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Gion Matsuri Festival

Gion Matsuri Festival

What is the Gion Matsuri Festival?

The Gion Matsuri in Kyoto is one of the three greatest local festivals in Japan.The other two are the Kanda Matsuri in Tokyo and Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka. Among these the Gion Matsuri may be said to be the largest and most luxurious festival.

It is held annually from July 1 to 31 as the midsummer celebration of Yasaka Jinja Shrine.The highlights of this celebration take place on the 17th (Former or Saki Matsuri Festival) and the 24th (Latter or Ato Matsuri Festival) when the processions of total 34 floats are demonstrated along the main streets of the city.

All of Kyoto is in festive mood during this period. Houses along the route of procession are usually open to the public where people can enjoy many screens and other treasures of true Japanese culture which have been handed down through generations on display.
Hence, this event is also called Byobu Matsuri, the Screen Festival.

Origin

While Kyoto was the capital of Japan, the whole country was stricken with a plague in 869, so the Emperor dispatched his special messenger to Yasaka Jinja Shrine to pray for the immediate end of the terrible plague. And he also commanded Yasaka Jinja Shrine to erect sixty-six halberds representing the sixty-six provinces of the country.

Also, it was generally believed that the spirit of the brother of the female solar deity in Japanese mythology was enshrined in Gion Shrine, the old name of Yasaka Jinja Shrine, and furthermore, that this spirit was transferred to several sacred carriages belonging to Yasaka Jinja Shrine. This spirit was said to have unusual power to combat the plague, therefore, these sacred carriages were carried in the middle of Kyoto by young men of the city and of the neighboring farms.

As a result, the terrible plague disappeared, and people were gratified with the celebration.

In appreciation, the people of Kyoto made it a rule to have this festival in 970. Therefore people can now enjoy this celebration every year. But wars prevented people from having this celebration in the latter part of the 15th century.

In order to add splendor and attractiveness to the floats used in the procession many treasures and ornaments which distinguish these floats were imported from ancient China, Persia, Old Korea, Holland, France and other countries noted for their fine treasures.

This practice started in the Edo period (from 17th century). People have always been making efforts to improve the attractiveness of the floats and to provide more enjoyment for both the participants in the procession and the observers.

Outline of the festivities

 The Gion Matsuri continues practically throughout the month of July, and consists of various major and minor events. The most important ones are:

July 2
Kujitori-shiki
In this event, drawing lots to decide the order of the procession of the floats is held in the presence of the mayor and leaders of the Festival.
July 10, evening
Omukae-Chochin (Welcoming Lanterns)
The shrine parishioners, with festival lanterns hoisted on long bamboo poles, go to the Shrine to give their respectful welcomes to sacred carriages. 
*The event will be cancelled in 2022.
July 10
Mikoshi-Arai (The rites of cleaning the Sacred Carriages)
This is indeed a special rite of cleaning the mikoshi (Sacred Carriages of the Shinto Shrine).
The principal sacred carriage of Yasaka Jinja Shrine is carried undecorated to Shijo Ohashi Bridge where the chief priest of the Shrine officiates at the purification rites alongside the waters of the Kamogawa River. 
*The event at the Shijo Ohashi Bridge will be cancelled in 2022 (will be taken place in the shrine precinct, instead).
July 14~16
Former Festival Yoiyama
The pedestrian roads and the floats themselves are gorgeously decorated with festival lanterns.
At dark, all of these are lighted, and the Gion Matsuri music from the floats fills the air. Each float has its own room nearby, where the treasures which are to be fastened to it for the procession may be seen.
July 17, 9 a.m.
Former Festival Yamahoko-Junko (Float Procession)
The procession of 23 floats is demonstrated along Shijo, Kawaramachi, and Oike streets. Their beautiful decorations appear even more splendid under the bright summer sunshine.
July 17
Shinko-Sai (Procession of the Sacred Carriages)
The three sacred carriages are carried from the Shrine on the shoulders of men. The sacred carriages arrive shortly afterward at the Otabisho, their temporary abode located on Shijo street.
*The carriages will go straight to the Otabisho in 2022.
 July 21~23  Latter Festival Yoiyama
The pedestrian roads and the floats themselves are gorgeously decorated with festival lanterns.
At dark, all of these are lighted, and the Gion Matsuri music from the floats fills the air. Each float has its own room nearby, where the treasures which are to be fastened to it for the procession may be seen.
July 24, 9:30 a.m.
Latter Festival Yamahoko-Junko (Float Procession)
The procession of 11 floats is demonstrated along Oike, Kawaramachi and Shijo streets.
July 24
Hanagasa-Junko (Procession of Flower Sunshade)
*The event will be cancelled in 2022.
July 24
Kanko-Sai (Procession of the Sacred Carriage)
The three sacred carriages are carried from their temporary abode and finally return to their Shrine.
*The carriages will go straight from the Otabisho to the Shrine in 2022.
July 28
Mikoshi Arai (Rite of Cleaning the Sacred Carriages)
The sacred carriages are taken from the Shrine to Shijo Ohashi Bridge and are cleaned according to time-honored custom, and then taken back to their Shrine around 8:00 p.m.. 
*The event at the Shijo Ohashi Bridge will be cancelled in 2022 (will be taken place in the shrine precinct, instead).
July 31, 10:00 a.m.
Nagoshi Festival at Eki Jinja Shrine
A large wreath (chinowa) is set at Yasaka Shrine and the Chinowa Kuguri rite is held.
 

