In this land renowned for its countless festivals, Gion Matsuri is one like no other. Long the pride and protector of the city of Kyoto, it has been grandly celebrated there for more than a thousand years. Expanded and elaborated over the centuries, it fills the July calendar with many cultural and religious events.
Gion Matsuri sprang from an imperial plea to Susano-o-no Mikoto, brother of the sun goddess whose spirit is enshrined at Gion-sha, today’s Yasaka Shrine, to bring to an end the devastating plague of the summer of 869. When it duly abated, the emperor ordered a great festival of thanksgiving to be held. In the year 970, that festival was instituted as an annual event, in praise and continuing petition of the illustrious kami who had brought the land salvation a century before.
Century by century, the event gained in splendor, growing from a single hand-drawn pavilion mounted with halberd weaponry, to an array of floats with ever more features and embellishments. Today’s floats are of the finest construction and bear a wealth of treasured antique art objects, mechanical figures and elaborated historical and legendary scenes, as well as bands of musicians playing the hypnotic flute and drum music called Gion-bayashi.
The majestic yama and hoko floats, numbering 32 altogether and each from a different neighborhood of the city, are carried or pulled by teams of straining men costumed in crested happi. Nearly all of the floats are classed as Important Tangible Folk Cultural Properties, while the procession itself is a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
Riding high on the leading Naginata-boko, or Halberd Float, is the celestial child called chigo-san, a pre-pubescent boy carefully selected from that float’s neighborhood and ritually sanctified to be acceptable to the god.
It is the chigo who embodies the kami spirit during the festival, and it is his ritual act of shimenawa-kiri, perfectly severing the sacred straw rope, which formally opens the procession and ensures the god’s blessings upon the city for the coming year.
Gion Matsuri not only grew in material richness over time, but also in related ritual, so that although most outsiders commonly think of it as only the huge Yama-boko Junko procession held on July 17, its celebration actually spans the whole month of July.
On the first day of the month, the chosen chigo prays for the success of the festival at Yasaka Shrine, and the next day representatives of each neighborhood do the same.
On the 10th. amid an atmospheric procession of lanterns, traditional dances are performed. Yasaka Shrine’s splendid mikoshi are taken to Shijo O-Hashi, a bridge in the city center, for a ritual purification ceremony, and further to their festival resting place where they will remain for a fortnight. From that day the assembly of all the great floats begins. The chigo is taken on horseback for divine blessings on the 13th.
During the several following days, many traditional arts are performed as offering dedications, and certain old Kyoto families display some of their treasures to the public. The day before the main procession, the halberd from the lead float is taken to a sanctified spot where citizens can come to pray for good fortune.
On the day after the great event, when hundreds of thousands of festival spectators from across Japan have already returned home, there are still more dedicatory cultural performances on the calendar. Another gorgeous procession, Hanagasa Junko, is yet to come on the 24th.
While Yama-boko Junko is quite a masculine event, this subsequent procession features bevies of beautifully garbed women—musicians, dancers and geisha. Later that day, the mikoshi are carried home to Yasaka Shrine from their festival resting place, and a few days later they will once again undergo a purification rite in preparation for their return to storage.
The glorious month of Gion Matsuri is brought to a close on the 29th with a formal announcement to the patron deity that all events have been correctly completed, and thanks are expressed for his blessings. Finally, on the very last day of July, Yasaka Shrine conducts a personal summer purification ritual for the many city residents who flock there.
For the sightseeing multitudes which have come from across Japan to view this spectacle, Yama-boko Junko is the festival. But for citizens of Kyoto, natives of the city for generations upon generations, it is only one grand element in a month-long choreographed drama of history, religion, ritual and, not least of all, community pride.
Much more than just a festival, Gion Matsuri with all its rites and trappings has become a true symbol of the city.