Brief History of the Gion Festival
The roots of the Gion Festival or matsuri reach to 869 C.E.. At that time, a terrible plague spread throughout the city, killing many people.
Then, as now, July in Kyoto was extremely hot, very humid, and prone to torrential downpours. These formed ideal conditions for outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, malaria and other epidemics. Remember, this was before modern medicine and sanitation.
Goryō-e: making peace with angry spirits
But in those days the emperor believed that goryō or angry spirits were spreading illness to punish Kyoto.
Goryō-e was a type of ritual to make peace with such spirits. So the emperor called for a goryō-e ritual involving 66 hoko or halberds, one for each region of the land. A halberd is a long spear or flag carried upright.
It seems the goryō-e ritual worked, because the next time pestilence struck, the emperor called for another one. Meanwhile, Kyoto’s annual rains and floods ensured that the rituals became tradition. By 970 C.E., the Gion Festival became an annual event. As time passed, the pacification of angry spirits became an extremely elaborate ritual purifying Kyoto, its downtown neighborhoods, people and visitors.
What deities do the Gion Festival celebrate?
One of these important Gion Festival deities is the protector deity against epidemics, Gozu Tennō. He’s joined by and sometimes combined with the god of storms, Susanō no Mikoto, his consort and goddess of rice, Princess Kushi Inada, and their eight children. The two oldest books of Japanese history, the Kojiki and the Nihongi, describe the fantastic origins of Susano and Inada’s relationship. So does the kagura dance that takes place at Yasaka Shrine each year on July 16th.
When did the Gion Festival take its modern form?
Gradually the halberds began to include banners and umbrellas. Eventually they morphed into more complex and decorated yamaboko floats.
By the 14th century, each Gion Festival yamaboko float had become an opportunity for Kyoto’s rich kimono merchants to flaunt their worldly success and cultural sophistication. Japan’s rigid social strata kept merchants at the bottom, and strictly controlled their demonstrations of wealth.
The Gion Festival yamaboko floats presented a convenient loophole. With the floats, kimono merchants could both show off their wealth, and thumb their noses at higher social classes. Without getting into trouble.
Everyone wore a kimono, and downtown Kyoto was the center of the kimono industry. The Muromachi era was a Golden Age for arts and culture in Kyoto. And Muromachi-dori street is home to many festival yamaboko floats.
Each Gion Festival neighborhood vied with one another to have the most extravagantly decorated–and exotic–yamaboko float. Kyoto was one of the ends of the Silk Road, and international influence meant power. Thanks to this, the Gion Festival culture remained international, even after the Tokugawa Shogun almost closed the country’s borders to outside influence.
Even until the late 1900s, each Gion Festival community‘s activities were highly secret, and very competitive. There is more insider Gion Festival information published in this website than has ever been made public before.
What about the Gion Festival today?
Meanwhile, the Gion Festival has persisted as a symbol of humanity’s ability to rise above hardship. Frequent fires devastated central Kyoto up to the late 1800s. Regular illnesses related to summer rains continued into the late 1900s. Many Gion Festival patrons never returned from World War 2. After the war, U.S. Occupying forces banned public gatherings, including the Gion Festival. Nowadays nuclear fallout and climate change make our future uncertain.
The Gion Festival has survived it all, for more than 1100 years. It’s a great symbol of sustainability, the enduring human spirit.
In these ways, the Gion Festival continues as a giant prayer for protection of Kyoto, its people, and visitors. It also serves as a celebration of the fleeting beauty of this world.