A large group of men carry a golden portable shrine for Gion Matsuri

Gion Matsuri: Japanese Culture Meets Spectacle

Japan has tons of amazing festivals, but three stand out as the country’s “Big 3 Festivals”. One stands out as a Kyoto original festival that attracts tons of people every year and has its own regional variations. That festival is Gion Matsuri, and we’ve put together an in-depth guide this amazing, culture-filled festival.

Read on to learn more about this holiday, its history, and two of its regional variations.

What is Gion Matsuri?

Men in festival clothing carry a portable mikoshi shrine at night
This festival sees tons of visitors but also tons of participants that work together to make each variation happen. Image via Instagram (@etsuyo623)

Gion Matsuri is, generally, a large festival that celebrates certain gods or spirits. This festival has at least three different versions, making it hard to say exactly what the festival looks like as each version has unique qualities. However, the oldest and most popular in Japan by far is the Kyoto Gion Matsuri. So that’s what we’ll start with and will be talking about first.

This festival always takes place in July no matter the location, and in Kyoto, it lasts for the entire month, from July 1 to July 31. Most of the events take place at the Yasaka Shrine, which is as the patron shrine for the festival. Yasaka Shrine is located in Kyoto’s Gion district, famous as a traditional district (and for its recent restrictions on foreigners in certain sections of it).

This festival is a Shinto festival for the purpose of appeasing the spirits of the dead, but more on that later. Throughout the month, several ceremonies and customs are done to accomplish this task but the most famous are the processions of floats and mikoshi (portable shrines).

Along with these processions come streets closed to host tons of yatai (food stalls) serving amazing festival foods, showing off the best of Japanese street food.

Gion Matsuri's Origins

Two men smile as they help to carry a golden portable shrine
Those that carry the mikoshi and floats also enjoy working together with the other carriers and gain friends during this festival. Image via Instagram (@gionfestival)

Gion Matsuri dates all the way back to 869 CE. At the time, Japan was dealing with an epidemic. In Shinto, Japan’s native religion, there’s an emphasis on kami, which can mean gods but also spirits. In Shinto, when these gods and spirits become angry, they may cause bad things to happen, including natural disasters, plagues and fires.

So, to end the epidemic, Emperor Seiwa ordered prayers to Susanoo-no-Mikoto, a deity well known as a heroic figure at times and a wild, impulsive god of the seas and storms at others. Susanoo also happens to be the patron god of the Yasaka Shrine. This led to the creation of 66 different halberds decorated for each province of Japan at the time.

The halberds were transported to be put up at Shinsen-en, a royal garden south of the imperial palace in Kyoto at the time, as well as with some mikoshi. This event was held every time an epidemic swept through Japan but became an annual festival around the year 1000.

The only time they haven’t had the festival was a 30-year period during the rebuilding of Kyoto after the Onin War (1467-1477).

How is Gion Matsuri Celebrated

Gion Matsuri in Kyoto

A Yamaboko float with a massive halberd sits in the street during the Kyoto Gion parade
The floats used for the Gion Matsuri processions are truly massive in both weight and height, especially with the large halberd on top. Image via Instagram (@chanmiffy101123)

Gion Matsuri is huge in Kyoto with half of the month being filled with events, so we’ll just give you the highlights. The holiday starts with opening ceremonies in each neighborhood that participates in the float parades, with the parade order for the 33 slots being decided by lottery.

On the 10th, a lantern parade is done to welcome the portable shrines, and the portable shrines are cleaned with sacred water from the nearby Kamo River. At the same time, the different neighborhoods work together to build their floats. The floats are called yamaboko, which is made up of a halberd (hoko) on top of a structure that is similar in shape to a mountain (yama).

The yama are rather large and house life-sized figures of Shinto gods as well as enlightened individuals and figures from history. These floats also often feature beautiful tapestries and decorations. The 17th is the first parade of both the yamaboko and the mikoshi, with the yamaboko purifying the streets before the mikoshi come.

Men sit both in and on a yamaboko float as the float carriers stand around it
These yamaboko are also beautifully decorated with various unique patterns and illustrations. Image via Instagram (@gionfestival)

More floats are built and a second parade of fewer yamaboko as well as mikoshi and flower parasols is done on the 24th. The mikoshi are washed a second time with sacred water and a closing ceremony is done on the last day of the month to close out the month-long festival.

Expert Tips

This is a huge festival, and if you want to check it out but only have a short amount of time, the 17th and 24th are the best days to enjoy the event. There are also pre-parade festivals all three days before each parade called yoiyoiyoiyama (3 days before), yoiyoiyama (2 days before) and yoiyama (the day before).

Just know that this event attracts a massive amount of people, so be ready to wade through plenty of crowds.

Gion Matsuri in Hakata

Men in traditional loincloths carry a large float for the Hakata Gion Yamakasa
The floats used in the Hakata Gion Yamakasa may not look as big, but they still weigh plenty, creating a unique test of strength. Image via Unsplash

This festival takes on a different and very interesting variation with the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival. This variation takes place in the first half of July and has several events, culminating in a final timed race.

Much like the Kyoto version, neighborhoods from Fukuoka’s Hakata ward carry beautiful floats. However, the seven neighborhoods are actually racing against each other along a pre-determined five-kilometer racecourse for the fastest time.

