Our partners from Akibatan visited the Gion Matsuri in July. In this article, they share with us the sight and sound of the festival from the ground. Let’s find out more about the amazing traditional event and enjoy the festival!

Once again, the sun shines bright in Japan bringing forth summer and also the many “Matsuri” (Festival) like Tanabata festival in July when the Japanese people would pray, wishing to the stars. Many Matsuri will be held in cities and regions within Japan, one of the most recognized festivals that many people visit every year is Gion Matsuri. This time around, Akibatan staff would like to introduce and guiding you through this festival with its backstories and festival’s atmosphere to tell of the beauty and greatness of this “Gion Matsuri”.

What is Gion Matsuri?

Gion Matsuri (祇園祭) is one of three grand festival in Kyoto, held throughout July annually, with the grand possessions on the 17th and 24thof the month. The name of festival came from Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社) also known as Gion Shrine (祇園神社). The shrine of Gion region is the dwelling of the God, Susanoo no Mikoto, with his wife and 8 sons.

Where the origin of Gion Matsuri came from?

The origin of Gion Matsuri can be traced back to Japan’s ancient god mythology about Susanoo no Mikoto, as we may know, Susanoo no Mikoto is brother to God of The Sun, Amaterasu and Goddess of The Moon, Tsukuyomi. Asides from his form as God of The Storm, he also has another form as Gozu Tenno (牛頭天王) the God who bring forth disaster, disease and hunger upon human race.

During the Heian period (794-1185 AD) 869 AD, many people die from disaster like the grand fire incident in Kyoto. The flood, earthquake, disease and hunger made people believe that the cause must be from the wrath of Gozu Tenno. To stop the disaster, Emperor Sewa ordered for the festival to be held, to worship and pleasure the God.

What do we have in Gion Matsuri?

Gion Matsuri is held at the Yasaka Shrine having the processions act as the representation of 66 province in Japan and the cart of God Omikoshi (お神輿) marching throughout city, believing it will cast away disease and worships the God Gozu Tenno. In the past, it will be held when a disease outbreaks happen but after 970 AD, the festival was held annually and became the grand festival of today.

The Matsuri (Festival) is divided into different portion as follows;

  • 1 – 2 July – Ceremony and the preparation of processions
  • 10 – 13 July – The preparation of processions
  • 14 July – Minor processions, Yoiyoi Yoiyama and night festival, it is three days before grand processions
  • 15 July – The road will be closed, making way for You Yoiyama and Yamaboko processions, two days before grand processions
  • 16 July – The road will be closed, making way for You Yoiyama and Yamaboko processions, a day before grand processions
  • 17 July – The Highlight of Gion Matsuri, Yamaboko Junko Processions held on 9:00 – 11:30 marching through Shijo and Kawaramachi road, starting from Shijo road and continue until the end of Karasuma road
  • 18 – 20 July – Second processions preparation
  • 21 July – Minor processions, Yoiyoi Yoiyama and night festival, it is three days before second Yamaboko Junko processions
  • 22 July – The road will be closed, making way for You Yoiyama and Yamaboko processions, two days before second Yamaboko Junko processions
  • 23 July – The road will be closed, making way for You Yoiyama and Yamaboko processions, a day before second Yamaboko Junko processions
  • 24 July – Second Yamaboko Junko processions on 9:00 – 11:30 with 3 Kilometers throughout Karasuma and Oike road, starting from Karasuma and continue until the end of Oike road
  • 25 – 31 July – Ceremony of the shrine and the end of festival

The processions Yamaboko Junko

On the 17th and 24th of July is the Yamaboko Junko Processions (山鉾巡行), It is a very lively day, especially during the grand processions on 17 July, the God’s cart will march through the centre of the city.

In the morning, the Yamaboko Junko will go through first, as the Shinto religion believed that the Yamaboko Junko will purify the path for Gods to travel and clear out all evil.

In afternoon, the three God’s cart will travel down the same path that Yamaboko Junko been through, after reaching centre of the city, the three God’s cart will be displayed for a week before a second procession on the 24th is made to bring the three God’s cart back to Yasaka shrine.

Gion Matsuri at Night

3 days before first and second grand processions (14 – 16 and 21- 23 July) Midtown roads of Kyoto, Shijo and Karasuma road will be closed turning it into walking streets. During this period, the festival booth will be all over the streets and it is during the day that people is allowed to visit the Hoko on display. People usually wear Yukata during this festival and some family in old shopping area will open their house to display family treasure for people to witness its beauty.

Gion Matsuri interesting facts

  • Dashi (山車) is processions cart, having different name up to each province or festival, in Gion Matsuri will be two kind, Yama (山) and Hoko (鉾) the combined name is Yamaboko (山鉾)
  • Yama (山) is small processions cart with the height about 6 metres, require 14-24 carrier, weight about 1 ton
  • Hoko (鉾) is a big processions cart and being one of festival highlight, with the height over 25 metres, 8 meters from ground to ceiling, wheels dimension almost 2 metres, require 30-40 carrier, weight over 12 ton (including carrier) The highlight of this cart is, the building process doesn’t require any nails, using only rope to tie everything together and was designed to spread the weight and vibration evenly also with shock absorbing. Rope using in the build of Hoko internal frame have overall length over 5,000 metres

Akibatan staff got the opportunity to participate in Yamaboko Junko processions in Gion Matsuri on the 17 July 2017. We have photos for you to see! Please check it out!

How was the Gion Matsuri? This festival will be held every July and is considered a highlight of Kyoto, during the 4 days of the grand processions (14-17 July) most hotels are usually fully occupied with many tourists all over Kyoto. If you want to visit this festival, you should plan out your trip and check the information carefully before visiting.

Akibatan staff kindly warn you!