Summer is finally here, and there has never been a better time to visit Japan, with its many upcoming summer festivals.
Kyoto, with its magnificent temples and beautiful scenery has always been a bit more highbrow and sedate when it comes to its own events. Less boisterous and more splendid; more spectacle and less party.
People from Kyoto often joke that people from nearby regions like Osaka are surly, crude and lackadaisical. Conversely, Kyoto is frequently joked about their residents being too stiff, serious and lacking in humour, a sense of fun or an ability to relax.
It’s a parallel that, as someone from Scotland, I can relate to. There is after all the oft-quoted joke that goes “You’ll have more fun at a Glasgow funeral than an Edinburgh wedding.”
However, these regional stereotypes, and the jokes that accompany them, go right out the window when it comes to Kyoto’s most famous annual festival event: The Gion Matsuri.
The Gion Matsuri, and the events in and around it, runs for an entire month: beginning on July 1st and running until July 31st.
For the whole of July, large parts of Kyoto’s old town, in and around the Gion District, famous for its Maiko and Geiko (often erroneously referred to as Geisha in the western press), come to a standstill. The festival becomes the centerpiece around which the entire district and its surrounding areas structure their daily life.
The festival has a lineage that goes back to the earliest days of the Kansai regions’s recorded history. During the country’s Heian Period, which ran from 794 until 1185 AD, all was not well in Kyoto. Already established as a major point of commerce, culture and religious worship, the old capital city of Kyoto suffered a series of natural disasters, famines and plagues.
At that time Japan was far from the functionally secular place it is today. The people of the day blamed these mishaps on Gozu Tenno, a God with the head of an ox–not too dissimilar from the ancient Greek Minotaur–and his underlings Susanoo and his siblings.
The Gion Matsuri emerged as a means of paying homage and making offerings to these gods in the hopes they would cut the good people of Kyoto some slack. It seemed to pay off as things stabilized in the years that followed. Even when the Ashikaga Shogunate banned religious practices in the 16th century, the festival still endured. Despite its obviously religious overtones, it was one of the few events in an increasingly feudal and restive Japan that brought all classes and all clans together in celebration.
So, how does today’s festival work?
July 1st: The Opening Ceremony
Well, after the initial opening ceremony on July 1st there are several major events that follow over the next few weeks. There is a general party atmosphere throughout the city as a series of smaller festivals, gatherings, parades and exhibitions take place almost every day throughout the month of July.
July 10th: The Omukae Chochin Festival
The next big event after the opening is the Omukae Chochin Festival. This is a festival and parade making use of traditional Japanese lanterns. In some ways similar, though on an admittedly smaller scale, to the Kanto Festival which takes place in Akita Prefecture every August, the parade takes place on July 10th.
Also on July 10th we have the first of two Mikoshi Arai ceremonies. Mikoshi Arai is a form of purification ceremony for the portable shrines (mikoshi) that you will see being carted up and down the streets of Gion during the main precession a few days later. Once the main festivities have been completed, there is a further purification ritual held on July 28th as the festival begins to wind down towards its July 31st conclusion.
July 14th to 16th: The Yoiyama Festival
Things kick into high gear over the next few days following the first Mikoshi Arai event, with the Yoiyama festival running from July 14th to 16th. This is one of the first really busy festivals of the month long event.
Those with an artistic inclination may also want to check out the Byobu Matsuri, which runs simultaneously alongside the Yoiyama Festival. This festival centres around displays incorporating traditional Japanese folding screens, so often a centerpiece in traditional displays and ornamental arrangements. Kyoto is world famous for its craftwork and fine arts, and both disciplines are on show in their full glory during this event.
July 16th: The Kencha Matsuri
After all this excitement, you may want to stop for a quiet cup of tea? Well, if you do, then the Gion Matsuri has you covered, with the Kencha Matsuri on July 16th. This festival is devoted to the ancient and elegant art of the Japanese tea ceremony. Often used as a means of symbolizing love and friendship, the tea ceremony is also just a great way to witness the innately Japanese qualities of discipline, dedication and the constant strive for perfection in one’s chosen craft. These ceremony leaders truly have earned their title as masters of tea.
July 17th: The Yamaboko Junko Parade
With the relaxation of a quiet cup of tea, things get pretty frenetic the next day, with the main focal point of the entire Gion Matsuri, the Yamaboko Junko parade taking place on July 17th. Tickets for the observation areas of this event are highly sought after and pretty expensive, but in all honesty, if you can get there early enough and scout out a good spot along the route, you’ll probably have a better view than those in the seated galleries. Just be sure to bring food and drinks with you and be prepared to stand for several hours to enjoy the parade in its full glory.
July 24th: The Hanagasa Junko Parade
July 31st: The Nagoshi-Sai Ceremony
A final purification and summer blessing ceremony, the Nagoshi-Sai, brings events to a close on July 31st.
Overall, the Gion Matsuri is one of those events that every true Japan lover must experience at least once in their lifetime. Be sure to make your own personal pilgrimage soon.