July in Kyoto is a whole month of festivity. It is the month of the Gion festival, one of the largest festivals in Japan.
The Gion festival’s original form goes back to 869AD, a year in Kyoto in which the people suffered from a major plague. It was believed that the epidemic was caused by an angered deity, and the Emperor ordered his people to pray to Susanoo-no-mikoto (enshrined in Yasaka shrine). To appease the god’s anger 66 decorated halberds (1 from each province of old Japan) and a portable shrine was prepared. The plague ended and this ritual was repeated at times of an epidemic outbreak. In 970 AD it became an annual event.
As the festival continued it became more elaborate as rich Kyoto merchants invested in decorating the floats showing off their wealth and power.
In the present day, the Gion festival continues to be a festival to wish the health of its people. It has become a form of pride, power and solidarity for the people of Kyoto.
The Gion festival is held for a whole month; during which many traditional rituals are performed. However, the highlight of the festival is the parade of the marvellous floats from July 14th to 16th. There are 2 kinds of floats; Hoko and Yama. There are 9 Hoko with long poles representing the original 66 halberds. There are 23 smaller Yama on it which are life size figures of important people. It is decorated with beautiful tapestry and art, and is often referred to as the “mobile art museum”. On some floats you will see musicians playing traditional instruments and little boys with painted white faces. They are considered mediators between gods and the priests.
This parade goes on for 3 days, during which no cars are allowed and the roads are packed with excited viewers. There are also numerous kinds of street stalls where delicious foods, fun games and souvenirs can be purchased.