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Gion Matsuri: Japan’s Biggest Festival

Gion Matsuri: Japan’s Biggest Festival

Trivia time: What do you know about the city Kyoto, Japan? Do you know what matsuri means in Japanese? Do you know what the most popular matsuri is in Kyoto?

Answers: Kyoto City is in Kyoto Prefecture in the Kansai region of Honshu, the main island of Japan. It is the 8th most populated city in Japan. Kyoto (京都) means “capital city” and the written character for the kyo in Kyoto and Tokyo are the same. Matsuri means festival, and it comes from the verb matsuru, to offer prayer or to enshrine (祭る). The Kyoto Gion Matsuri is arguably the most well-known festival in the region, if not in all of Japan. Gion is the name of a district in Kyoto, and that’s where the Gion Festival got its name.

Let’s delve into what Gion Matsuri (祇園祭) is all about and why it’s so famous. But first, an overview of what festivals are usually like in Japan.

An Overview of Matsuri

Local festivals take place year-round all over Japan. They celebrate particular deities or historical events in the area. The first part of a festival, the religious ritual, is often not visible to the general public. At the local shrine, there is a prescribed ceremony involving purification, invocation, offerings, and prayers led by priests in formal ceremonial attire.

Once the solemn ceremony is over, the more joyful celebration phase starts. Feasts and theatrical performances ensue, and then the revelers take to the streets with a portable shrine (mikoshi). The mikoshi is said to inhabit a god (kami) who blesses the locations along the route. There are often performances by musicians and dancers, all wearing traditional garb. Townspeople line the streets to watch the procession. Many festival goers wear kimono or yukata (cotton summer kimono) to these festivals.

Along the parade route, there are always lots of food stalls with delectable snacks, as well as traditional games such as ring toss and goldfish scooping. Of course, no festival is complete without loads of trinkets and toys for sale for the clamoring kids.

But the Gion festival goes above and beyond all these things. Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri is the matsuri of all matsuris!

The History of Gion Matsuri

Kyoto became Japan’s capital city and seat of politics and culture in the year 794. Gion Matsuri had its first appearance less than a century later in the year 869. Kyoto was enjoying its popularity as a city with a flourishing arts scene, a devotion to Shintoism and Buddhism, and the birthplace of the feudal samurai class, when an epidemic suddenly swept across the city. Many Kyoto residents died, and Emperor Seiwa decreed that the gods needed to be appeased. He ordered that people pray to the god of the Yasaka Shrine, Susano no Mikoto.

Gion Matsuri is a goryo-e, which is a kind of ritual that asks the gods for protection against calamities such as earthquakes, extreme weather, fires, and disease. After the first Gion Matsuri ritual was held on the Imperial Palace grounds, the epidemic waned and it was determined that the ceremony was successful. Whenever plague and disease spread in the city, the ritual was repeated and the ceremony grew grander and more elaborate. By the year 1000, Gion Matsuri had become an annual show of appreciation to the gods and attempt to bring continued health and good luck to the citizens of Kyoto.

During the Kamakura period (118-1333), the merchant class—top sellers of kimono—sponsored Gion Matsuri as a way to show off their wares. The festival was even called Kimono Matsuri for some time. Nowadays, you can still see a nod to the importance of the kimono in the elaborate textiles displayed during the festival and worn by participants.

What Makes the Gion Matsuri Special?

On July 1st of every year, Gion Matsuri begins and continues through the month. The highlight of Gion Matsuri is the July 17th procession of floats that is referred to as yamahoko, yamaboko, or yamahoko junko). What makes Gion Matsuri stand out is that these aren’t petite shrines; they are giant elaborate floats from each of the 32 districts (cho, chonai) in the area!

The floats are temporary structures that are made without nails—just wood and ropes—yet can weigh many tons. After they are put together, they are adorned in beautiful tapestries, carvings, ornaments, lanterns, dolls, and other symbolic decorations that represent the regional folklore. Perched on top of the floats are selected representatives, musicians, and dancers who entertain the parade onlookers. Each year, a local boy (chigo) is appointed as the symbolic sacred messenger and sits on display on a float.

