Japan’s most famous summer festival is here! Arguably the most traditional festival in Japan, it transforms the month of July into a time of celebrations and festivals in Kyoto. The main event of Gion Matsuri is the grand procession of floats (Yamaboko Junko) that occurred today, on July 17. Giant decorative floats, weighing more than a ton, are pulled along by dozens of men wearing traditional period clothes. The floats can be up to 25 meters tall, and the wheels, many bigger than people, are controlled solely via manpower and traditional wooden tools. The long central poles that crown the floats sway in the summer breeze, almost the same height as the surrounding city buildings.
Each float features specific decorations from various periods of Japanese history. Inside the floats sit musicians playing the traditional shakuhachi Japanese flute, which combines with other instruments to make a delightful traditional melody that can be heard streets away. The musicians are accompanied by people who are positioned in the front of the float, and move their fans to signal how the float should be moved by the pullers. There are even some people sitting and dancing on the roofs of the floats! In combination with the weight of the floats themselves, there can be over 50 people pulling one float at a time, all dressed in traditional clothes and pulling wooden ropes.
Gion Matsuri itself dates back to 869, where it was originally a ceremony performed by the order of the Emperor to appease the gods and stop plague from destroying Kyoto. Despite wars and fires interrupting subsequent festivals, Gion Matsuri has always managed to recover and continue, becoming more spectacular with each passing year.
Not only is the day of the grand float procession itself stunning, the three nights preceding the event are street festivals where young people dress up in light cotton kimono and stroll the traditional streets of Kyoto, enjoying street food and beer. The grand floats are displayed close to their parade route, with lanterns lighting up the elaborate decorations.
Missed out on Gion Matsuri? A second procession of a smaller scale than the grand Yamaboko Junko floats takes place on July 24, also featuring the giant floats. With the street parties also occurring three days before this procession, take the chance to go out and discover the traditional charm of summer in Kyoto.
Here are some videos from the Gion Matsuri 2018!