The location and Junko cource of Yamahoko in Saki Matsuri (Former Procession)


The location and Junko cource of Yamahoko in Ato Matsuri (Latter Procession)


Gion Matsuri Festival Saki Matsuri (Former Procession) and Ato Matsuri (Latter Procession) – Revival after half a century

In traditional Japanese festivals, people transfer the deity from one shrine to a special place during the festival, and then, return it to the original place as the festival ends. Therefore, two rituals are naturally very important: the one to welcome the deity and the other to return it to the original place.

Generally, mikoshi portable shrines play important roles in both rituals to carry the spirit of the deity. The mikoshi are carried on people’s shoulders and paraded around the neighborhood. Then, the mikoshi are temporarily placed in the special place called Otabisho until the deity is returned to the original shrine. The ritual to carry the deity out is called the Shinko-sai Festival while the one that returns the deity is called the Kanko-sai Festival.

In the Gion Matsuri Festival, the Shinko-sai Festival is held on the 17th and the Kanko-sai Festival is on the 24th of July. Gorgeously decorated floats were considered to be preliminary celebration before the important mikoshi processions. The float procession prior to the Shinko-sai Festival is called Saki Matsuri (the Former Procession) and the procession prior to the Kanko-sai Festival is called Ato Matsuri (the Latter Procession). Hence, the original Gion Matsuri Festival used to have two float processions.

The Saki Matsuri and the Ato Matsuri had different procession routes. The Saki Matsuri went on Shijo Street from the west to the east, turned to the south on Teramachi Street, and then, turned to the west at Matsubara Street. The Ato Matsuri went on Sanjo Street from the west to the east, turned to the south on Teramachi Street, and then, turned to the west at Shijo Street.
During Japan’s high economical growth period, the procession routes had to be changed due to increasing car traffic on the roads. In 1966, the Saki Matsuri and Ato Matsuri were merged and only one procession took place on July 17th until 2013.

However, since 2014, the Gion Matsuri Festival has returned to its original form. In order to succeed the tradition of the festival faithfully, processions started to be held twice. Finally, the original form of the festival that has existed for over 1000 years returned to the present-day.

Gion Matsuri Festival Procession Viewing Seat Tickets

Gion Matsuri Festival Procession Viewing Seat Tickets(reserved seating with a pamphlet) for July 17 and 24: Oike-dori street are sold in 2022.

Information about Procession Viewing Seat Tickets(Japanese only)

https://ja.kyoto.travel/event/major/gion/seat.php

*Tickets are not refundable. We apologize if tickets are sold out.

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