About This Festival
A thousand years ago, it was feast or famine in Japan. During the Heian period (794-1185), Kyoto suffered a series of natural disasters and plagues. The catastrophes were attributed to the gods of natural forces: Gozu Tennō (Ox-head-heaven-king), who wreaked havoc on a Godzilla-sized scale, doled out disease, while a trio of powerful deities (Susanoo and his brother and sister) dominated the sea and storms, sun, and moon.
As a form of appeasement to Mother Nature’s inevitable wrath, purification ceremonies called Gouy-e came into practice. Traditional spears were gathered from all over Japan as well as portable mikoshi (shrines) to pay respect to the gods. The rituals were repeated whenever the deities of destruction went on a rampage until the Ashikaga shogunate halted all religious gatherings in 1533. Despite the ban, the matsuri (festival) survived the centuries thanks to the people of Kyoto who fought to keep the much-loved tradition alive.
Without doubt, the highlight of the month-long showcase of culture is the Yamaboko Junko parade. The Yamaboko, or giant wooden floats, are assembled without nails in the traditional Japanese way and are divided into two types: the smaller Yama and the colossal Hoko. The latter, mounted on fixed wooden wheels, can be built to dimensions so massive and towering that they require a special procedure and more than 40 men to pull them through the narrow, winding streets of Kyoto. Each float is considered to be a moveable museum of history so much that UNESCO designated the Yamaboko Junko on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2009. Be sure to catch one of the floats rounding the corner. The wooden block, wheel-turning ritual is spellbinding.
All eyes are on one special boy called the chigo, who is chosen to act as the deity's sacred page. High on top of the Naginata Hoko floats, adorned in flowing Shinto robes and crowned by a golden phoenix, the chigo plays a vital role in the matsuri: He must cut a sacred rope called the shimenawa with a single slice of his sword. The role requires vigorous spiritual purification, which means that weeks before the procession, the chigo is locked away from virtually all contaminating influences, including women. In addition, once on top of the float, he must not touch the ground.
Good Luck Charms, Folding Screens & Flower Umbrellas
Leading up to the Yamaboko Junko, the Yoiyama festival allows attendees to get up close and personal with the parade’s floats. Some are shrines dedicated to gods of health, wealth, and other worldly benefits. If you buy an omamari (good luck charm), you might just channel the deity’s benevolent powers. Other constructions contain priceless collections of art and historic artifacts or resemble roving circus tents with creative entertainment inside. Walking into any one of these gargantuan traditional masterpieces is an unexpected journey. We won’t spoil the surprise for you. Expect almost anything.
Other small festivals occur almost daily during Gion-san. During Byobu Matsuri (Folding Screen Festival), residents open up their homes to visitors. The event is an amazing opportunity to connect with locals, tour traditional homes, and experience unparalleled Japanese hospitality. It’s like a citywide house party where everyone is invited.
You must also check out the Kencha Matsuri (Tea Ceremony Festival). The art of this custom is the Zen master class of culinary traditions. The movements are deeply rooted in Zen Buddhism, from a bow of gratitude to the near obsessive cleaning of the utensils to three clockwise turns of the cup before a sip of some very fine tea. Another charming choice: Hanagasa Junko, also known as the Flower Umbrella or Hat Procession. Here, amazing bouquets of flowers are crafted into beautiful and artistic headwear displays. Don’t forget your camera and head to the start of the parade to get good shots.
- Opening: July 1
- Omukae Chochin (welcoming lanterns ceremony): July 10
- Mikoshi Arai (mikoshi purification): July 10 & 28
- Yoiyama festival: July 14-16
- Byobu Matsuri (folding screen festival): July 14-16
- Kencha Matsuri (tea ceremony festival): July 16
- Yamaboko Junko parade: July 17
- Hanagasa Junko (flower umbrella procession): July 24
- Kyogen Performance: July 25
- Nagoshi-sai (Summer purification ceremony and closing): July 31