The month of July in Kyoto brings with it the Gion festival. Gion Matsuri began in 869, and has since become one of Japan’s largest and most famous festivals.
Kyoto, at that time the Capital of Japan, was suffering from illness and famine. The illness was thought to be a plague caused by vengeful spirits, so Emperor Seiwa ordered a purification ritual at the Gion Shrine (now known as the Yasaka Shrine). As part of this ritual, sixty-six halberds (spears) were decorated and placed in the Imperial Gardens, along with portable shrines from the Gion Shrine. The illness passed, and this purification ritual was repeated whenever plague struck the city. By the year 1000, the ritual was taking place annually. During the early 16th century, powerful and wealthy merchants began using the festival to advertise their wares, and by the early Edo period Gion Matsuri has evolved into the elaborate and extensive festival we see today, with intricately decorated floats and ornately embroidered textiles.
While Gion Matsuri last the whole of July, the most well-known and popular part of the festival is the parade of floats (Yamaboko Junkō) which takes place on the 17th and 24th July. There are 34 floats in the parade, split into two groups Yama and Hoko. The ten Hoko (halberd) floats have large poles (shingi) that are mimic the 66 halberds used in the original purification ritual. The other 24 floats are Yama (mountains) and carry life sized and incredibly ornate figures of Shinto deities and cultural and historical people. The Hoko floats each weigh around 12 tonnes and take 40 people to pull them. The Yama floats in comparison seem positively light, at only 1500kg each!
Similar to the Aoi Matsuri festival in Kyoto (which you can read more about here!) a member of the public is also central to the Gion Matsuri festival. In this case a young boy is chosen from the sons of Kyoto’s merchant families to be the chigo, or sacred page. Special purification ceremonies take places in the weeks leading up to the parade, and he is kept away from contamination (such as women or certain foods!). During the Yamaboko Junkō, the chigo is carried onto a special float called the Naginata Hoko (as his feet cannot touch the ground, else he become impure) dressed in ceremonial robes and wearing a gold phoenix crown. The chigo cuts a sacred rope with a ceremonial sword to begin the parade.
After two years of extremely scaled down festivals due to covid, Gion Matsuri is back with a bang this year. Although there won’t be food stalls set up along the procession route, to aid social distancing, the festival is extremely popular and is sure to draw large crowds. While foreigners will be unlikely to be able to attend, due to the stringent entry requirements at the moment, for the people of Kyoto I’m sure it will be a wonderful way to celebrate covid (hopefully) coming to an end. And who knows, maybe it’ll rid us of the current plague?!
If you’d like to find out more about this festival, I’d recommend watching this video by Catherine Pawasarat, who has also written a book about the festival.