History Lesson: Gion Festival

(c) CHRIS GLADIS

As Americans are celebrating Independence Day and Canada rings in its national day, Kyoto denizens are pulling out all the stops for Gion Festival, which kicks off July 1st. The month-long fête dates back some 1,200 years; ironically, though it’s named for the downtown area of Gion, it takes place throughout the city. Kyotoites have long thought that purification rituals (goryo-e) would protect them from the natural disasters and epidemics that once afflicted the city.  The very first Gion Festival was held in response to a destructive plague but, by 1185, it had evolved into what we think of as a traditional street fair.

(C) MIYUKI KOBAYASHI

Gion Festival is celebrated over 30 days,  but most of the action starts on the 10th when, over five days, the parade’s elaborate floats are assembled. There are 23 yama floats and nine hoko floats, and it’s believed that not a single nail is used to put them together. The yama floats are the simpler and smaller of the two, generally carried by a group of people. The hoko, however, are a cool 25 meters tall and weigh up to 12 tons. The multilevel structures have people standing on each floor and even the roof, and they move not by an engine but on enormous wooden wheels, pulled by marchers.

Parade day is July 17th, and children play a starring role in the festivities. Leading the charge is a boy regarded as representation of a deity. Because he cannot touch the ground from the 13th until the parade finishes on the 17th, he is for those four days carried around on the shoulders of his elders. It is he who officially kicks off the procession by cutting a rope. Color is everywhere you look during the procession; the floats are lovingly decorated with bright fabrics and different types of textiles, lanterns, and even small sculptures. The result is truly beautiful, unique pieces of artwork. The parade runs from 9am to 1pm, covering a three kilometer route along Oike, Shijo, and Kawaramachi streets; you can book seats outside city hall, but it’s easier to stand and move along with the floats.

(C) CHRIS GLADIS

Though the parade is certainly one of Gion Festival’s highlights, it’s over the three nights leading up to it that the level of excitement reaches a frenzied pitch. From the 14th to 16th, at the junction of Karasuma and Shijo streets, locals come out to party. From 6-11pm, the streets are pedestrian-only and revelers in costume sing and dance to traditional music while moving from one food and drink stall to the next. Several of the floats can also be visited, and this is the closest you’ll get to them during the entire festival. You’ll also see locals buying omamori (good luck charms) from the floats; these are made of bamboo grass and are believed to ward off evil spirits.

Towards the end of Gion Festival, the action is centered around Yasaka Shrine; on July 24th, 1,000 people and 10 large floats form a procession that departs from the shrine and, on the 25th, the Shigeyama Family performs kyogen, traditional Japanese comic theater that utilizes slapstick.

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