Gion Matsuri in Kyōto, Japan is one of the three largest festivals in Japan. During the entire month of July, members of the neighborhoods in the float-cart district gather together to hold the festival. Gion Matsuri dates back to 863 CE when a plague was spreading through the city. At that time, Kyōto was the capital of Japan, and the emperor petitioned for rituals and entertainment for the kami in order to appease them and end the plague. Part of the festivities beginning in 869 included the use of 66 hoko spears to represent the 66 districts in Japan. These hoko were used to attract the kami and were eventually placed in a park, which was then flooded. Afterward, the main kami at Yasaka Shrine (then Gion Shrine), Susanoo-no-Mikoto, was carried around in a mikoshi (portable shrine) in order to purify the area. Much of these traditions can still be seen in the present version of Gion Matsuri, although at a much larger scale.
Preparations for the festival last the entire year, but everything really starts on July 1st. On this day, the opening ceremony is held, and district members gather at Yasaka Shrine to pray for a successful festival. The following day is the lottery, during which they determine the order of the hoko and yama float-carts. Between July 2nd and July 16th, various rituals occur in order to purify all aspects of the festival, from those performing to the float carts. From July 14th-16th, a pre-festival celebration is held. Float-carts are displayed with lanterns hanging on the sides to light them up for festival attendees to see. Stalls of food and games line streets, and thousands of people (sometimes up to 500,000) walk through the area to see all of the attractions. During this celebration, people can buy sacred objects from the float-carts. The chimaki, a broom-shaped amulet, is the most common object and is unique to the Gion Matsuri. July 17th is the float-cart parade, the largest portion of the festival. Hundreds of thousands of people (200,000 annually) line the streets of Kyōto to watch the hoko and yama on their parade route. The hoko carts are named so because they are an imitation of a tall cart-structure of the past, and many hold hoko spears to draw the kami. Yama carts are smaller but no less impressive. Each cart is decorated with various tapestries, plants, and statues, all of which are National Treasures due to their beauty, age, and rarity, and musicians on each hoko play music that represents the neighborhood of that hoko throughout the parade. Before the main parade begins, the cart that always leads the parade, Naginata Hoko, is brought to the front for purification rituals and the lottery confirmation. Once that has finished, Naginata Hoko is pulled to the sacred rope, which is cut by a chigo, a young boy who embodies the kami for 17 days (July 1st-17th--see first video to the right), and the parade begins.
Click on the videos below to experience Gion Festival
The video above depicts some of the main events of the
parade of the "Yama" and "Hoko" float-carts ("Yamaboko Junkō") on July 17th of every year. It is considered the "core" of
Gion Festival. [For full-screen click here]
The video below shows part of another main event of Kyōto's
Gion Festival: the Parade of the Portable Shrines (mikoshi). This
festival has three large portable shrines that are carried
throughout Yasaka Shrine's districts on every July 17th and
24th. [For full-screen click here]