Gion Matsuri: Kyoto’s Famous Month-Long Festival

The Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri 祇園祭) is held every year for an entire month in Kyoto in July, and is one of the most famous festivals in all of Japan. Here is everything you need to know about this timeless, lively celebration!

Intro

Gion Matsuri is the biggest festival in Kyoto, and also one of the largest festivals in all of Japan. The festival was originally held to protect people from plague, but has grown into a grand celebration of all of Kyoto City. Today, Gion Matsuri is more of a month-long summer festival in which locals and visitors all gather to enjoy the festive atmosphere. That being said, Gion Matsuri continues to uphold rituals and traditions established when it first began almost 2000 years ago.

Photo: Keiichiro Fujimoto

History

Gion Matsuri first originated in 869 as a part of a purification ritual called goryo-e to appease the deities thought to cause fire, floods, earthquakes, and other disasters. At the time, the people were suffering from a plague which they attributed to the rampaging diety Gozu Tennō (牛頭天王). Japan’s ruler at the time, Emperor Seiwa, ordered prayers to be made to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, Susanoo-no-Mikoto. 66 massive “halberd” floats, one for each of the traditional provinces of Japan, were prepared and placed at the garden of Shinsen-en, along with portable shrines called mikoshi (神輿) from the Yasaka Shrine.

Additionally, a local boy was chosen to be a “sacred messenger” to the gods. The boy was seated on one of the floats, and he was not allowed to touch the ground from the 13th to the ending of the first parade on the 17th. This tradition was repeated over centuries during times of epidemic, and is still upheld to this day as a part of the annual Gion Matsuri .

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