I visited the Gion Festival in Kyoto in July 2015
My friend was flying to Osaka on the 15th. He arrived late at night. He flew back to Thailand on the morning of the 20th. That gave him really only four days in Japan. I had planned for us to visit Kyoto. We would stay there the 16th and the 17th.
When we got up on the 16th we spent a few hours in Osaka before catching a shinkansen to Kyoto. We had been warned a typhoon would hit Kyoto soon, it had been quite windy in Osaka. As we arrived in Kyoto, first we went up in Kyoto Tower to get a view of the city. While we were up there it was raining, but it stopped as soon as we were on ground level again.
We went to our hotel, had a rest and a shower, before going out to eat. While dining on yakitori, I noticed that something was going on outside. The street was closed for traffic, only pedestrians allowed, and I could see more and more people walking by. I mentioned it to my friend, we agreed to check it out after eating.
As we exited the restaurants we could see the street to the left of us was packed with people, food stalls were lining the side of the road. We quickly ventured into the crowd. A massive area of Kyoto had been closed for cars and turned into a market. Stalls were selling all kinds of food and sweets, there were games to be played and toys were on sale. There were people everywhere. The weather was nice too, still no sign of the typhoon.
We had no idea what was going on, just walked around taking in all the impressions. After a while we passed a stall from where a live radio show was broadcast. They called for us to come over and started asking us questions like where we came from and how we liked the festival. Before we left I managed to asked them the name of the festival. Gion Matsuri they said.
As we walked on I quickly googled the name to see what was going on. I learned that Gion Matsuri, or the Gion Festival, is an annual religious festival, and one of the most famous in Japan.
The Gion Festival dates back to the 9th century, when a series of plagues were spreading through the city of Kyoto. The Emperor Seiwa decreed that the people would pray to the kami (god) of the Yasaka shrine and that there be made 66 decorated halberds, each from one of the sixty-six provinces of Japan. These were to be placed at a garden in Kyoto along with the mishoki (portable shrines) from Yanaka shrine.
At first, this ritual was only performed whenever a new outbreak happened, but in year 970 the Gion Festival was declared an annual event.
Over the years, the merchant class of Kyoto gradually took control of the festival, making it grander and more expensive to show of their wealth.
Today, the Gion Festival consists of parading a total of 32 floats through the city. There are nine large floats, hoko, and 23 smaller floats or yama. The floats are decorated with art and tapestry from both Japan and abroad, and the yama also carry figures of famous people.
For three days before the parade, the floats are assembled in Downtown Kyoto, the streets are closed for cars and become a huge market. We had arrived on the last night before the parade, known as yoiyama. The parade would take place early the next morning.
The next day we did not get up for the parade. Last night had lasted later than planned, and it didn’t help getting up when looking out the window. It was raining. It was really raining. I guess the typhoon had arrived.
The massive downpour outside didn’t help our motivation to get out of bed at all. We opted for missing out on the parade, we had heard rumours that there would be something else happening in the evening. The few extra hours of sleep felt great.
Sightseeing that day wasn’t as good as it could have been. Kyoto has so much to offer, this was my friend’s second day in Japan and he still hadn’t seen a proper temple. But the typhoon kept throwing rain at us. All day it rained, it really rained. The water just kept pouring down, it never stopped. After seeing a few temples and taking a walk through the Gion district we were both soaking wet from our waist down, the umbrellas keeping our upper bodies quite dry. We were sick of sightseeing, sick of the rain, sick of wet feet, and decided to go back to the hotel for some rest and a hot bath.
Later that evening we went out to eat. It was still raining, but we were dry again, optimistic, and ready for hours under the umbrella. As we wandered through the city, time and time again we came upon lively processions carrying wooden portable shrines. The shrines were huge and must weight at least a thousand kilos. Surrounding the bearers were a huge crowd of people all ready to step in.
These were the Mikoshi, or portable shrines of the Yasaka shrine. They were taken from the shrine this night, then paraded through the city of Kyoto to gain the goodwill of the kami. As we walked through the city we ran into these processions time and time again, we got good views of all three processions.
We went to eat, this time we had Wagyu Beef, it was delicious, before venturing back out into the rain. On our way back to the hotel, on one of the main streets, we passed the final act of the festival. The three Mikoshi are placed in the city and stay there for a week in order to be close to the people of Kyoto. Two of the Mikoshi were already there, we watched the arrival of the last one.
The shrine was paraded in front of the building where it would be placed for a long time. Up and down the street, spun around in circles, the men carrying it shouting all the time. A rhythmic chant. Hei ho ho. Hei ho ho. They were soaking wet, the shrine must be so heavy, carried on their bare shoulders for such a long time. It looked so painful. And still I wish I could be one of them. To be part of that community. Be part of the tradition.
It was after midnight when the shrine finally was put down, to stay with the people of Kyoto for a week. People quickly went home, the rain was still as heavy. The bearers quickly left as well, some even before the ceremony was over. We still had to walk back to the hotel, about a ten minute walk. It felt so good to get home, have a warm bath, get dry. The Gion Festival was awesome, but would have been better without the typhoon. I guess I have to return some time.
The Gion Festival is held every year in the month of July. There are things happening the whole month, but the parade and the market are the main events. The parades of the floats and parade of the mikoshi are held on the 17th and the 24th of July, with the streets closed for traffic, and the market is held on the three days leading up to the parades (July 14, 16, 16, 21, 22 and 23). The festival, even though named Gion Matsuri or Gion Festival, is held in Downtown Kyoto and not in the Gion district.