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Gion Matsuri is an annual festival held in Kyoto in July. The main parades and events are on July 14-16, July 17, and July 24. If you're in Kyoto, come to see these exciting parades that boast a history of more than a thousand years!
Gion Matsuri, or the Gion Festival, held every year in July in Kyoto, is one of Japan’s three great festivals, alongside Osaka’s Tenjin Festival and Tokyo’s Kanda Festival.
In 2009, Kyoto's Gion Matsuri was designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The gigantic yamaboko (festival floats) parading through the city center are iconic for Kyoto’s summer days.
Photo by Pixta
It is said that during that year, the whole country was affected by an epidemic that resulted in many deaths. The city hosted a festival called Gion-Goryoe, which was meant to appease the malevolent spirits that were thought to have caused the epidemic. This festival stands at the origin of Gion Matsuri.
There were times when the festival was canceled because of wars. However, it would always be revived and is now part of Kyoto’s history and culture.
Photo by Pixta
The greatest highlight of the Gion Festival is the yamaboko parade. Yamaboko, as mentioned above, is a type of a festival float (dashi in Japanese) that is carried around during a Shinto festival. The Kyoto yamaboko floats are about 25 meters high, and the largest ones can weigh up to 12 tons!
To let the large yamaboko pass, some adjustments have to be done to to the city roads. One of these adjustments is folding up the street lights where the yamaboko are supposed to be carried. Of course, not every street light can be folded up like this. This is only possible in the case of Gion Matsuri. The street light equipment along the route is made to be manageable in such a way.
The scene of a large number of yamaboko parading along the city avenue is astonishing. The Gion Festival is divided into the Saki matsuri (early festival) and the Ato matsuri (later festival).
23 floats are carried during the Saki matsuri and 10 floats during the following Ato matsuri, which makes it 33 floats in total. Each of the yamaboko is decorated lavishly for this occasion portraying famous Japanese legends and stories.
A yamaboko is usually pulled by 40 to 50 people. Gion Matsuri’s famous tsujimawashi (photo above) has a platform rotating to 90 degrees, using only human strength. It is another highlight of the festival that will leave you astonished. This is surely a sight to be witnessed in person!
Another highlight of the yamaboko parade is Gionbayashi, the musical performance. 40 to 50 persons ride on top of the yamaboko while playing traditional musical instruments. Thanks to the magical rhythm of taiko drums, Japanese flutes, as well as the Japanese gong called "shou" in Japanese, the festival atmosphere is full of excitement.
Each year, all the yamaboko floats are assembled in preparation for the festival and are dismantled when the festival is over.
The route of the yamaboko parade goes through Shijo-dori (from Kawaramachi Station to Karasuma Station), Kawaramachi-dori (from Kawaramachi Station to Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Station), and the Oike-dori (from Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Station to Karasuma Oike-dori).
There are different routes on different days of the festival, so be sure to check the official website (Japanese and English) of the festival for more information.
Gion Matsuri is held each year from July 1 to July 31. It lasts for about one month. The dates are the same every year, no matter the day of the week.
The festival is at its peak during the three days of the Yoiyama (night festival) on July 14 -16, as well as during the Saki matsuri yamaboko parade. One week afterward, the Ato matsuri starts with its amazing yamaboko parade.
On July 15 and 16, during the Yoiyama, the main streets of Shijo-dori and Karasuma-dori become pedestrian heaven. There are food stands all along the road.
The stations closest to the venue of Gion Matsuri are Karasuma Station and Kawaramachi Station of the Hankyu Railway, as well as Gion-Shijo Station of Keihan Electric Railway.
In order to enjoy Gion Matsuri to the fullest, there are three things you should be careful about:
Although Gion Matsuri is one of the best known and largest festivals in the country, there are hardly any provisional toilets at the venue. We recommend using the toilets inside the train stations and convenience stores around the city.
Unfortunately, during this time of the year, it is not at all uncommon to have rain suddenly pouring down, especially during the evenings. Therefore, please make sure you have umbrellas or raincoats at hand, so you won’t have to worry about unexpected showers.
If you plan to buy some food or souvenirs at the festival food stalls, make sure you have some change in your wallet. The shops and food stalls might not be able to give you change for large notes such as 10,000 yen, so make sure you have small change at hand.
Gion Matsuri is the pride of Kyoto, boasting a history of at least one thousand years. How about experiencing it firsthand the next time you visit Kyoto?
Main image by Pixta.
Original article by Keishi Kawakami
This article is a rewritten version of an article published on July 1, 2014.