In Kyoto, the largest annual festival is Gion Matsuri, a summer festival held to ward off disease and disasters. If you weren’t aware, Gion Matsuri is actually celebrated throughout the entire month of July, with the main festivities taking place on the 17th. However, for those visiting Kyoto in July, there are still a number of interesting components of the festival you can observe throughout the month. This guide will take you through the entire month of July examining the various sights and festivities that occur in this period.
During the first week of July, the opening ceremony for Gion Matsuri, Kippu-Iri, is held throughout Kyoto. Many Kyoto neighborhoods participate in the festival, so a Kippu-Iri is held in each one.
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. By default, the starting float in the parade is the Naginata Hoko, which will carry local boys along the route, while the following floats will only carry child puppets. These puppets are meant to resemble chigo, historically young boys who would serve as a religious vessel while residing in a Buddhist monastery.
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 and alcohol.
The chigo children of Ayagasa Hoko visit Yasaka Shrine on the 7th of July. During the entire month of July, chigo cannot touch the ground, so they are often transported by animal or carried on other persons.
July 10th is a busy day, with two rituals occurring over this time.
The first ritual starts in the afternoon with the Lantern Reception, or Omukae Chochin, is done to welcome the small portable shrines mikoshi. The mikoshi are received at the Yasaka Shrine, where they will return to later in the month. Young girls will perform three dances: the Sagi Odori (Heron Dance), the Komachi Odori (Young Ladies’ Dance), and the Gion Ondo.
The second ritual occurring after is the Mikoshi Arai, where the mikoshi shrines are carried to the nearby Kamo river to be purified.
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.
During the 2nd week of July, the floats for the parade on the 17th are constructed. A total of 23 floats will be built, each belonging to one of two float designs – Yama and Hoko. On the 12th and 13th of July, parade members perform practice runs with their newly constructed floats. These float constructions can be seen along Shijo street, each being worked on by their host neighborhood.
During the 3rd week of July, the Saki Matsuri is celebrated. Literally translated as “early festival”, it’s celebrated across the three nights prior to the procession on the 17th. Visitors flock to the Shijo-Karasuma area where food and game stalls are lined up along the streets. To accommodate the flow of human traffic, this area is closed to vehicles, so getting around is easy.
During the Saki Matsuri, some of Kyoto’s wealthy families residing in the Shinmachi and Muromachi districts also present their heirlooms to the public. These can be antique items such as scrolls or folding screens.
At the Yasaka Shrine, dedicated art performances such as the Iwami Kagura are performed on a Noh stage 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 a sacred rope and the float will depart and lead the other 23 participating floats. The procession ends after the Fune Hoko, the last float has completed its route.
Among the highlights of this day is the Tsujimawashi. This is a spectacular sight to behold as the Hoko floats were built without steering rudders. What results is the parade attendants working together to turn the floats at the street intersections along the parade route using water, bamboo, and ropes.
In the evening, there will be a mikoshi procession known as the Shinko-sai, in which the portable shrines are carried from Yasaka Shrine to a temporary waiting shrine, or otabisho.
The building of floats for the “Ato Matsuri,” or the latter part of the celebration, happens during this period.
The 4th week of July is called Ato Matsuri, or After the Festival. The nights of this week on the 2st to the 2rd are called Yoiyoiyoiyama, Yoiyoiyama, and Yoiyama respectively, which repeat the events of the Saki Matsuri.
On the 24th of July, a second Yamaboko Junko is held across a different route with only 10 floats participating. The Hanagesa Junko, or Flower Umbrella Procession is also held simultaneously on this day. There is another Shinko-sai in the evening where the portable mikoshi shrines are carried back to Yasaka Shrine.
As part of the disease purifying ritual, the procession floats are dismantled, in order to prevent the diseases “gathered” during the procession from spreading.
On the final day of July, Gion Matsuri ends with a summer purification ritual conducted at the Eki sub-shrine at the Yasaka shrine. The priest gives blessings to the participants of the Gion Festival and they later pass through a sacred ring of reeds. After all of the members have passed through it, the public is permitted to pass through it as well.
Visitors are advised to check the parade routes before attending the processions of the Gion Festival. During the Yoiyama nights following the July 17th procession, information centers are set up at the Shijo ttation and Kawaramachi station areas. These will have information brochures available in some languages for the convenience of visitors.
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