August 26, 2013
By Namiho Nakazawa
What is “Gion Festival”?
Gion Festival is one of Japan’s biggest and most important festivals, and is held over a one-month period every year from July 1st to 31st. There are many different events, but two in particular are very well known: The Yamaboko Junko, a procession of floats on July 17th, and Yoiyama, the events over three evenings leading up to the procession day. The streets are lined with night stalls selling drinks and food such as yakitori (barbecued chicken on skewers), taiyaki, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, traditional sweets, and many other great food items. Many girls (and some guys) dress up in yukata (summer cotton kimono) and walk around, carrying traditional purses and paper fans.
Origins and history
The Gion Festival begins with ‘Goryoue’, an act of praying to ward of plagues and epidemics. During the Heiankyo era, there were a number of recorded plagues and epidemics, and in ‘Hojouki’, written by Kamanochomei, it says the Kamogawa River was, “filled with the bodies of the dead.” Goryoue, then, dates back to the year 869 as a religious ceremony to appease the gods during the outbreak of epidemics and pestilence. Even in modern times, the practice of selecting a local boy to act as a divine messenger is carried on, and remains an integral part of the festival ceremonies. This child, the messenger of the gods, is not allowed to walk on the ground from the day of the 13th until after he has been paraded through downtown Kyoto on the 17th.
The word ‘Yamaboko’ refers to the two types of float used in the procession, and there are actually 23 ‘yama’ and 9 ‘hoko’ involved in the proceedings. In fact, it is the size and grandeur of these floats which make the Gion Festival such an amazing spectacle. The hoko can be up to 25 meters in height, and weigh upwards of 12 tons. In addition, the wheels are about the size of a full grown adult. Both yama and hoko are elaborately decorated and represent unique themes.
The main event
While they are on display along Shijo street and some side roads, some of the floats can be entered by tourists, with the area becoming most exciting in the evenings. From 18:00 until 23:00, the streets are closed to traffic and the area fills up with food stands, drink vendors, and other festival related things. These three main evenings leading up to the procession day are known as ‘Yoiyama’ (July 16), Yoiyoiyama (July 15) and Yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14).
Other key events
Gion Festival’s other events are perhaps not as impressive as the main event to some, but are really enjoyable nonetheless. From July 10th to 14th, for example, visitors can watch the Yamaboko being erected and pulled into place. Furthermore, the Byobu Festival, which includes the days of Yoiyama, sees local residents opening up the entrances to their homes to passersby to show off their family heirlooms and artifacts.
The procession of a ‘mikoshi’ takes place from 18.00 on the 17th, starting at Yasaka Shrine and ending at the Otabisho. This event involves parading the shrine’s deity from the shrine environs to the downtown area in the mikoshi, a portable shrine. It is lifted and carried exuberantly by a large group of local men dressed in traditional festival clothing, and is occasionally shaken vigorously in response to encouragement from onlookers. The mikoshi is finally returned to the main shrine on July 24th.
In my experience, this festival is really, really hot in two ways. One, there are a huge number of people on the road from Shijo-Horikawa to Shijo-Kawaramachi, with almost no room to move. Second, people from all over the world come to this festival, and scenes from it are broadcast on TV globally. It’s a real once in a lifetime experience! I hope you have the chance to see it one day.