- Japanese: 祇園祭 (Gion Matsuri) or 祇園会 (Gion-e)
Gion Matsuri, which takes place in Kyoto in mid-July each year, is one of the most famous traditional festivals in Japan. It was first started in 863 to pray for the suppression of an epidemic, and became a yearly festival in 970.
The festival consists primarily of a parade or procession through the streets of Kyoto. Thirty-two parade floats, known as yama or yamaboko process in a square-shaped route, beginning on Shijô-dôri, then turning left onto Kawaramachi-dôri, left onto Oike-dôri, and finally left onto Shinmachi-dôri. Most are carried by a large group of people, in a manner similar to that of omikoshi (portable Shinto shrines), while some of the most impressive floats are pulled along on massive wooden wheels by tens of people pulling ropes.
Each float is based in a neighborhood within that square; in the week or so prior to the parade, festivalgoers can visit the floats as they are being (re)constructed, and in the last few evenings prior to the parade, stands are erected, selling food, drink, and various goods.
The procession always begins with the Naginata-hoko and ends with Minami-Kannon-yama, but the order of the remainder of the floats in the parade is determined by lottery each year. The following listing reflects the order of the floats in the 2010 festival.
- The most famous and prominent of the floats, always holding the place of honor leading the procession. Features a naginata (halberd) atop its spear. The naginata is believed to help ward off disease and evil spirits. The blade originally featured on the float was forged roughly one thousand years ago by Sanjô Kokaji Munechika. Today, a bamboo blade wrapped in foil is used so that the original blade can be preserved. The Naginata-hoko carries the chigo, or sacred child, of the parade, and is decorated with tapestries from Persia, China, Mongolia, and Korea.
- This float features an image of Mengchang Jun (Môshôkun) halfway up the pole. Mengchang Jun is said to have lived roughly 2300 years ago during the Warring States period of Chinese history, and maintained an entourage with a wide range of seemingly useless talents. When trying to escape from captivity in a neighboring state, one of his followers used his ability to imitate the sound of a rooster's crow, and fooled guards into opening gates for him, allowing him to escape.
- Also known as Hiyoke-Tenjin-yama or Nishiki-Tenjin-yama, this float was established around 1504-1520, when hail miraculously fell, putting out fires which threatened the city. It is said that an image of storm god Tenjin fell along with the hail. The design of the float features a shrine to Tenjin. It is decorated with replicas of sections of a 16th century Belgian scroll depicting scenes from Homer's Iliad. In the days leading up to the festival, the organizers of the Arare Tenjin float sell charms meant to protect against fires and lightning.
- Named after a so-called "chrysanthemum-water well" located in the neighborhood. The float features a sculpture/doll of the Chrysanthemum Boy of Chinese legend; a favorite of the emperor, he was tricked by his political rivals into going into exile, where he drank the dew off of chrysanthemum flowers and lived a miraculously long life of 700 years. The float was destroyed in fighting in 1864, and rejoined the festival in 1952. The Kikusui-hoko is managed by the Kongô school of Noh, and is kept in a storage space at Nishiki-Muromachi, at the former site of a Noh theater.
- Features a figure of a yamabushi (mountain priest).
- The circle-within-a-triangle that tops this float's spear is meant to represent an egg within a drum. It makes reference to a legend of the time of Emperor Yao. Yao established a network of drums which could be beaten by anyone who had a grievance against the government; since no one did, the drums grew over with moss, and chickens took up roost in them. A tapestry which hangs from the float depicts Hector of Troy bidding farewell to his wife; it is believed to have been made in 16th century Belgium, and then imported into Japan in the 17th century.
- Features a mechanical praying mantis that moves with the turning of the float's wheels. The mantis was first added to the float in 1376, the 25th anniversary of the death of Shijô Takasuke (1292-1352), who was killed fighting for a cause. He was then associated with the praying mantis, which Chinese proverbs describe as courageous, standing and raising its arms in the face of a large army.
- This float features a figure of Empress Jingû holding a fishing pole and a fish. It makes reference to a legendary episode in which Jingû went fishing for ayu (sweetfish) in Hizen province, as a divination effort to predict the success of her military campaigns. For this reason, the float is also known as Ayutsuri-yama, or "Fishing-for-Ayu Float." The float is associated with maternity, and with easy childbirth. In those years when the float appears early in the parade, it is believed to bring good fortune to pregnant women; in the days leading up to the procession, those associated with the float sell charms for good childbirth.
- Unique among the floats. Shaped like a boat.
- Incorporates a Chinese-style brocade of a five-clawed dragon. This dates only to 1990, when it was recreated by local Kyoto artisans to replace an earlier four-clawed dragon brocade, made in Ming Dynasty China, and gifted by King Shô Nei of the Ryûkyû Kingdom to the Kyoto temple of Dannôhôrin-ji in the 1610s, with the temple then in turn donating the brocade to the float.
- Features a carp (koi) swimming up the "dragon gate" (ryûmon) waterfall, along with a red torii and figure of Susanoo. According to myth, if a carp swam up this waterfall, it could turn into a dragon. The float's decorations also include sections of a 16th century Belgian tapestry depicting King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy.
- A rope-pulled float. Features a seated sculpture of Yôryû (Willow) Kannon, and is decorated with an Indian carpet dating to 1684, the oldest carpet of its type in the country. The Kannon sculpture was originally made in the Kamakura period, but was severely damaged in the Great Tenmei Fire of 1788. The float waves behind it a willow branch, and kusudama for repelling disease hang from the four corners of the float, representing the four noblest plants - bamboo, chrysanthemum, plum, and orchid. The float is named after a story in which Kannon appeared to Zenzai-dôji, a Buddhist acolyte touring the southern provinces.
- Gion Matsuri Official Site
- Plaques on-site during the Yoiyama preparations for the festival, July 2008.
- "Gion matsuri kuronushi-yama no ryûmon maegake," Dannôhôrin-ji official website.