Translated by Jelena Kitamura
Gion Matsuri - The Complete Guide To Kyoto's Great Festival
The annual Gion Festival in Kyoto is celebrated as one of Japan's three great festivals alongside Osaka’s Tenjin Festival and Tokyo’s Kanda Festival. Witness gigantic floats as they parade around the Kyoto's streets.
Written by MATCHA
The Story Behind Gion Matsuri – Kyoto’s 1000-Year Old Festival
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, this festival was granted a place on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Its huge yamahoko (decorated floats used during festivals) parading through the city center, is considered to be a symbol of Kyoto’s summer days.
Gion Matsuri, or Gion Festival in English, originated as a festival of the Yasaka Shrine. Its celebration dates all the way back to the year 869, more than 1000 years ago!
It is said that during that year, the whole country was swallowed up by an epidemic, resulting in many deaths. In order to try and somehow bring down the epidemic, the city started hosting a festival called Goryoe which is the origin of Gion Matsuri.
There were times when the festival was canceled because of wars that occurred in the country. However, it would always be revived, making it a part of Kyoto’s history.
What are Yamahoko? The Highlights of the Gion Matsuri
The greatest highlight of the Gion Festival is the yamahoko parade. Yamahoko, as mentioned above, is a type of a float (dashi in Japanese), or a platform, that is carried around during a Shinto festival. Yamahoko are about 25 meters high, and the largest ones can weigh up to 12 tons!
In order to let the large yamahoko pass during the march, it is necessary to make some adjustments to the road of the route. One of these adjustments is folding up the street lights where the yamahoko is supposed to be carried. Of course, not every street light can be folded up like this. This is only possible in the case of the Gion Matsuri. The street light equipment along the route is made to be manageable in such way.
The scene of a large number of yamahoko 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 platforms are carried during the saki matsuri and 10 platforms during the following ato matsuri, which makes it 33 platforms in total. Each of the yamahoko is decorated lavishly for this occasion portraying some famous Japanese legends and stories.
A yamahoko is usually pulled by 40 to 50 people. Gion Matsuri’s famous tsujimawashi (photo) has a platform rotating 90-degree which is the result of the human strength only. It is another highlight of the festival that will leave you astonished. It is a sight to be witnessed in person, so don’t miss the opportunity to do so!
Another popular act of the yamahoko parade is gionbayashi. 40 to 50 persons ride on top of the yamahoko while giving a musical performance. Thanks to the magical sounds of taiko drums, Japanese flutes, as well as the Japanese gong called "shou" in Japanese, the festival atmosphere is even more elevated.
Each year, all the yamahoko floats are assembled in the preparation for the festival and are dismantled when the festival is over.
The Route of the Yamahoko Parade
The route of the yamahoko parade consists the Shijo-dori (from Kawaramachi Station to Karasuma Station), the 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 the days of the festival, so be sure to check the official webpage (Japanese and English) for more information.
The Schedule of Gion Matsuri
Gion Matsuri is held each year from July 1st to July 31st, lasting for about a whole month. The dates are the same every year, no matter the day of the week.
The festival is at its entertaining peak during the three days of the yoiyama (night festival) as well as during the saki matsuri yamahoko parade. One week after that the ato matsuri will display amazing yamahoko parade.
On the 15th and 16th, during the yoiyama, the main streets of Shijo-dori and Karasuma-dori become a true heaven for the pedestrians, with food stands lining up along the route.
Yoiyama July 14th-16th
Saki Matsuri July 17th
Ato Matsuri July 24th
The stations closest to the venue of the Gion Festival are the Karasuma Station and the Kawaramachi Station of the Hankyu Railway, and the Gion-Shijo Station of the Keihan Electric Railway.
Three Things To Keep In Mind During The Gion Matsuri
In order to enjoy the Gion Festival to the fullest, there are three things you should be aware of beforehand:
Although Gion Matsuri is one of the most well-known, large-scale festivals in the country, there are hardly any provisional toilets provided at the venue. That is why we recommend using the toilets inside the train station and convenience stores around the city.
Unfortunately, during this period, it is not at all uncommon to suddenly have rain pouring down on the visitors of the festival, especially during the evenings. Therefore, you should buy umbrellas or raincoats beforehand, so you won’t have to worry about unexpected rain.
If you want to buy some food or souvenirs at the festival food stalls, it would be advised to have some small change in your wallet. Don’t forget to prepare some beforehand as the shops might not be able to give you change for large notes such as 10.000 yen.
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Head to Gion Matsuri!
Now you know about Gion Matsuri, Kyoto’s festival that lived through centuries and is more than 1000 years old. How about experiencing it firsthand the next time you visit this city?
The writer of the original article: Keishi Kawakami
This article is a rewritten version of an article published on July 1st, 2014.