Summer can be very exciting in charming Kyoto. There isn’t a single day or night that passes without the bustle of a gala event. Despite high temperature and humidity, summer nights stand out for their refreshing breeze and lit-up verandas (Yuka in Japanese) of the restaurants along Kamo river.
Mainly in July, Kyoto gets even more lively and attractive. And in the heart of the city (Sanjo and Shijo streets) young people play and perform modern dances. Beautiful girls dressed in Yukata (the summer version of kimono), and families go for a night walk to enjoy the typical foods such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki or kakigori. This is also the time for Gion Matsuri, one of the most famous and oldest Japanese festivals. Its origins get back to 869 when it was performed as a ritual of purification, based on Shintoism philosophy. Since then, Gion Matsuri rose up with its lights shining through summer nights and protecting us from the devils.
Currently, Gion Matsuri is listed on UNESCO representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And it can be appreciated by everyone for free. Just get yourself a nice spot and do not forget your camera and some water. The most recommended main parades are held on July 14th and 21st.
Gion is composed of two kanji characters and is also a name of traditional area in Kyoto. The first 祇, reads GI and can be translated as local god, peaceful or great. The second 園, reads ON and means park, yard and garden.
Matsuri 祭 is one character, which means festival, worship, ritual, celebration and offering prayers.
When Kyoto was the capital of Japan, during Heian Period(794), the Japanese underwent a sequence of catastrophes (earthquake, tsunami, plague and epidemics). As Kyoto people were devoted Shinto believers, under the fear, the Emperor Seiwa ordered people to pray. So, they organized parades, carrying portable statuaries (mikoshi), and would decorated 66 halberds representing 66 old provinces. They worshiped the god Susano-o-no-mikoto, who rules sea and storms, and is related to Yasaka shrine, the one located in the east of Shijo Street, where the parades are set up and initiated.
Before 970, Gion ritual was held in case of outbreaks. After that it turned official and has been hold yearly for the whole month July. In 1630-1868 (Edo Period) the merchant families made the festival even more opulent and sophisticated. In 1533 Ashijaga Shogunate halted all religious festivals, but with protests people gained the opportunity to re-elaborate the festival and made it very similar to the current version. In 1957, the new dance welcoming WW2 soldiers was added. Nowadays, aside from impressive decorations, heavy wooden floats and all the ancient customs, we can enjoy the contrast of modern and ancient Kyoto. It is really cool!
- July 1 through 5: Kippuiri, opening ceremony of festival, in each participating neighbourhood
- July 2: Kujitorishiki, lottery for the parade order, in the municipal assembly hall
- July 7: Shrine visit by chigo children of Ayagasaboko
- July 10: Lantern parade to welcome mikoshi portable shrines
- July 10: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo River
- July 10 through 13: Building-up of floats （Former parade）
- July 13 a.m.: Shrine visit by chigo children of Naginataboko
- July 13 p.m.: Shrine visit by chigo children of Kuse Shrine
- July 14: Yoiyoiyoiyama（ Former parade）
- July 15: Yoiyoiyama（ Former parade）
- July 16: Yoiyama（ Former parade）
- July 16: Yoimiya shinshin hono shinji, dedicated art performances
- July 17: Parade of yamaboko floats（Former parade ）
- July 17: Parade of mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine to the city
- July 18 through 20: Building-up of floats （Latter parade）
- July 21: Yoiyoiyoiyama（Latter parade）
- July 22: Yoiyoiyama（Latter parade）
- July 23: Yoiyama（Latter parade）
- July 24: Parade of yamaboko floats（Latter parade ）
- July 24: Parade of hanagasa or “flower parasols”
- July 24: Parade of mikoshi from the city to Yasaka Shrine
- July 28: Mikoshi arai, cleansing of mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo river
- July 31: Closing service at Eki Shrine