The Gion Matsuri Festival

The Gion Matsuri, which takes place during the entire month of July, is one of the three main Kyoto festivals. The event draws many thousands of spectators from all over who come to watch the daily religious parades held throughout the streets of this small cultural city. Here we will tell you more about this important – yet fun, cultural event and the best way for you to experience it.

  • How the festival takes place
  • The Gion matsuri floats
    • The types of floats
  • The history of Gion matsuri
  • The Gion matsuri schedule
  • Things to keep in mind

京都 祇園祭<山鉾巡行>八坂神社/Kyoto Gion Matsuri (HD)

Video is owned and created by kota2chan.

How the Gion Matsuri festival takes place

The Gion Matsuri is a purification ritual which started 1,200 years ago – making it not only one of Japan’s biggest but also oldest celebrated festivals. The festivities kick off on July 1 and ends on July 31. However, the Yamaboko Junkō parades, which fall on the 17th and 24th, are the only two major processions you don’t want to miss.

The lively atmosphere and incredible floats on these two days are sure to create a memorable experience. One can feel the excitement and anticipation building up in the days leading up to the Yamaboko Junkō. The day prior (16th /July 23) is known as Yoiyama, two days before (15th /July 22) is Yoiyoiyama, and three days before (14th /July 21) is called Yoiyoiyoiyama.

On July 1, the participating Kyoto neighborhoods host the opening ceremonies. These ceremonies take place by parading small, portable Shinto shrines known as Mikoshi through the streets. It symbolizes the arrival of the spirits and is repeated on July 31 to bid them farewell before they return to their world.

The Gion matsuri floats

Construction of the floats starts on July 10. They are built entirely from wood and rope – no nails whatsoever! Each year they are made from scratch, and no float from the previous year may be reused. Floats are beautifully decorated with items such as tapestries, lanterns, and tassels.

The types of floats:

Yama: The word Yama translates to ‘Mountains’ and is the smaller of the two types of floats. They can also be recognized by a pine tree that sits on the top, which serves as a connector to the Heavenly Element. Because of the Yama’s smaller size, they are usually carried by a group of men with wooden supports.

Hoko: The word Hoko translates to ‘halberd’ and are larger floats that are usually up to two stories tall. They are too big to carry and are therefore rolled on wheels and pulled with thick ropes by groups of men. Hoko’s are also more elaborately decorated.

All floats are collectively known as Yamaboko.

Origins of the Gion Matsuri festival

It’s important to understand the reason and meaning behind how and why the festival was started. But don’t worry, the history behind this festival is fascinating.

Kyoto, during the Heian era (794-1185), was experiencing regular natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, summertime plaques, and floods. As a solution, Emperor Seiwa ordered the city to pray to the Shinto gods. People would gather in the Gion District of Kyoto at the Yasaka Shrine with 66 halberds (one for each of the 66 Japanese provinces) as a way to supplicate the gods who were causing the catastrophes.

The Emperor’s plan worked, but the catastrophes returned in the 9th century. The ritual was repeated, and by the year 970, it became an annual event that continues to this very day as the Gion Matsuri festival. Throughout the centuries, this purification ritual, which started with halberds, eventually got replaced with the massive wooden floats you will see being paraded down the streets today.

The Gion Matsuri schedule

Each year’s schedule may be slightly different, but the table below will provide you with a standard chronological order of the most important events.

July 1-5:

The Opening Ceremonies

The opening ceremonies are held in each participating Kyoto neighborhood. These events mark the arrival of the spirits and are celebrated by parading small portable shrines, known as Mikoshi, through the streets.

July 2:

The Lottery

The lottery, known in Japanese as ‘Kujitorishiki,’ is where they randomly select the order of the floats for the processions. The event takes place at the Kyoto Municipal Hall. To attend, send them a reply postcard, and if you are selected, you will receive an invite to the event.

July 10:

Mikoshi Arai & Omukae Chochin

Two important events take place on July 10. The first being the Mikoshi Arai, which is where children carry small shrines across the Kamo River so that Shinto priests can purify them. The second event is the Lantern Reception, known as the Omukae Chochin. It’s an exhibition of young girls doing the Sagi Odori and Komachi Odori dances.

July 10-14:

The Building of the Floats

You can watch as 23 floats for the main 17th July processions are built. Construction and testing take place on Shijo and Muromachi Street. If you are feeling particularly strong on those days, you can help carry and pull them during the testing phase.

July 14-16:

The Saki Matsuri Celebrations

On the evenings of the 14th, 15th and 16th July the streets are closed to vehicles and people will come out to celebrate in anticipation of the main procession. There will be stalls selling food and drinks, as well as game stalls. These three nights are called the Yoiyama, Yoiyoiyama, and Yoiyoiyoiyama.

A Japanese woman in a Yukata buying food from a vendor during the Saki Matsuri celebrations.

A Japanese woman in a Yukata buying food from a vendor during the Saki Matsuri celebrations. JJ Merelo, リユース食器使用店 205041922 (41636924640), CC BY-SA 2.0

July 17:

The Yamaboko Junko

The main procession everyone has been waiting for starts at 9 am. The 23 floats will move along the predetermined route and will end when the last float has completed its journey.

July 18-21:

The Building of the Floats

And just when you thought that the fun was over! Over these couple of days, the second set of floats is constructed and tested for the next main procession. This time only ten are built as opposed to 23 from before.

July 21-23:

The Second Saki Matsuri Celebrations

The second round of evening Saki Matsuri celebrations retakes place in anticipation of the next main event.

July 24:

The Second Yamaboko Junko

July 24th is when the second main procession occurs. At 9 am the ten floats constructed over the last few days will be paraded once again on a predetermined route. The event is over when the last float completes the route.

July 25:

The Dismantling of the Floats

Floats are immediately dismantled the day after the final procession to prevent diseases gathered during the parade from spreading.

July 31:

The Summer Purification Ritual

The Summer Purification Ritual signifies the end of the Gion Matsuri festivities. Everyone gathers at the Yasaka Shrine, where a Shinto priest will bless everyone who partook in the festival. When the blessings are over, the spectators (yes, you included) walk through a sacred ring made from reeds to be blessed as well.

Things to keep in mind

  • Entrance to the festivities is free, so expect a lot of people to attend. Pick a good spot from where to watch and keep an eye on your belongings and kids if you have any. Problems are rare, but you can report any problems you may have to the nearest security officer – there are many, and they are always visible.
  • The Gion Matsuri Festival takes place during the summer, so it gets extremely hot. It is therefore advised you bring sunblock and a hat to minimize sunburn. It’s also important to stay hydrated, and fortunately, there are a lot of stores and vendors who sell bottled water.
  • Japan experiences a lot of rain in the summer, which usually occurs in the late afternoons. Processions keep going in most cases despite the rain, so it might be a good idea to bring an umbrella with if you choose to stay or get unexpectedly caught in a rain shower.

Further reading

The Gion Matsuri Festival starts and ends at the Yasuka Shrine. Read more about this important religious Shinto site here.

Regular participants of Gion Matsuri have set up a website explaining the event. Find out more about it from their website here.