The Gion Matsuri, familiarly known as ‘Gion-san,’ is a festival of Yasaka-jinja Shrine, and the highlight is the splendid pageant of some 20 and 10 floats called yamaboko proceeding along the main streets of Kyoto on the 17th and 24th. The streets are lined with night stalls selling food such as yakitori (barbecued chicken skewers), taiyaki, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, traditional Japanese sweets, and many other culinary delights. Many girls dressed in yukata (summer kimono) walk around the area, carrying with them traditional purses and paper fans. During the yoiyama evenings leading up to the parade, some private houses in the old kimono merchant district open their entryways to the public, exhibiting valuable family heirlooms, in a custom known as the Byobu Matsuri, or Folding Screen Festival. This is a precious opportunity to visit and observe traditional Japanese residences of Kyoto.
Kyoto has suffered on many occasions from all kinds of bad omens, including epidemics, floods, fires, and earthquakes. To keep the spirits from being angry, special protective or goryo-e festivals have been held in Kyoto since ancient times. The first Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s oldest goryo-e festivals, was held in the early Heian period (794-1185) to stop a series of devastating plagues. This festival originated as part of a purification ritual to appease the gods thought to cause fire, floods and earthquakes. In 869, the people were suffering from plague and pestilence which was attributed to the rampaging deity Gozu Tenno. Emperor Seiwa ordered that the people pray to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, Susanoo-no-mikoto. Sixty-six stylized and decorated halberds, one for each province in old Japan, were prepared and erected at Shinsen-en, a garden, along with the portable shrines from Yasaka Shrine. This practice was repeated wherever an outbreak occurred. In 970, it was decreed an annual event and has since seldom been broken.
In 1533, the Ashikaga shogunate halted all religious events, but the people protested, stating that they could do without the rituals, but not the procession. This marks the progression into the festival’s current form.Smaller floats that were lost or damaged over the centuries have been restored, and the weavers of the Nishijin area offer new tapestries to replace destroyed ones. When not in use, the floats and regalia are kept in special storehouses throughout the central merchant district of Kyoto in the care of the local people.
The highlight of the Gion Matsuri Festival are the elaborate floats (see map for individual locations) that has made this festival so famous. The 32 floats of the festival are of two types, yama and hoko. Yama floats depict scenes from Chinese and Japanese history and mythology and often bear pine trees, shrines, and mannequins. During the parade, children wearing make-up on the leading float, Naginata-boko, and musicians playing the flute, drums and bells are seated on the second level of the floats. Except the Naginata-boko have dolls propped up on the second level.This festival is believed to have started 1,100 years ago when floats were made and paraded in the town to appease the deity of plague and illnesses. Moreover, From July 14 to 16 and 21 to 23, Yoiyama, festival-eve is held preceding the main attraction on July 17 and 24. Floats displayed in the town are lit up with dozens of lights, and the festive music known as Gion-bayashi can be heard almost everywhere in the town streets. During the festival period, people visit each of the floats, where they can buy Chimaki (good luck charms) made from sasa bamboo grass for warding off evil. Although only limited to the Yoiyama days, the local merchant residents or shops open to the public, exhibiting their valuable art collections, a customary event known as the Byobu Matsuri, or the Folding Screen Festival.