The floats are often referred to as yamaboko. Yama (山), which means mountain, comes from the idea that gods were thought to descend from the heavens on to the tops of mountains. Shrines used to be only on or around mountains, but that made worshipping impractical after villages grew into cities. Now the gods are more portable—they are said to be embodied in the yamaboko floats that are pulled by shrine followers along the route.

In addition to the smaller yama style floats, there are larger hoko floats. Hoko floats have tall upright wooden poles like masts that can reach up to 75 feet high. The poles were thought to attract the plague gods and harness their destructive energy for good. Because hoko floats can weigh as much as 12 tons, they require a team of up to 40 people to pull at the parade.

Schedule of Gion Matsuri Attractions

Gion Matsuri is both a sacred ceremony and an excuse for Kyoto to have a lively downtown party. Festival goers will be happy to know that there are always street parties held a few days before the float processions on July 17 and 24. The street parties that occur the night before the procession are called yoiyama. Two nights before the procession they are called yoiyoiyama. And three nights before the procession they are referred to as yoiyoiyoiyama! But it’s not just about raucous partying: certain homes open their doors prior to the float procession to let the public enjoy a peek at cultural heirlooms and artifacts related to Kyoto’s rich history.

Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri has managed to preserve a millennial-long cultural tradition with its magnificent floats that are akin to portable museums. At the same time, it has rallied the residents of Kyoto around the importance of community partnership and brotherly and sisterly cooperation. Should you be able to see this unforgettable festival in person, here is a schedule of the main events that take place:

  • July 14: Yoiyoiyoiyama Street Party
  • July 15: Yoiyoiyama Street Party
  • July 16: Yoiyama Street Party
  • July 17: Main Float Procession called Yamaboko Junko or Sama Matsuri Junko
  • July 21: Yoiyoiyoiyama Street Party
  • July 22: Yoiyoiyama Street Party
  • July 23: Yoiyama Street Party
  • July 24: Second Float Procession called Ato Matsuri Yamaboko Junko

Note: The street parties take place from dusk until 10:00pm, and the float processions take place before noon.

A Taste of Festival Foods

While the dazzling floats are the main attraction of the Gion festival, the food stalls (yatai) that are ubiquitous at the festival are not to be missed. Favorite snacks include many things that are grilled or griddled, which is what yaki means: takoyaki (grilled octopus), yaki-imo (grilled sweet potatoes), okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), etc. And there are plenty of sweets to consume, such as rice dumplings known as dango and the local dessert called chigo mochi.

If a visit to Gion Matsuri isn’t in the cards for you right now, you can at least get a sampling of the delicious flavors of Japanese street food by checking out the wide variety of snack and treat offerings at Bokksu.com. Our monthly Japanese subscription box lets you nibble on an assortment of teas, crackers, candies, cookies, and other scrumptious items.

You can also buy individual Japanese snacks that are sourced from artisanal makers. Here are a few Japanese snacks that have a festival feel:

Dondon Yaki crackers bring the drums to the party! Dondon refers to the beating of taiko drums, which are a mainstay of matsuri. These crunchy yet puffy senbei rice crackers are coated in flavorful tonkatsu sauce, a popular condiment in Japanese festival fare.

Grilled Corn Uma Sen Rice Cracker will put you in a matsuri mood. Grilled corn (yaki tomorokoshi) is a festival favorite, and these crispy rice cracker rounds have the perfect balance of flavor. Buttery sweet corn plus umami soy sauce are a matsuri match made in heaven!

For dessert, we recommend Puka Puka Tai: Strawberry. Taiyaki are a favorite festival snack. Tai are a type of fish, and taiyaki are pastries made in the shape of fish with different flavors inside. These sweet fish-shaped treats have a light and airy wafer shell and are filled with an irresistible strawberry mousse.

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