Gigantic, multi-storey floats, so gorgeously decorated that they are sometimes called 'mobile art museums,' parade down the main streets of Kyoto in mid-summer.
Gion Matsuri is a festival held at Yasaka-jinja Shrine and other locations in and around the Gion district in central eastern Kyoto. It is believed to have started 1,100 years ago, when floats were paraded through the town to appease the deity of plague and illnesses.
Today, the highlight of the festivals is still the splendid pageant of around 30 floats known as “Yamaboko” proceeding along the main streets of Kyoto on the 17th and 24th of July. There are two types, known as “Yama” and “Hoko” (from where the word “Yamaboko” comes). Both types are elaborately decorated - adorned with exquisite craftwork such as woven fabric, dyed textiles and sculptures - but the “hoko” floats are particularly spectacular.
Measuring up to 25 meters in height and 12 tons in weight, they have wheels as tall as a full-grown adult and are topped with a long pole shaped like a spear. During the parade, tens of people ride on them, mainly “sacred children” wearing white make-up accompanied by bands of musicians playing the flute, drums and bells.
Preceding the main attraction, on the festival eves known as Yoiyama (14th to 16th and 21st to 23rd July), other events are also held in the buildup to the main parade. The parade floats are displayed in the streets late into the night, lit up with dozens of lights. People go to look at the floats (you even go inside some of them), buy “chimaki” (good luck charms) made from sasa bamboo grass, and enjoy the lively festival music known as Gion-bayashi, which can be heard echoing throughout Gion’s streets.
Around the same time, a smaller festival known as the Byobu Matsuri, or the Folding Screen Festival, is also held, in which local merchants and residents temporarily open their shops and homes to the public, exhibiting their valuable family heirlooms private art collections. This is a unique opportunity to visit and observe traditional Japanese houses in Kyoto.
Charged seating for the main parade is available outside Kyoto City Hall: enquire with the Kyoto City Tourist Association (http://www.kyoto-magonote.jp/en/gionmatsuri2015/) as early as possible. However, it is also relatively easy to find a good viewing spot elsewhere on the parade’s winding route.
July 1st-31stDates and functions are subject to change without notice. Be sure to check the latest information in advance.