Gion Festival

November 24, 2019

by  Momoyo Matsuoka, Yumika Yamaguchi and Momoka Yamada

Gion Festival

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.

 

 

Access

 

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.

Bus:

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.

Train:

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!

Gion Festival

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.

The Yamaboko

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 Yamaboko

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.

My experience

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.

 

 

Matsunoo Grand Shrine

by Maki Mizobata; Natsuki Mitsuya
Matsunoo Grand Shrine (also known as Matsuo Grand Shrine) is located at the west end of Shijo Street, beyond Matsuo Bridge. This shrine is the oldest shrine in Kyoto, and the divinity worshipped here is a god of brewing sake. Throughout the year, more than a thousand people who are engaged in brewing sake visit Matsunoo Grand Shrine. There is also a famous well, Kame-no-I, as well as three gardens, and the treasury and Honden have been designated as important cultural properties.

History

In ancient times, the people who settled in the area around this shrine orshipped a boulder on Mt. Matsuo called Iwakura as their guardian deity. In 5 AD, a lord of the Hata clan, who had emigrated from Korea, settled in the area and introduced agriculture and forestry. The Hata clan also chose the deity of Mt. Matsuo as its guardian deity. In 701, Hata-no-imikitori built the shrine. Because the Hata clan had a lot of power and money, they were involved in the relocation of the Imperial capital to Nagaoka-kyo (784) and later to Heian-kyo (794). Therefore, they won the Imperial court’s confidence, and Matsunoo Grand Shrine was honored by the Imperial house. Not only has this shrine long played a role in ensuring the peace of the nation and protecting the people who live around it, but the shrine also houses guardian deities of cultivation, flood control, and trade. Since the Hata clan introduced to Japan the method of brewing sake, brewers and makers of miso paste visit Matsunoo Grand Shrine to pray for the success of their endeavors.

Deities

Matsunoo Grand Shrine enshrines Oo-yamagui-no-kami and Nakatsu-shima-hime-no-mikoto. The former is a male deity who governs Mt. Hiei and Mt. Matsuo. The latter, otherwise known as Ichiki-shima-hime-no-mikoto, is a female deity who protects people during their travels.

Honden

Since the time the Hata clan founded the shrine, the Honden, or the main shrine building, has been through several reconstructions, and the present one was built in 1397 and repaired in 1542 during the Muromachi period. Because of its unique style of roof, which is called Matsuo-zukuri, or Matsuo style, the Honden has been designated as an important cultural property.

Shofu-en

Shofu-en has three famous gardens: Iwakura, Horai and Kyokusui. These gardens were designed by Mirei Shigemori during the Showa era. They are not so old but are among the greatest of the works made after the Meiji era. He designed them with a combination of rocks, and the opposite ideas of “stillness” and “movement” are harmonized well.

・Iwakura Garden(The ancient era style)

This garden was made to be the spiritual place for the god of Mt. Matsuo. Two main boulders symbolize the god and the goddess who are enshrined in this shrine. Other rocks around them represent dieties dependent on the main ones.

・Horai Garden (Kamakura era style)

The Kaiyu style, which you can enjoy by walking around the garden, is used here, and there are islands in the pond. In this garden, we can imagine a place where an unworldly man lives. It is said that this garden expresses Horai ideas, which include a longing for a world where people will not grow old and die.

・Kyokusui Garden (Heian era style)

The Heian era, when Matsunoo Grand Shrine was most prosperous, is the theme of this garden. Water channels its way along the foot of a hill, curving seven times, and there are many glaucous (light blue and green) rocks on the hill. The design is simple, but its color scheme is unique.

Kame-no-I (A well)

Near the waterfall Reiki-no-taki is a well of spring water, Kame-no-I, which is said to produce a mysterious effect. This water is famous for producing longevity and revival. Sake brewers put the water of Kame-no-I into their sake because not only do they adore the deities but also they believe the sake will not go bad.

Sake-no-Shiryokan (Museum of Sake)

Since Matsunoo Grand Shrine has housed a god of sake from ancient times, it is believed that sake brewed with water from here will bring people happiness and prosperity. In the Museum of Sake,we can see the tools used in brewing sake that were donated by sake brewers, and also we can learn about the tradition and history of sake.

Ichinoi River

There are about 3,000 Japanese rose bushes within the shrine’s precinct. The Japanese rose is most beautiful in April and May when it blooms. Especially, the harmony of the stone bridge, fresh green leaves, and Japanese rose bushes along the Ichinoi River is wonderful.

Festival

The Matsunoo Festival consists of two processions: Shinko-sai and Kanko-sai. Shinko-sai is held on the first Sunday after April 20th. Six mikoshi, or portable shrines, are carried and ferried across the Katsura River to the opposite side, and each mikoshi is placed in a shrine there. Three weeks later,the mikoshi are returned to Matsunoo Grand Shrine, and this procession is called Kanko-sai.

Access

  • By bus: Take Kyoto city bus No. 28 or Kyoto bus No. 73 from Kyoto Station to the “Matsuo-taisha-mae” bus stop.
  • By Hankyu Railway: Get off at “Matsuo” station.

Fees for Garden and Treasure House

  • Adult: 500 yen
  • Student: 400 yen
  • Child: 300 yen

*Admission to Sake-no-Shiryokan (Museum of Sake) is free.

Open

  • Garden: 9:00 – 16:00 (9:00 – 16:30 Sundays and holidays)
  • Museum of Sake: 9:00 – 16:00