Gion Matsuri (祇園祭), the festival of the Yasaka Shrine, is one of the three largest festivals in Japan, and probably the most famous one. It takes place in Kyoto over the entire month of July. There are many different events, but the grand procession of floats (Yamaboko Junko) on July 17th is particularly spectacular.
Right after the raining season, the whole city takes a festive atmosphere during the three evenings (Yoiyama) preceding the procession (Yamaboko Junko). Now, the festival has become so large that a second procession of floats was reintroduced on July 24 after a hiatus of 48 years. The second procession features fewer and smaller floats than the one on July 17, and is a great opportunity to see the same kind of procession, albeit on a smaller scale but with much fewer people around.
Floats and History
The word Yamaboko refers to the two types of floats used in the procession: the 23 Yama and 10 Hoko. One of the main reasons the Gion Matsuri is so impressive is the enormity of the Hoko, which are up to 25 meters tall, weigh up to 12 tons, and are pulled on wheels as big as people. Both Yama and Hoko are elaborately decorated and represent unique themes. The procession on July 17th features 23 Yama and Hoko, including most of the particularly impressive ones, while the procession on July 24th features the remaining ten Yama and Hoko.
The three evenings before the actual procession day are the perfect opportunity to walk around Shijo / Karasuma area to see the floats, beautifully illuminated. There will be a lot of people around.
Another reason for the festival’s impressiveness is its long and almost uninterrupted history. It dates back to 869 as a religious ceremony to appease the gods during the outbreak of an epidemic. Even today, the festival continues the practice of selecting a local boy to be a divine messenger. The child cannot set foot on the ground from the 13th until after he has been paraded through town on the 17th.
On the three nights before the grand parade, the festival’s energy reaches its peak. The streets west of Karasuma and south of Oike are crowded with people looking at the lit up Yama & Hoko floats on display. Gion-bayashi music fills the air, and countless stalls are set up along the colorfully decorated streets.
The area becomes more exciting in the evenings, when from 18:00 until 23:00, the streets are closed to traffic (on the 15th and 16th only) and the area swells with food stands, drink vendors, and other festival hallmarks. These festive evenings leading up to the procession are known as Yoiyoiyoiyama (July 14), Yoiyoiyama (July 15) and Yoiyama (July 16). Similar festivities also take place on the three evenings leading up to the procession on July 24, albeit on a smaller scale and without road closures and stands.
The main procession on the 17th
The processions of floats (Yamaboko Junko) take place between 9:00 and 11:30 on the 17th and 24th and follow a three-kilometer-long route along Shijo, Kawaramachi and Oike streets (starting from Shijo-Karasuma on the 17th and from Karasuma-Oike on the 25th). The procession takes place over quite a long route and duration and we didn’t have any problem finding good viewpoints around.