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The Gion Festival, (also referred to as Gion Matsuri), is one of the oldest and most famous of Japanese festivals. Aptly named after Kyoto's Gion district, it runs throughout the month of July and includes many different events held throughout the area. The festival is capped by its famous parade, called the Yamaboko Junkō, which is held on both July 17 and July 24.
For the three nights leading up to the parade, an area of downtown Kyoto is transformed into a pedestrian paradise and the site of a series of mini-festivals. These mini-festivals are:
This is an atmosphere where traditional culture meets modernity, where one might see a young woman strolling by in her yukata (or summertime kimono) artfully employing a delicate paper fan while simultaneously slipping her smart phone from a traditional purse designed centuries ago.
During the Yoiyama festival, visitors can get up close to the parade’s floats and check out the artistic details. They can also visit interesting shrines, each dedicated to different gods who protect and promote health, wealth, and other qualities. In order to channel one of these God’s powers, temple visitors are asked to first purchase an omamari (or good luck charm), so be sure to have a few yen with you.
Other buildings open during the festival offer rare views extraordinary collections of art and historic objects. Buildings that look like circus tents on wheels with offer various kinds of entertainment.
On yoiyama evenings, in the historic kimono merchant district, be sure to check out Byōbu Matsuri, or the Festival of Folding Screens. Here the locals open up their homes to the public and present for viewing their priceless family heirlooms. During these tours visitors are provided with an excellent opportunity to see how people live in traditional Japanese homes in Kyoto.
Other events within the Gion Festival include the Kencha Matsuri (or Tea Ceremony Festival), which is a series of transfixing and highly choreographed movements rooted in Zen Buddhism, all ostensibly related to the preparing and serving of tea, but in reality are steeped in history and tradition. Another is the Hanagasa Junko, (The Flower Hat Procession). In this tradition, amazing bouquets of flowers are transformed by hand into stunningly artistic headwear creations.
The Parade or Procession
The culmination of the Gion Festival is the parades on July 17 and July 24, that showcases what is known as Hoko, or gigantic floats. Assembled without nails, in the traditional Japanese way, the floats are two stories tall, weigh anywhere from a massive 5 to 12 tons and are each uniquely colorful and elaborate. These fascinating contraptions are mobile by way of large wooden wheels and the combined strength of the 12 to 50 men, dressed in impressive traditional outfits, who pull them along the parade route. The entire festival delivers to the visitor a collection of amazing experiences that will surely be remembered for a life time.
The Festival can be reached in a 9-minute walk from Sanjo Station.
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