Gion Matsuri – Kyoto’s Biggest Festival (Part II: Events)

You’ve learned the history of the Gion Festival, so now it is time to put that knowledge to use! The Gion Festival is a very long one, lasting one whole month, so it gets difficult to keep track of all the different events taking place. Even though the main attractions of the Gion festival are the “Yama-boko-Junkou” on July 17th and the “Ato Matsuri” on July 24th, various festivities and functions are held throughout the month. Check out what is going on each day below and find which events interest you the most!

(This big guy took over my office building for the past week since we are located right in the middle of the whole festival.)

For nearly a century, the last half of the Gion Festival had not been held and only starting being celebrated once again around 2 years ago, so now the festival is split into two parts.

*Events which are not open to the public are marked NP.

Events – First Half of Gion Festival

  • July 1 ~ 5: Kippuiri – The opening ceremony and meetings in each participating neighborhood where Gion Festival is held. (NP)
  • July 2: Kujitorishiki – This is the drawing of lots for the parade order, which is held in the Kyoto municipal assembly hall. (NP)
  • July 5: Naginataboko Chigo-no-mai –This is one event you want to watch if you can!
    As part of the opening ceremony, the Chigo-no-mai is a stunning traditional dance performance done by the Chigo of the Naginataboko float with a small taiko drum. The chigo is a boy who is selected each year to be the representative and act as a god to lead the festival.
    What makes this a very popular event is that it is the first public appearance of that year’s chigo.
    (July 5 at 3:15 PM; location: Naginataboko Hozonkai on Shijo Street)
  • July 7: The Chigo of Ayagasaboko visits the goregous Yasaka Shrine located on Shijo Street.
  • July 10 ~ 14: Yamaboko-tate – This is the assembly of the first set of floats in the traditional method, where it is built completely from scratch in designated areas, some on the central streets of Kyoto and others in smaller streets located in the festival neighborhoods.
    This is an event that takes days to complete and is amazing to see every day in order to see the progress of the builders and see the floats come to life. People from all over Japan and the world come to watch specialists of traditional architecture assemble a total of 32 massive floats, without using any nails! The floats are held together by seemingly endless amounts of rope.

(From July 10 to 14 for the first procession, and from July 17 to 21 for the second procession)

  • July 10: Omukae-chochin – This is the lantern parade intended to welcome the mikoshi, or portable shrines, of Yasaka Shrine.
  • July 10: Mikoshi-arai – The special ritual held for the cleansing of the various mikoshi by sacred water from the Kamo River.
  • July 13: The Chigo of the Naginataboko visits Yasaka Shrine. (NP)
  • July 13: The Chigo of Kuse Shrine visits Yasaka Shrine. (NP)
  • July 14: Yoiyoiyoiyama
  • July 15: Yoiyoiyama
  • July 16: Yoiyama (Plus Byobu Matsuri)
    All 33 of the floats are extravagantly adorned with lanterns called “chouchin” and stunning fabric. When this happens, they go on display, and, especially at night, traditional Japanese musicians serenade viewers from atop with various instruments, from bells to drums.
    Starting from 6PM, all roads surrounding the Shijo-Karasuma and Shijo-Kawaramachi intersections are closed off; with countless street vendors opening up shop in the middle of these streets as hundreds of thousands of people swarm the streets. These evenings alone attract more than 600,000 tourists on average every year. (July 14, 15, and 16)

* Byobu Matsuri: This event is smaller in scale and less known to non-locals. It involves local residents, particularly those who are natives or have roots in Kyoto, opening their front doors and exhibiting family heirlooms to passersby. This is a great way to meet locals and get to know more about the history of Kyoto on a personal level!

  • July 17: Yamaboko-Junko

The main event that attracts countless of visitors is the striking processionof the floats called “Yamaboko-Junkou”. All 32 floats line up on Shijo Street and are pulled through the main streets of Kyoto as spectators cheer on. The floats are extremely heavy and fragile, so watching the pros at work moving them is a sight to behold, especially when they turn them!

  • July 17: The Mikoshi-togyo from Yasaka Shrine proceeds into the main city.

Saki-matsuri and Ato-matsuri

As it was mentioned earlier, there are originally two events to the festival and in recent years they both have been celebrated. Most of the other events that take place throughout the month are all leading up to these two key events. As such, the month-long festival is split into two parts: the opening rituals and the events leading up to the 17th are called “Saki-matsuri” and the events leading up to the 24th, plus the ending rituals, are called “Ato-matsuri”.

Many people have now come to call the Ato-matsuri the less extravagant version of the first part of the festival, hence the name, which means “late festival” or even that is “too late” and you missed the main events. In my opinion, both halves of the festival are gorgeous in their own ways and events that you need to go to at least once in your lifetime!

  • July 18 through 20: The building-up of floats once again for the second half of events.
  • July 23: Yoiyama – The same process as the first half.
  • July 24: Yamaboko-junko
  • July 24: Hanagasa-junko
  • July 24: Kankosai – The Festival of Happy Returns
  • July 28: Mikoshi arai – The portable shrines are once again purified and cleansed with the water from the Kamo River.
  • July 31: Closing service at Eki Shrine

While a month long festival might seem a bit much at first, all of the events are very important and each holds a very deep significance to Japanese and Kyoto History. Plus, the festival is a ton of fun, whether you are going at it alone or with friends! If you are ever in Kyoto during the month of July, be sure to check out some of the events for the Gion Festival!

Article originally published on Izanau, Jul 21, 2016 . Edited from original version.


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