The Gion Festival, preserving a 1100-year-old tradition
The Gion Festival, one of Japan’s three great festivals, is a religious celebration that has continued at Yasaka Shrine for 1100 years, and for 1 month from July 1st to July 31st every year, it’s held at the shrine and in the central area of Kyoto. Starting with the Yamaboko Junko parade and the Shinko Festival, various events unfold. At the Shinsen-en Temple where a giant garden of the ancient capital existed, 66 halberds representing the 66 territories within Japan at the time stand in worship of the Gion gods, and the prayers for the prevention of disasters began from here. The yamaboko floats are decorated with ornaments from all places and times so that they have also been called moving museums, and since they fulfill the role of cleansing the city of evil spirits during the parade, they are promptly dismantled once the parade ends.
The Yamaboko Junko parade, the biggest highlight
The parade is separated into the saki-matsuri (former parade) and ato-matsuri (latter parade), and the 3 days prior to each parade are called the yoiyama. The yoiyama events for the saki-matsuri are held on July 14th-16th, with paper lanterns on the yamaboko floats being lit up and goods such as charms and folding fans being sold. In addition, boarding passes are sold so that you can ride on the floats during the yoiyama only. On the 15th and the 16th, the streets are closed off to automobile traffic, so many people enjoy the street stalls that are set up. On the day of the saki-matsuri, the 17th, 23 yamaboko floats depart at 9 a.m. from the Shijo-Kawaramachi area, and the Shimenawa-kiri event at Shijo-Fuyacho and the Tsuji-mawashi event where the floats are turned at every intersection are the biggest highlights. From 4 p.m. on the same day, the Shinko Festival is held and 3 portable shrines (mikoshi) from Yasaka Shrine are paraded through Kyoto until about 8 p.m. Events for the ato-matsuri are held on July 21st-23rd, and although street stalls are not present, at the ato-matsuri on the 24th, 10 floats start from Karasuma-Oike and go on a course that is the reverse for that of the saki-matsuri. The spectacle of these giant yamaboko floats, reaching up to a maximum of 12t, parading through the streets of Kyoto is amazing. The saki-matsuri which is the livelier of the two parades is a great event that cannot be missed.