This Darticle is the most precise guide on Gion matsuri festival in Kyoto; its schedule, history, the reason why it is celebrated, route of Yamahoko parade, Yoiyama, souvenirs, and other must-sees.
In 2019, we commemorated the new Imperial era and
the 1150th anniversarry of Gion matsuri!
We had many events we don’t have in any other year!
More info. to enjoy Gion matsuri, BAAH!
Attention: This article is subject to be revised.
- Why is “Gion matsuri” festival celebrated ?
- What to see in Gion matsuri festival?
- Access to Gion matsuri festival
Why is “Gion matsuri” festival celebrated ?
Gion matsturi festival (祇園祭) is one of the most famous “matsuri (festival)” in Japan. The word “Gion” means a name of a small area in the eastern part of Kyoto city. It was named after the former name of Yasaka shrine (八坂神社) which holds Gion matsuri festival.
So, let me show you the short history of the shrine.
A short history of Yasaka shrine
The foundation of Yasaka shrine remains to be secret because of its long history. At least in the 9th century, the shrine was known as Gion-kanjinin (祇園感神院), or Gion-sha (祇園社),the Buddhist temple. This sounds very strange because Yasaka shrine is a Shinto shrine today. Why was a Shinto shrine a Buddhist temple?
In ancient Japan, both Shinto and Buddhism were fused. Shinto is a religion indigenous to Japan. It is a kind of animism and a code for a small community. On the other hand, Buddhism was a religion brought to Japan from ancient India in 6th century. When our ancestors saw the introduction of Buddhism, they did not fall away Shinto. They fused both of these religions and reconstructed them as a new belief instead. That is one of the typical and characteristic way of thinking Japanese people take. If we find something interesting and it is no harm to the members of society, we just adopt it.
Now go back to the word “Gion (祇園)“. As a Budhhist temple, former Yasaka shrine worshiped Gozu-tenno (牛頭天王) as a Buddhist Deity. Gozu-tennowas a guardian of Gion-shoja( 祇園精舎、Jatavana). So former Yasaka shrine was called Gion-kanshinin, or Gion-sha.Take a look at the picture above. It is a photo of small reservoir where visitors purify themselves. You can see engraved Kanji letters. They read Kanjinin (感神院).
This is a short history of Yasaka shrine. Now make it clear that why Yasaka shrine holds Gion matsuri festival in the following chapter.
The beginning of Gion matsuri festival
The history of Gion matsturi festival dates back to 869. At that time in Kyoto, many people suffered smallpox, dysentery, and other epidemics because of hot and damp whether and ill-prepared water supply. At the same time, whole Japan saw natural disasters like earthquake and tsunami and suffered huge expansion of maladies.
In those days, people thought evil spirit causes epidemics and natural disasters. The imperial court gave Urabeno-Hiramaro (卜部日良麻呂), the priest of Gion-sya,an order to hold Goryo-e, the ritual to calm down evil spirit at Shinsen-en (神泉苑),the largest pond in ancient Kyoto.(The picture above.).
He put the spirit of Gozu-tenno, the Buddhist Deity, into one of three portable shrines and sent them from Gion-sya to Shinsen-en and placed 66 hokos (矛)there (We don’t have exact idea of their appearance but I suppose they looked like these hokos in the picutre above). His aim was to put the evil spirits together and have them descended to the hokosand ask Gozu-tenno to get rid of them.
This ritual is called Gion-goryo-e, the origin of Gion matsuri festival. In the begging, the Goryo-ewas held when epidemics expanded, and became annual event in 970. Since then, the festival was carried on for 1000 years despite of some interruption.
Gion matsuri festival today
As indicated before, Shinto and Buddhism was fused and Shinto shrines and Buddhist temple were confused. In 1868, the Meiji government gave an order to shrines and temples. They were forced to make decision to be a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple in terms of law. Gion-kanshininchoose to be a Shinto (神道) shrine.It became Yasaka shrine and Gion-Goryo-e (御霊会) was renamed as Gion matsuri.
The fact that the Buddhist temple became a Shinto shrine does not mean a reincarnation of the Gion matsuri. Many documents prove that Gion-kanshinin worked and was considered as Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine: it held Buddhist ritual and that of Shinto.
That is a reason why the principle of Gion matsuri festival still remains the same though 1000 years of its history. People bring Deitieson the portable shrines and ask them to get rid of evil spirits which gathered around hoko.
What to see in Gion matsuri festival?
Yamaboko float Parade (山鉾巡行)
The hokos in Gion goryo-eis believed to developed into Yamahokos/Yamabokos (山鉾). At the first time, people held hokos by the hand. In Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), they are on the carriage called Hokosya (鉾車). At the end of the period, the hokosya began to be decorated with ornaments as Yamahoko of these days. Yamahoko was decided to be registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage on last November.
Yoiyama festival (宵山)
Yoiyama (宵山) is the most popular event in Gion matsuri festival. When twilight comes, paper lanterns on Yamahokos are lit and the musicians of Hokos begin to play Ohayashi (お囃子) music.(See the video above.)
On the Yoiyama days, Yamahokos almost dress full except some ornaments and Goshintai(御神体).
Yoiyama is the most popular event in Gion matsuri festival. It is also known as Byobu matsuri. Byobu is a Japnese traditional partition. During the period of Yoiyama, Yamahoko neighbors let the visitors see their treasures such as Byobu (屏風) and paintings inside of their house. Let us see the picture above. It is a Byobu that the golden boards on which cranes and pine trees printed. In front of it, there is a Japanese traditional strumming instrument called Koto. Behind in you can see Ikebana, the Japanese traditional flower arrangement and a painting.
Gion bayashi (祇園囃子)
Gion bayashi is a kind of Ohayashi. As usual, Ohayashi is music played in matsuri (festival) to cheer it up. But I’m not sure we can find anything cheering in the Gion bayashi because Gion matsuri festival is not only for us but also for the deceased.
Souvenirs of Gion matsuri festival
The most popular souvenirs in Gion matsuri is Chimaki (粽).
Chimaki is an amulets you can have at Yamohokos and their headquarters. We usually put it on the entrance of our home.
This is the origin of Chimaki called Chinowa (茅の輪). It is a wreath made of plant called Chigaya.The following is a story about it.
Once upon a time, Susanoo-no-mikoto (素戔嗚尊) was on his Odyssey. He asked for one night stay to Kotan-shorai (巨旦将来). He denied it though he was very wealthy but his brother Somin-shorai (蘇民将来) accept it though he suffered in poverty. The next morning, Susanoo-no-mikoto said to him that he will save hid descendants from any maladies and asked him to make his descendants put on Chinowa as a mark.
Take a close look at Chimaki. You can see the kanjis on the left side. They read “蘇民将来之子孫也”. These mean “The descendants of Somin-syorai.“.
You can also have Chinowa amulets at some Yamahokos. The Chinowa in the picture is sold at Koiyama.
Access to Gion matsuri festival
Usually, taking Kyoto city bus is the most easiest way to access to any where in Kyoto but bus route is subject to be changed in July.
The routes of Kyoto city bus are to be changed during Gion Matsuri period. It would be better to take trains and subways indicated below.
Sijyo station (Kyoto municipal subway)
Karasuma station (Hakyu railways)
Shijo kawaramchi station (Keihan railways)