, because of Ounin revolt and Bunmei revolt, Gion-e almost died out again, but a lot of people had passion for Gion-e. Therefore, in June in 1500, people made a tour of around Yasaka shrine with 26 festival floats From that time, the festival became more gregarious, and people had a strong passion for continuation of the festival. From the Momoyama Era (1568-1598) to the Edo Era (1603-1867), Japan started promoting trade with other countries, and textiles, including Gobelin (originally a French textile company) and Nishijin (the textiles produced in the Kamigyo-ku area of Kyoto) were used in Japan. From that time, the shape of festival floats changed into the current shape with gorgeous decorations. As you may know, the Gion festival has a long, long history of more than 1000 years, and it has been associated with the history of Kyoto.
The Big Event
The Gion festival has a lot of ritual events. Especially, Yamaboko Junko is the main event: the processions of festival cars. It takes place between 9:00 and 11:30 a.m. The first half of the festival is called Saki Matsuri, which is held on July 17. The procession route is from Shijo Karasuma to Shinmachi Oike. On the other hand, the last half of the festival is called Ato Matsuri, which is held on July 24. The route of this day is from Karasuma Oike to Shijo Karasuma. On the Saki Matsuri, 23 festival floats go around Yasaka shrine. In contrast, 10 festival floats go in procession on Ato Matsuri. There are some kinds of paid seats, so if you would like to watch the processions at the best place, we recommend you buy the ticket for paid seats on the Internet. In addition, you can listen to the information of Gion festival by tourism guide through your seat’s headphones provided with your ticket. Therefore, you will enjoy both seeing the processions and listening to the information.
Other Popular Events Included in Gion Festival
From July 10 to 14 and from the 18 to the 21, the festival floats for Yamaboko Junko (grand procession) are assembled in a traditional way, and you can watch that process. The way of assembling the festival floats varies from city to city, and each city has original shapes of floats. Another ceremony to watch is the Mikoshi Arai, which is held on July 10 and the 28th: this is the washing of the mikoshi (portable shrine) using water from the Kamogawa River. It is the most important ritual ceremony. If you want to watch it, you should go to Shijo-ohashi Bridge at around 6:00 p.m on July 10 or the 28th.
The most popular event is Yoiyama. It is held twice, from the 14th to the 16th and from the 21st to the 23rd. At Yoiyama, all of the floats are lit up in the evening. With lightening the floats up, Gion Bayashi is played: people play with musical instruments such as flutes, drums, and bells on the floats. It is a very beautiful event, so many tourists come to watch it. In 2017, more than 320,000 people came to see Yoiyama. During Yoiyama (on the 15th and 16th), Shijo Street and Karasuma Street are kept completely free of cars. There are also a lot of refreshment and souvenir stands along Karasuma Street, Muromachi Street, and Shinmachi Street.
If you go to enjoy the Gion festival, the access is below:
From Kyoto Station, you can take a taxi or bus to Shijo Street or Yasaka shrine.
No. 206 bus goes to Gion, so you can get off there. It takes about 15 minutes to get there from Kyoto Station to Gion.
Keihan Electric Railway: get off at Gion Shijo Station and walk about a minute.
Hankyu Railway: get off at Kawaramachi Station and walk about 5 minutes.
The area around Gion is crowded with many tourists during the Gion festival season. Therefore, coming by car is not recommended, and there is no parking area for this festival.
The Gion festival has been designed as an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property from 1979. In addition to this, it was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Property in 2009. Gion festival has become more and more noticeable. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of tourists will come to watch Gion Festival this year. Therefore, everyone should follow the rules, and we hope you enjoy Gion Festival!