Originally, this race used a special kind of float called a kazariyama float, which stood over ten meters high and weighed over two tons. However, their height became a hazard for racing after power lines were put up in the Meiji era. Nowadays, the kazariyama floats stand as decoration, with 14 of them set up around the city during this festival’s season.

These days, a smaller float, the kakiyama float, is used. They’re still plenty big, standing five meters tall and weighing one ton. They also only have seven of them, one for each neighborhood. These floats don’t have wheels, meaning they have to be carried or dragged. Of course, dragging is easier, so they pour water in front of the floats for easier gliding.

three men sit atop a large float with a statue as other men carry and run with the float
These races are quite a spectacle to behold with from the way the floats are decorated to how the leaders direct their runners. Image via Instagram (@ryo7192)

After a couple few days of festivities and practice runs, the race starts bright and early on the 15th, with the first team starting at 4:59 a.m. Then, every five minutes, a new team starts.

The course takes each team about 30 minutes, but that 30 minutes takes tons of effort and teamwork, as about 32 people carry the float, 2 to 4 people direct from atop the float, and others act as alternates to swap out with tired runners, help with steering and more. The floats are so heavy that most people can only run for a few minutes at a time.

The winner isn’t just selected based on time, with style being a part of the score. You see, the teams are supposed to look heroic and graceful while pushing these massive floats. Some areas feature paid seating, with the most popular being in Kushida Shrine’s courtyard where the racers have to circle a pole.

This is another extremely popular festival with almost two million attendees and plenty of people who wake up early to watch the race. Also, be prepared to see a LOT of butts as the men wear traditional loincloths in this festival.

A giant kazariyama, a decorated tower, for the Hakata Gion Yamakasa
These kazariyama floats also feature amazing, unique designs that are definitely worth seeing if you're in town during the festival. Image via Instagram (@akira_okazawa)

Hakata Gion Yamakasa Origin

The Hakata Gion Yamakasa has a similar origin to the Kyoto version, with a Buddhist priest, Shoichi Kokushi, trying to end an epidemic spreading through the area almost 800 years ago. To prevent the disease, Kokushi (who also suffered from the sickness) was carried across the town on a platform while he prayed and spread holy water around the city. This ceremony continued every year and evolved to what it is now.

Fun Fact: Participants and residents tend to avoid cucumber. Why? Well, the cross-section of a cucumber when cut is similar to the emblem of Gion-sama, the festival’s deity.

Gion Matsuri in Himi

A boy hits a drum on a Gion taiko float with a tree and lanterns on top
Himi may not be well-known to most, but it has two amazing festivals, including its own Gion Matsuri. Image via Instagram (@vr_hokuriku)

Himi is a town in Toyama Prefecture that most foreigners have never heard of, but one of our anonymous noodle guides lived there for some time and knows the ins and outs of the seaside fishing town. That includes one of the exciting variations of Gion Matsuri hidden in this town.

This is the newest variation of the holiday, dating back about 300 years. The exact origin isn’t completely clear, but they place the start between 1684-1687 OR 1711-1715. The main theory is that, much like the other two, Himi was dealing with an epidemic, so they decided to adopt the Gion traditions in their own way.

This festival also features massive floats and mikoshi, with each of Himi’s neighborhoods creating ones. The main events of this festival take place over two days, with the first day being a procession of floats and the second day being an amazing event that we’ll get to in a second. Both nights have tons of food stalls with delicious treats from both local shops and vendors who come from other parts of Japan.

This festival features a special decoration known as a tatemon, which is a giant triangular lantern tree. You can also see mikoshi that house deities and historical figures in them. However, the most important float for this festival is the Taikodai, or Taikondai in Himi. The taikodai is a Gion float that features a taiko drum on it, and the Himi one specifically features a medium-sized tree and a paper lantern.

Himi Gion’s Main Festivity

Men rock their Tiakondai float to intimidate their opponent at Himi Gion Matsuri
While we live for festival food and processions, the main event of this festival is always the part that we look forward to. Image via Instagram (@vr_hokuriku)

The festival takes place over 4 days, with the last day being a full-on taikondai battle. The different neighborhoods meet up in different spots around town for their float battles. Young men from each neighborhood either push the floats or ride on top of them.

First, they try to intimidate each other by rocking the floats back and forth while chanting, “Iyasaa, iyasaa!” Then, the battle begins and each float rams into each other as hard as they can.

The men in the float’s tree then do one of two things—either jump onto the other team’s float and try to destroy it, or stay and defend their float. When all of the opposing team’s members are removed from each other’s floats, they reset and do it again until one float is too destroyed to go on.

This festival gets plenty rowdy, with the defense pulling the attackers off of the float and to the ground. This festival is plenty rowdy, so only young men are allowed to participate in the actual battles. This leads to some neighborhoods opting out of the fights because there aren’t enough young men to participate.

This Himi festival is fun and exciting, making this one of our noodle guide’s favorite festivals.

One man tries to break the Himi Gion float as two other men try to push him off
This Himi take on the festival is exhilarating and something everyone in the city loves to see. Image via Instagram (@vr_hokuriku)
That’s our guide to Gion Matsuri. We really recommend this festival to get a true taste of old Japan with a bit of excitement and fun. Which variation would you try? Let us know with a comment!