The Prevalence of the Gion Matsuri Tradition

  • Having always read and watched Japanese related events and traditional rituals from a third world country or a country with poor heritage, a desire to lively witness one has always been an unfulfilled desire until the day I set foot on the Gion Matsuri festival that was actually unbelievably more marvelous than the highest of my expectations. Starting from 869 when a plague was the cause of abundant suffering, a special prayer for the Yasaka Shrine God was an order by the emperor Seiwa as a solution to the termination of this misery. With several other hardships following the last one, by the Edo period, it has been decided that this should become a ritual, making Gion Matsuri one of three main festivals in Japan nowadays. However, we ask ourselves, how did it earn the position to be among the top three festivals? How was it able to keep its tradition so lively after all these years? Has this routine, in modern Japan become of less preciousness as it used to be? Or has it remained as significant due to its consistency over the years? We will answer the previously asked question by offering an exclusive as well as informative point of view through the detailed description of the Matsuri experience.

    Having been to the festival last summer as well as this one, Gion matsuri has never failed to amaze me. Going on one of the three main days called Yoiyoiyama, what will be discovered for new comers is the former parade and apparently the most crowded day of the Gion Festival period. Stepping on the scene of the action, bells ringing, people chanting, food smell spreading, you can tell that this is going to be an unusual special day for you and the society. After all the three main days fall in mid-July, which in term of the Japanese system is close to the ending of the academic year. That being mentioned, we could say this Gion Festival falls at the perfect timing coincidentally since it is the optimal time to have a fully stress free break as an incentive to release the end of the year tension and properly complete the end of the semester afterwards.

    Closure of streets creates unlimited night stalls scattered up linearly all over the place selling traditional Japanese food such as Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki, Karaage etc… With most of the attendants dressed in Yukata, we can tell this festival is not only a way to escape the stress of work and enjoy the food and leisure, but also a way to feel part of the event and put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors by dressing accordingly. Furthermore, I have personally visited this event twice in Kyoto, specifically the area that named the festival itself, “Gion”. Clearly, that makes it a lot more specialized and exceptional comparing to the other cities the event is held in. Henceforth, the magnificent atmosphere is not only stunning entertainment wise, but is conventionally religious in parallel. With all the Yamaboko floats, Niwatoriboko float, Naginata Hoko and Ayagasaboko float marchers carrying and doing their ritual duty, the aim of this event is to purify the environment from any negativity or potential adversity.

    Moreover, from a personal point of view as a witness of the scene, I can notice that this event has become prominent to the extent that even foreigners are willing to travel all the way just to visit this stunning Matsuri. Being more crowded than any other event I have been to in Japan, we notice that this event has people from all ages and places, from elementary students to elderly, from conservative Japanese individuals to foreigners from the end of the world, we could say Gion Festival is a time of happiness where everyone gets together for some leisure and purification. Additionally, the large number of attendants makes the number of food stalls rise in parallel which is also a sign of good economy in the market. Therefore, the Gion Matsuri is an event that doesn’t only satisy the citizens, but also the society, spiritually as well as economically.

    Besides, in this festival there is an occurring event named Byōbu Matsuri where some families exhibit their private houses as a means of observation of traditional Japanese residences of Kyoto that kept their old habits and antiquely precious valuables. All making this event not only metaphysically, religiously as well as entertainingly satisfying but historically and culturally in parallel.

    The following are some of the pictures of my friends and I in the Gion Matsuri of this year and last year. (they are taken with our cameras)

    Finally, we can conclude by answering the question. Even though we live in a much different time with maybe not as many hardships as the older generations had to face, the Gion Matsuri in Japan and specifically Kyoto, was able to keep its tradition alive to this day. And that is because Japanese people with their hard work and seriousness kept the culture and older traditions prevailing because no matter the time, it is necessary to have purifications, because after all life is a challenge even if it is easier now than it used to be. Everyone needs some time during the year for such a festival as it improves us spiritually, religiously, culturally and entertainingly. It is a reminder that we are still surviving despite all the plagues and miseries we encountered, it is an appreciation of life and a chance be thankful for our position regardless of the temporary misfortunes. By doing that Japan remains one of the most beautiful countries in the world, if not the best, at keeping its rituals and culture as significant to the past as it should be to the present and future.

    Gion festival detail ※Japanese only

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