The Gion Matsuri is not only the largest annual festival in Kyoto but also it is the most popular in Japan. Locals and travelers alike fill the streets for this event that is part religious observance and part street fair.
History and Origin
Dated back over 1000 years, The Gion Matsuri is the festival of the Yasaka Shrine with the aim of praying for deliverance from a plague of sickness in 869.
Prayers were ordered by the emperor. Worshipers believed that the epidemic could be halted if the gods were appeased by a purification ritual. Decorated weapons and portable shrines were erected wherever a disease outbreak occurred. The event became an annual observance in 970.
Today, the festival celebrates the culture of Kyoto. Celebrants wear colorful and traditional yukata robes. Throughout the festival season, they view floats and eat street foods.
The mid-month Saki Matsuri Junko procession is one of the main events. Twenty-three of the yamaboko are staged at the Shijo-Karasama intersection. They travel east along the Shijo-dori, north along the Kawaramachi-dori, and west along the Oike-dori.
On the same day, the deity of the Yasaka Shrine is carried through town in a mikoshi, or portable shrine. Men carry the mikoshi on their shoulders. It returns to the shrine after the second procession.
Near the month’s end is the Ato Matsuri Junko, or “after the festival procession.” Ten of the yamaboko are again pulled through the city in reverse of the main parade route. Interestingly, this procession was reinstituted in 2014 after an absence of nearly 50 years.
Food in festival
Food and beer are integral parts of the Gion Matsuri. Night stalls sell yakitori, fish-shaped taiyaki cookies, okonomiyaki pancakes that have been called “Japanese pizza,” mochi, traditional sweets, and other items to delight traveling foodies.