The Gion Festival

April 16, 2007

by Sugimura Yuko

The Gion Festival is one of the biggest and most spiritual festivals in Kyoto. It is held from July 1st to 31st and has a very long history.

The festival started in 869 CE during the early Heian period. At that time people built tall floats called ‘hoko’ to end a plague that had spread throughout the city; it was thought that the revengeful spirit of the deity Gozu Tenno had caused the plague. People prayed for the purification of all Kyoto by pulling these floats through the city. Since then, the festival has become more splendid each year. Nowadays, there are many festival events, including Yoiyama and the Yamaboko Junko. I’d like to introduce these two events, both of which are the climax of the Gion Festival.

Yoiyama takes place on July 16th and is the eve of the Yamaboko Junko. Yamaboko are tall floats on wheels and are decorated with traditional Japanese textiles with luxurious designs. Thirty-two yamaboko are set up on the streets and side streets of downtown Kyoto. Some are set up on Shijo Street. When it gets dark, people light Japanese lanterns on the yamaboko, and a musical ensemble or ohayashi begins to play music from the top of the float. The music is composed of traditional Japanese instruments: flutes, gongs, drums, and shamisen. While music is played, children sell good-luck talismans or chimaki— rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves. There are many stalls selling foods like roasted corn, grilled chicken on skewers, and colorful candies. Also, people wear yukata (light summer kimono) and carry fans. The streets are filled with excitement.

On July 17th the Yamaboko Junko, or parade of floats, is held. The 32 yamaboko are pulled along a course around central Kyoto. The leading float is called the ‘Naginataboko.’ One boy is chosen as the ‘chigo,’ a child who will act as the go-between between the citizens of Kyoto and the gods during the festival. Thus, he plays a major role in the festival and rides in the Naginatahogo. At Yasaka Shrine, the chigo performs the Shimenawakiri, a ritual in which he dances and cuts a sacred straw rope with a long blade. During the festival the chigo aids the purification of Kyoto by fulfilling his role as a messenger to the gods.

Some of the textiles displayed on the floats are not only Japanese, but are from foreign countries. For example, one fabric depicts the Old Testament scene of “Choosing the Wife of Isaac.” Another shows the Prince of Troy, who left his wife and his children. Of course, Japanese traditional textiles, which are painted with birds, flowers or the moon, are also very beautiful.

The Gion Festival has been kept for over a thousand years and is indispensable to the people in Kyoto. When Gion Festival is held, people in Kyoto feel that summer has come. Visitors can experience an important side of Kyoto and feel Kyoto itself during this important festival.

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