Gion Matsuri

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Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival)

Type of Holiday: Historic, Religious (Shinto)
Date of Observation: July 17
Where Celebrated: Kyoto and other cities in Japan
Symbols and Customs: Floats


Gion Matsuri is a festival celebrated by practioners of Shinto, an ancient religion that originated in Japan. Most Shinto adherents live in Japan, but small communities also exist in Europe, Latin America, North America, and in the Pacific island nations.

The name Shinto was first employed during the sixth century C . E . to differentiate indigenous religions in Japan from faith systems that originated in mainland Asia (primarily Buddhism and Confucianism). The word is derived from two Chinese characters, shen (gods) and tao (way). Loosely translated, Shinto means "way of the gods." Its roots lie in an ancient nature-based religion. Some important concepts in Shinto include the value of tradition, the reverence of nature, cleanliness (ritual purity), and the veneration of spirits called kami. Strictly speaking, kami are not deities. The literal translation of the word kami is "that which is hidden."

Kami (which is both the singular and plural term) are honored, but do not assert their powers upon humans in the traditional manner of deities or gods in other religions. People may be descended from the kami, and kami may influence the course of nature and events. The kami can bestow blessings, but they are not all benign. Kami are present in natural things such as trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. They are embodied in religious relics, especially mirrors and jewels. They also include spirits of ancestors, local deities, holy people, and even political or literary figures. The human role is to venerate the kami and make offerings. The ultimate goal of Shinto is to uphold the harmony among humans and between people and nature. In this regard, the principle of all kami is to protect and sustain life.

The central authorities in Shinto are the priests. Traditionally the duties of the priest were passed through heredity lines, but in modern times, priests are trained on the basis of recommendation. The priests' duties include communicating with the kami and ensuring that ceremonies are properly carried out. Shinto does not have a single collection of sacred texts analogous to the Christian Bible or Islamic Qur'an. Instead, several important books provide information and guidance: Kojiki (Records of Ancient Events), Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan), and Engishiki (Chronicles of the Engi).

One of the best-known festivals in Japan and the largest in the city of Kyoto, the Gion Matsuri (or Gion Festival) dates back to 869, when an epidemic swept through Kyoto and many of its citizens died. At the time, Kyoto was the capital city of Japan, and a brother of the Sun Goddess lived in the Gion (now called Yasaka) Shrine there. The head priest mounted sixty-six spears on a palanquin-a portable shrine, covered and elaborately decorated, that sits atop two poles resting on the shoulders of the men who carry it-and took it to the Emperor's garden. Miraculously, the plague ended immediately. In gratitude, the priest led a procession through the city's streets. Since that time, the Yasaka Shrine has been the site of a huge summer festival in which this procession is reenacted. The only interruption of this tradition was during the Onin War (1467-77), which largely destroyed the city.

On July 17 every year, huge FLOATS , some four stories high, are pulled through the streets of Kyoto. They are decorated with silks, gold ornaments, and treasures imported from Europe over the centuries. Sometimes people ride on top of the floats during the procession. The festival surrounding the procession lasts almost a month, but the parade is the event's highlight. Other towns in Japan, such as Hakata, Narita, and Takayama, have since imitated the Kyoto celebration and now have their own Gion festivals. Gion Matsuri



There are twenty-nine hoko or "spear" floats and twenty-two smaller yama or "mountain" floats. The immense hoko weigh as much as ten tons and can be thirty feet tall; they look like very elaborate towers on wheels, decorated with Chinese and Japanese paintings and even French tapestries. Musicians play flutes and drums under the lacquered roofs, from which two men toss straw good-luck favors to the crowds as the floats are pulled slowly, on huge wooden wheels, through the streets with ropes.

The yama floats weigh only about a ton and are carried on long poles by teams of men. Life-sized dolls on platforms atop each float represent characters in the story that each float depicts.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Buell, Hal. Festivals of Japan. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1965. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Yamasa Institute's Multimedia Studio
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Gion Matsuri

July 17
Gion Matsuri is the best-known festival in Japan and the biggest in Kyoto. It began in the year 869 when hundreds of people died in an epidemic that swept through Kyoto. The head priest of the Gion Shrine, now called the Yasaka Shrine, mounted 66 spears on a portable shrine, took it to the emperor's garden, and the pestilence ended. In gratitude to the gods, the priest led a procession in the streets. Except for the period of the Onin War (1467-77), which destroyed the city, the procession has been held ever since.
There are events related to the festival throughout July but the main event is the parade of elaborate, carefully preserved floats on July 17. There are 29 hoko ("spears") floats and 22 smaller yama ("mountains") floats. The immense hoko weigh as much as 10 tons and can be 30 feet tall; they look like wonderfully ornate towers on wheels. They are decorated with Chinese and Japanese paintings and even with French Gobelin tapestries imported during the 17th and 18th centuries. Just under their lacquered roofs musicians play flutes and drums. From the rooftops of the floats two men toss straw good-luck favors to the crowds. The hoko roll slowly on their big wooden wheels, pulled with ropes by parade participants.
Yama floats weigh only about a ton, and are carried on long poles by teams of men. Life-sized dolls on platforms atop each float represent characters in the story the float depicts.
The towns of Hakata (Fukuoka Prefecture), Narita (Chiba Prefecture), and Takayama (Gifu Prefecture) have imitated the Kyoto celebration and now have their own "Gion" festivals.
See also Aoi Matsuri; Hakata Gion Yamagasa; Jidai Matsuri
Japan Information Network, Japan Center for Intercultural Communications
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AnnivHol-2000, p. 119
BkHolWrld-1986, Jul 17
JapanFest-1965, p. 44
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
Kyoto's annual Gion Matsuri parade was cancelled on Sunday following seven straight days above 38AC.
For the duration of the festival, on each important location the place of each parade float is decided through a lottery--a system borrowed from the famous Gion Matsuri, which is considered the model for Saijo Matsuri, and where the lottery system was designed in order to avoid internal conflicts.
Five case studies include the Pont des Arts controversy, the manshon conflicts, and the Jamaboko junkA[acute accent] of the Gion matsuri. Five cross-curring aspects include aesthetics, civil society and the power of institutions, and wider skies over Kyoto.