Kyoto’s Gion Festival Part 1: History

If you make it down to Japan’s old capital of Kyoto in July, you are bound to be drawn into the festivities all around throughout the month for the grand festival of Gion. If you thought Kyoto’s Aoi Festival was a long and outstanding event, then wait till you have seen how the entire city goes all out for the entire month, regardless of how hot or rainy it might get, in order to celebrate the Gion Festival! Gion Festival is considered to be one of the three grand festivals of Japan, along-side the Tenjin Festival in Osaka and the Kanda Festival in Tokyo.

While July is one of the hottest and most humid times of year in Kyoto, the Gion Festival continuously attracts more than one million visitors from all over the world every year. The streets swarm with people, and it is said that almost 80% of pedestrians walking around central Kyoto during the month of July are tourists.

History of Gion Festival

The origins of the Gion Festival dates all the back to the late 800s of the Heian era, as part of goryo-e to try and appease the gods that were believed to create natural disasters, which were extremely common at the time. Goryo-e are rituals performed to enshrine and calm down ghosts that have become departed souls or Goryo (御霊), so that they would in turn provide protection from future disasters.

In 869 C.E., Japan was suffering from multiple plague outbreaks, infecting and killing thousands of people. The plagues were said to be the work of the deity Gozu-Tenno. Emperor Seiwa ordered that the people pray to the deity to calm its soul and restore peace. Sixty-six stylized and decorated hoko or floats, one for each province of Japan at the time, topped with halberds (山鉾) were prepared and erected at Shinsen-en along with a mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine in order to pray to the gods, including Susano-no-Mikoto, also known as Gion, to save the people from sickness and death.

Soon after the original rituals performed, it is said that the pestilence had lessened, resulting in this practice being repeated whenever an outbreak occurred. In 970 C.E., it wasofficially decreedan annual event. Over time, the increasingly powerful and influential merchant class made the festival more elaborate and started to use the parade to display their wealth, making it into the grand scale event it is known as today.

In 1533, the current shogunate banned all religious events, including many festivals, however the people protested in outrage. The people claimed that it is was fine to not hold rituals for religious purposes but they simply wanted the procession and festivities that came with the Gion Festival—which is where the modern day version of the festival took shape.

Nowadays, the Gion Festival is considered to be a festival for the common people, a festival for all to enjoy—contrary to Kyoto’s other large festival, Aoi Festival, which still is considered to be a festival for the Imperial Court.

Over the centuries, many floats were lost or damaged, however, most of them have now been restored, and regarding the tapestries that are destroyed or are considered too valuable to use in the festival’s events, Nishijin weavers offer new ones, including replicas, to replace them. After the festival is over for the year, the floats and regalia are kept in special storehouses throughout the central district of Kyoto, in the care of the local people, which goes to show how important the event is for those who call Kyoto their home.

Now that you know about the background of this glamorous month-long festival, be sure to check out the various festivities throughout the city of Kyoto during the month of July if you are in the area! Stay tuned for details about the different kinds of events taking place during the Gion Festival!

Article originally published on Izanau, Jul 14, 2016 . Edited from original version.


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