In case you did not know, Kyoto’s biggest annual festival, Gion Matsuri, is actually held throughout the whole month of July, with the main parade falling on the 17th. Here is a complete guide to the one-month Gion Festival so that you don’t miss out on the fun!
From the 1st of July to the 5th, opening ceremonies for the festival called the “Kippu-iri” are held in each participating neighborhood throughout Kyoto.
On July 2nd, the “Kujitorishiki” is held, where the order of the floats for the parades are determined by lottery at the Municipal Assembly Hall. The Naginata Hoko, the only float containing small live boys while others consist of puppets resembling chigo (a sacred boy), is the first float to start the parade by default.
A “chigo” is a vessel for the deities and therefore, during this period, he is to be kept sacred by not touching the ground and staying away from contaminating influences such as the presence of women, etc.
The chigo children of Ayagasa Hoko (they don’t ride the float but walk along it during the parade instead) visit Yasaka Shrine on the 7th of July.
There are two rituals on the 10th of July.
From 6 PM, three large and one small (carried by children) portable shrines or mikoshi are carried across the Kamo River for the “Mikoshi Arai” – where priests purify all the mikoshi in the river.
The “Omukae Chochin” or “Lantern Reception” is also held on this day to welcome all the mikoshi. There will be young girls performing the Sagi Odori (Heron Dance), the Komachi Odori (Young Ladies’ Dance), and the Gion Matsuri Ondo.
A few chigo among Kyoto’s traditional families are chosen every year. In the morning, chigo children of Naginata Hoko visit Yasaka Shrine to pray for the whole festival’s success.
Two types of floats – Yama and Hoko – are constructed during this period for the main procession on the 17th. A total of 23 floats are to be built. On the 12th and 13th of July, members of the parade try out their newly built floats. All these can be seen along the Shijo Street where each float has its respective temporary station.
The 14th to 16th of July is called the “Saki Matsuri,” or the early part of the celebration. The nights of these dates are called Yoiyoiyoiyama, Yoiyoiyama, and Yoiyama, respectively.
For three nights before the main parade, visitors flock to the Shijo Karasuma area where food and game stalls line up the streets. The area will also be closed to vehicles to accommodate the crowd.
Also during this period, some wealthy and influential families (Shinmachi and Muromachi areas) are expected to let the public view their heirlooms, such as antique folding screens and scrolls.
Yoimiya Shinshin Hono Shinji (dedicative art performances), such as the “Iwami Kagura,” will be performed on the Noh stage located at Yasaka Shrine. They are usually held in the evening.
The main procession of the festival known as the “Yamaboko Junko” usually starts at 9 AM. A chigo riding the Naginata Hoko will cut the sacred rope and the float will depart and lead the other 23 floats. The procession ends after the Fune Hoko (the last float by default) has covered its route.
Among the highlights of this day is the “Tsujimawashi.” This is a spectacular sight to behold as the Hoko floats that were built without rudders (used for steering) are turned at an intersection with some water, bamboo, and manpower.
In the evening, there will be a mikoshi procession known as “Shinko-sai,” where the portable shrines are carried from Yasaka Shrine to the otabisho (temporary shrine).
The building of floats for the “Ato Matsuri,” or the latter part of the celebration, happens during this period.
The 21st to 23rd of July is the “Ato Matsuri.” The nights of these dates are also called Yoiyoiyoiyama, Yoiyoiyama, and Yoiyama, respectively. The same activities held during the Saki Matsuri are held again.
The second Yamaboko Junko is held with 10 floats joining in for a parade on a route different from that of Saki Matsuri. The “Hanagasa Junko” or “Flower Umbrella Procession” is also held simultaneously on this day. There will be a Shinko-sai in the evening where the portable shrines are carried back to Yasaka Shrine.
The floats are to be dismantled immediately to avoid the diseases gathered during the procession from spreading.
The celebration comes to an end with a summer purification ritual conducted at the Eki sub-shrine of Yasaka Shrine. The priest gives blessings to the participants of the Gion Festival and they later pass through the sacred reed ring. After all the members have gone through it, the public is allowed to pass through as well.
Visitors are advised to check the parade routes before attending the processions of the Gion Festival. During the Yoiyama nights, the Gion Matsuri Yoiyama Council will set up information centers at the Shijo Station area and the Kawaramachi Station area, so remember to grab some information brochures available in a few different languages.