The Gion festival is perhaps the biggest festival in the country of Japan. It has been celebrated by the nation since the year of 869. This festival becomes a very large party especially when it is celebrated during the two period of middle of July. Here, grandly decorated large floats are paraded across the streets of Japan. This celebration is always held during the entire month of July. But selected days are held for the grand festival.
About Gion Festival
The Gion festival which is held every July in Kyoto is one of the three greatest festivals in Japan along with Tokyo’s Kanda Festival and Osaka’s Tenjin Festival. In fact, back in 2009, the Gion festival got included in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Massive floats called yamahoko are paraded across the center of the city. This is regarded as the main symbol of the summer days of Kyoto.
History of Gion Festival
The Gion festival started as a festival of the Yasaka shrine. The start of the celebration can be traced back to the year 869 which is over 1000 years ago. According to historians, during the year of 869, a huge epidemic struck the country of Japan which resulted in many deaths. In order to get rid the nation of the epidemic, people started a celebration called the Goryeo which gradually evolved to become the Gion Festival or the Gion Matsuri.
But during the entire period between 869 up until now, there were times when the festival was not held due to events like wars. But despite of that, the celebration of this event continued and is now one of the staples ones in the country of Japan. It has become a grandeur celebration that a lot of people participate in. It has also become a major part of Kyoto’s culture and traditions.
The name of the festival comes from the name of the district of the city where it is celebrated – Gion district.
When is the Gion Festival?
The Gion Matsuri is always held in the prefecture of Tokyo each year. It lasts for the entire month of July. But it culminates on July 1 and July 13, the main celebrations, wherein the parade called Yamaboko Junko is held. This means that the Gion festival will be celebrated in Japan on 17 July.
Gion Festival Celebration
There are so many ways to celebrate the Gion festival to its full potential. However, the most important activities of the celebration include the following:
Witness the Floats
The highlight of the Gion festival can be seen on the opposite side of the Kamo river. About three days before the procession, the hook and the yama are displayed about half a kilometer on the intersection of the Shijo and Karasuma streets. While these are being displayed, tourists can grab the photo opportunity with these great sights.
The Yamaboko Junko floats are then put into a procession during the 17th and 24th of July at 9:00 and 11:30 am. The procession follows a 3 kilomoter route along the Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike streets. Those who just want to see the spectacle but do not want to join the long procession can get paid seats in front of the city hall. Such seats should be booked in advance in some online sites. But this is not the only place where you can witness the parade. There are more venues for that.
Enjoy the Festival Nights
Perhaps the activities most people enjoy for the Gion festival are the festival nights. These are celebrated from 18:00 to 23:00 in the streets that are full of food stands, vendors of drinks, and other sellers of festival hallmarks. These streets are closed to traffic. These evenings are also filled with processions including the Yoiyama which happens on the 16th of July, the Yoiyoiyama which happens on the 15th of July, and the Yoiyoiyoiyama which happens on the 14th of JJuly.
The Procession of Mikoshi
The mikoshi is also praded across the streets on the 17th of July starting at 18:00. It starts from the Yasaka shrine and ends at Otabisho. In this parade, people carry the deity’s shrine.
Important Things to Keep in Mind for the Gion Festival
If you are planning to participate in the Gion festival, there are some important things that you should always remember to make sure that your celebration of this event will reach its full potential with a peace of mind.
Where to Find Toilets?
You will be celebrating the Gion festival mostly on the streets of Kyoto. However, you will hardly see provisional toilets on the road. Hence, if you need to go to the toilet, you must use those inside the convenience stores and train stations around the city.
Be Prepared for the Rain
The period of the celebration is not immune to rain. Such weather will always remain unpredictable. The good thing about the event is that it continues, rain or shine. Thus, you need to bring your own umbrella just to be prepared in case the rain comes.
There are so many stalls across the streets during the festival. And so, if you want to buy some good or souvenir, you must bring your own money. You do not want to leave the festivity empty handed. And for sure, you will be craving some of the foods and drinks you will see being offered by the stalls.
Gion Festival FAQs
What is the Yamahoko Parade?
The main highlight of the Gion festival is the yamahoko parade. Yamahoko, or dashi in Japanese, is a kind of float or platform carried by the participants of the parade around the city during the Shinto festival. The yamahoko is about 25 meters high with the largest ones reaching a weight of up to 12 tons.
How does the large yamahoko float pass across the streets?
During the parade of the yamahoko, various adjustments on the street roads are made so that the yamahoko can pass. Adjustments include folding up the street lights where the yamahoko will pass. But take note that not all street lights in Japan can be folded up in such a way like this. Only those street lights where the yamahoko float will pass are the ones that have this ability.
What are the floats of the yamahoko parade?
The Gion festival is actually divided into two: the early festival called the saki matsuri and the later festival called the ato matsuri. There are 23 platforms paraded for the saki matsuri while there are 10 platforms paraded for the ato matsuri. In total, there are 33 platforms for both. Each of the yamahoko float is decorated in a grand way. Each of them portray Japanese stories and legends.
How are the yamahoko floats carried?
Each yamahoko float is carried by about 40 to 50 people. In particular, the tsujimawashi of the Gion festival contains a platform that can rotated by 90 degrees thereby helping people who are pulling the floats. It would be too difficult for such a small group of people to carry a heavy weighted float.
The fact is that each yamahoko float can be disassembled into components. These are kept for next year’s festival where they will be assembled again together.
What is the Route of the Yamahoko Parade?
The Yamahoko parade passes through the Shijo-dori from the Kawaramachi station to the Karasuma station. It then goes to the Kawaramachi-doru from the Kwaramachi Station to the Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae station. And finally, it goes to the Oike-dori from the Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae to the Karasuma Oike-dori. But to be sure, you can just check the official webpage of the festival so that you’ll know the exact route of the parade. Usually, the parade goes in different routes for the different days of the festival.
What is the Schedule of the Yamahoko Parade?
The Gion Matsuri is celebrated for the entire month of July – from 1st of July to 31st of July. The celebration of the festival reaches its peak during the 3 day celebration of the yoiyama or the night festival and also during the saki matsuri yamahoko parade. One week after that, the ato matsuri will display the yamahoko parade. During the 15th and 16th of July, the main streets of Karasuma-dori and Shijo-dori become a haven for tourists because of food stands lining up across the streets.
In particular, the Yoiyama happens every 14th to 16th of July. The Saki Matsuri is held on the 1st of July. And finally, the ato matsuri is celebrated on the 13th of July. These dates are kept for the 2020 and 2021 celebration of the Gion festival.